Thursday, July 15, 2021

Union Battles: Lessons From Experience

Richard Mellor

Afscme Local 444, retired. 



I was at the negotiating table in 1997 and we stressed that negotiations are important as long as you negotiate from a position of strength, meaning you have to have amassed the troops and that they are informed, conscious and armed with a strategy and tactics that can win if we are forced on strike. To all those workers that were afraid of striking, and even opposed us laying the groundwork for one, we made it clear that the best way to avoid a strike is to be prepared to win one.


The present labor leadership takes workers out on strike knowing full well that they have no intention of winning one, of shutting down production or building union and working class power at all. In fact, they have even taken workers out on strike simply to force the employers to talk more nicely to them at the table; they have no problem with concessions. They have a considerable army of full-time staff that, at this stage, are expected to ensure these concessionary polices are adopted by the ranks by suppressing any opposition to them. Only an active rank and file can change this situation and force splits in this arrangement.

The huge protests in Wisconsin some years back were all about preserving the trade union officialdom’s role as negotiators, about maintaining a seat at the table, without which they would have no jobs. The demands affecting the immediate interests of the rank and file were conceded and the only two demands that were an issue were dues check off and collective bargaining rights, both central to the hierarchy.



The leadership that I was a part of made it very clear to our members that stopping concessions (that are continuing today) is not possible by one local or even one national union. We always argued that part of every labor/management dispute, every strike, must be a campaign to widen the struggle and in the process draw in the rank and file of the broader labor movement and working class communities. This is where our power lies and how we can win.


I worked in the maintenance department at a water utility. We were well paid and had great benefits by US standards. We worked in the streets in communities where 30 to 40 percent of youth were unemployed. It is in our interests to link with these communities and stress that their issues are our issues. The bosses would have no problem using the unemployed as strikebreakers if need be, and it was dangerous working in some areas. Crime and petty theft or robbery are a by-product of unemployment and denied opportunity, so it is important for all us as unionized workers to fight for social issues. We win allies that way.


The public sector unions are well represented here in the San Francisco Bay Area. SEIU represents workers in public transit. Other cities municipal workers are organized by Afscme, SEIU, the Teamsters and so on. The UFCW and other private sector workers including the building trades are big here. The Bay Area labor movement can bring the economy of the 6th largest economy in the world to a screeching halt or at worst, a slow crawl.


We were very fortunate that there were members who could at times take leaflets like the ones included which were from the local's solidarity committee to other workplaces and we had been told by friendly supervisors that supervisors in other agencies said they found our leaflets in their employee lunch areas. 


We handed them out at the DMV and welfare offices to customers and workers; workers in these facilities are demonized as lazy public sector employees and blamed for the orchestrated efforts by capital to destroy any public service through bureaucracy, bad management or lack of funding and resources as it undermines their propaganda that the private sector is the more efficient and that public sector workers are overpaid and have benefits that are destroying the economy.


This was the main purpose of the solidarity committee, to allow workers from other industries or the unorganized to join our dispute and to reach beyond the narrow confines of our immediate workplace.  We tried to educate our members that the bosses through both their political parties were out to privatize public services and crush public sector unions as they have done with our private sector sisters and brothers. We pointed out that without the public sector less than 7% of US workers were organized.


The solidarity committee never had more than a dozen or more members but this activity brought us a good contract. When we recognized that we could win no more at the table we had a joint meeting of the two Afscme locals, one representing the white collar and professional and the other the blue color. We organized a meeting of stewards and activists that brought together some 90 members from both locals from Janitors to engineers and so on and at one point the locals authorized a three day stoppage. This activity resulted in the company dropping its most damaging demands and suddenly a million dollars in concessions from them fell on the table. Read about that here.


As I think I pointed out in a previous piece on my activity in the local, three of us refused to support the contract and called for a no vote. We said we couldn’t win more at the table but if members were willing to get involved applying the strategy a minority of us had applied and  joining the solidarity committee then there was more to be had. It’s not possible to tell a dues paying member to vote no on a contract when you know there’s no more to be gained through back and forth chatter and not offer an alternative, so we offered one. Don’t vote no and go fishing we argued. They voted yes and they got a very good contract. From what I know now, they have already lost considerable ground.


This is important with regards to the situation today with the striking Volvo workers for example. They are fighting a global corporation that has the support of the state, the politicians (I don’t care what Biden, Pelosi or Bernie Sanders says) and their media as well as their police and their national guard if the situation demands it; we have to have a strategy for that possibility.  I believe the general strategy and tactics we applied was correct. One small local of 800 people with maybe 30 active members outside of the leadership but that leadership having a clear understanding that we cannot rely on so-called friendly politicians or any other force but the power of working people, produced a better contract than we could get at the negotiating table. We have the numbers and the social weight and it is this power we must build and the only one we can rely on.


Not far from where the strike of Volvo workers who are waging a heroic battle to defend their material conditions, is taking place, there has been a strike of some 500 miners. Then next door in West Virginia we had a huge upsurge of educators in 2018-19 that produced some major gains using methods that threatened the dismal pro-management, designed to fail approach of the present union hierarchy. There is not much sense in belonging to a national organization of 14 million workers if when one section of the organization is being brutalized, the rest sit idly by or limit solidarity to platitudes that we hear every time labor is being savaged by capital. Look at the media onslaught we are faced with as citizens if we oppose the wars they send our children to, wars that are against our interests as workers. We are called traitors, we don't support our troops and other such nonsense.


While our efforts did not accomplish much with regard to the rest of the labor movement or working class communities, this was not due to their being an incorrect approach but a lack of resources. The tremendous potential that the labor movement has and that if used would draw to it millions upon millions of workers outside of organized labor, is held back by the present pro-market pro-capitalist labor hierarchy.


What we did in 1997 is what will work today, even more so almost 25 years on. We are in a war on two front unfortunately; one against capital and indeed, global capital. And the other against the present leadership of organized labor and their concessionary policies.


It’s not going to get better.

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