What Works and What Doesn't In Building A New Workers’ Movement
What Works and What Doesn't In Building A New Workers’ Movement
AFSCME Local 444, retired
Five UAW members, rank and file strike leaders of Local 3520 representing workers at a Freightliner plant in Cleveland North Carolina, have been fired. This is another result of the catastrophic policy of collaboration of the leadership of Organized Labor with the employers. The "crime" committed by these five workers was that they led a strike at their company when it became evident that Freightliner was intent on winning a concessionary contract that gutted health care and pension provisions. In other words, they took their job of representing their members seriously and fought for their member’s interests rather than collaborate with the employers. (1)
Freightliner made its decision to fire these workers with confidence as the UAW International leadership had opposed the strike, didn’t authorize it and eventually made a deal with the employers over the heads of the Local leadership. As has been the case in so many instances over the past decades, the activists in this small Local found themselves fighting a war on two fronts, one against the employers and the other against the leadership of their own Union at the highest level. At the time of writing these five workers still have no jobs. This is a crime. The responsibility for this crime is first of all the employers, but the UAW International leadership is also responsible because of their collaboration with them..
What has happened to the Cleveland Five, as the brothers and sisters from Freightliner are now called, is not an isolated incident. This sort of collaboration between the employers and the heads of Organized Labor is not only a UAW problem; it is widespread in the Union movement. It is part of the method of the union leaders. In the past 30 years there have been some heroic struggles that were defeated primarily because the method of the union leadership has been to collaborate with the employers to try and help them solve the problems of their system rather than stand up for the interests of their members and go on the offensive.
In my 25 years of Union activity it was the struggle against the disastrous policies of the AFL-CIO leadership that was the most difficult; after all, they are supposed to be on our side. I learned this very quickly and especially during a strike we had in 1985 and through my participation as an elected rank and file delegate to higher Union bodies like my District Council, the local Central Labor Council, the California State Labor Federation bi-annual conventions and at AFSCME International conventions which are also every two years. I also ran for city council in Oakland CA and this experience confirmed to me how easy it would be for Organized Labor to run independent candidates and win with a platform that spoke to working people’s needs.
For years, I put forward a different view within my Central Labor Council and also published a small opposition newsletter that was quite widely read within AFSCME nationally. It argued that the working class should go on the offensive and the union leaders should end their collaboration with the employers. I had ten or so locals that subscribed to it and a few hundred individual subscribers nationally; it was distributed widely at International Conventions. We had a caucus meeting at the 1996 convention in Chicago that was attended by some 100 rank and file delegates from around the country. We formed an editorial board and considered running a candidate for one of the International positions that would be open at the next convention, but for reasons I won’t go in to here, the newsletter shut down before then.
I learned valuable lessons during my active years in the Trade Union movement. I did not agree with those that simply accused the Union leaders of being corrupt or resorted to name-calling. While there are obviously corrupt Union officials, I do not believe this is the fundamental problem. Perhaps the most important lesson was that the two most crucial factors in building an opposition that can combat the employer’s increasingly aggressive offensive, and the union leaders collaboration with this offensive, is program and method.
By program and method I mean what we are fighting for and how we fight for it.
We have to have the rank and file of our organizations consciously involved if we are to take on the employers and reverse the direction in which the present Labor leaders have taken us. In order to do this we have to have a clear program, that is clear objectives and demands that we fight for and that workers can relate to in our day to day experience.
In order to draw the rest of the working class in to struggle we have to have a program that attracts them. We have to fight for them. Too often, the Unions are seen, and not without justification, as fighting only for our own members. I was on picket lines during the five month grocery worker’s strike in California three years ago and while the Union negotiators were giving away as much as they could at the negotiating table, they had picketers in Northern California asking shoppers to boycott the stores in order to pressure the bosses not to cut medical benefits. Many of the people that crossed the line made it clear that they don’t have medical benefits themselves. The Union had no answer to this.
The Union, the UFCW, also had their own members crossing the lines to work as they refused to spread the strike to Northern California and pull those workers off the job. So there existed this bizarre situation where a Union was asking workers in the community to support them by not crossing a picket line that it was telling their own members to cross.
Every strike, every community struggle, every battle against racism and discrimination, must be a battle against the bosses as a whole. We are all under attack. Millions of workers not in a Union would want to join an organization that fought for them against slumlords and for affordable decent housing or for a $15 an hour minimum wage. A program to fight the bosses should include such demands as:
* A $15 hour national minimum wage or a $5.00 an hour raise whichever is greater.
* Oppose collaboration with the employers through the Team Concept
* Free health care for all to be paid for by ending Bush's tax cuts to the rich, by taking from military spending and by taking into public ownership the health insurance corporations and the pharmaceuticals and running the health care industry on the basis of need not profit. ·
* A massive increase in social spending for housing, education and schools as well as public transportation
* A return of all troops from Iraq
* No support for Democrats—build an independent worker’s party
We have to put forward a method of fighting that can win. For example winning in this present period of the employer’s offensive means using the strike weapon without regard to the bosses’ laws that make the strike weapon powerless. It means occupying plants and mobilizing a mass workers’ movement to support these occupations which can only be done by fighting for demands like those above. It means returning to the methods and the great struggles and workplace occupations of the 30’s.
Such a movement would have to reach out to workers internationally given the development of global trade. Victory for the workers movement means fighting for the needs of all workers nationally and internationally and taking on the bosses with all our power and not allowing our movement to be hamstrung by the employers laws and courts. After all the employers and their politicians and state break the law all the time. The methods of the present Labor leaders and the economists and other liberal academics that advise them is to rely on the courts, lawyers, and political representatives of big business to come to our defense. The Union leaders threaten lawsuits to halt aggressive employers and appeal to so-called “worker friendly” corporate politicians in the Democratic Party to come to our aid. The statement below from the AFL- CIO is a prime example of the organization’s failed method. It was sent out under with the title: “Hey boss, Fear This.”
”With the 2008 elections setting up the possibility that a pro-worker Democrat could win the White House, joining a Democratic congressional majority in Washington, what's keeping the anti-union crowd up at night? The likelihood that the Employee Free Choice Act will become the law of the land. HR Magazine reports that the management crowd-- the one who wages war against workers trying to form unions--fears that if the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, employers won't be able to get away with intimidating workers." (2)
The strategists at the AFL-CIO would make great writers for Comedy Central, but no serious worker would give this statement any credibility after years of attacks from Democrat and Republican alike; it is no wonder workers have withdrawn from the electoral process. The employers are rubbing their hands with joy; having a Democrat as president certainly doesn’t cause them any sleepless nights.
The Union leaders’ present strike strategies that have become nothing more that 24-hour protests or 2-hour photo ops have to be abandoned. They are not actually strikes to stop production but it is our ability to stop production that wins. In place of these passive activities that demoralize workers and cost the average Union member months of pay and benefits while resulting in concessions we have to put forward a real “Fight To Win” strategy.
We have to return to methods of the thirties that were undoubtedly Labor’s great leap forward:
Mobilize to violate anti-Union laws and injunctions
Build links with our communities
We can Picket and protest employer’s homes, churches, schools. Leafleting where they shop, where they get gas, where they worship exposing them to the community as the rotten people they are. We can occupy council meetings, mayor’s offices etc. These can be legal activities that have an effect and lets them know that we are not going to let them destroy our well being and all we are going to do about it is call our congressman; we will act on our own behalf. We will take the fight to them.
We have to let them know that it’s not business as usual; that hurting us has consequences.
No Union or small activist group can win the war alone, but we can have small victories with these methods and I have participated in many of them with the Campaign For Renters Rights, a group that has fought slumlords on behalf of and with the participation of tenants. We even won severance pay for an undocumented worker and two weeks maternity leave for a pregnant worker at a sweatshop. We had a major effect in a struggle against BP in Lake County Indiana after it and two other corporations got the state legislature to lower their taxes and shift them on to the backs of homeowners; a deal made easier by the fact that the Union leaders supported the corporations against the communities. Only a lack of resources prevented greater victories in these cases.
I was in negotiations for the third time in 1997 at the public utility where I worked as an equipment operator, operating the very machines my brothers and sisters at Caterpillar built. As we usually did, we had on the table a demand for a 30-hour workweek with no cut in pay. I recall the employers telling us “It isn’t the Union’s role to demand jobs at the table”. We told them we could demand what we like. We eventually dropped down to the demand for 50 Union jobs and a two and a half hour decrease in the workweek. I recall filling the board meeting during a rally and we had two Unions with a big banner with the demand for 50 Union jobs for the community.
But we never limited our activity to the negotiating table. We formed a solidarity committee and we had a few people on it from other Unions as well as a couple of rank and file members.
We wrote up leaflets that we took to the welfare offices and the unemployment offices and talked with workers there. We let them know we were fighting for jobs for the community and to join us. We distributed a similar but slightly different flier for other public sector workplaces and yards and appealed to other workers to join us, as any victory at our employer would be a victory for all of us. To the extent that we could, we leafleted some building sites.
The point is we did not limit our program of demands or our activity to our own small group of workers or to what was acceptable or realistic in the eyes of the Labor officials or their friends in the Democratic Party.
We got a fair contract that year, not what we wanted but it was the lack of support not the program or the method that failed us. Naturally, the potentially powerful local labor movement was pretty much absent as the Labor leadership opposes such a strategy. They are terrified of any strike or struggle being victorious, as it would change the present mood that exists among their members and workers as a whole. It would challenge the view that so many workers have after years of defeats that “There is nothing we can do”.
A new movement can be built in this period. What is holding it back is the labor leaders and their policies of collaboration with the employers and their profit addicted capitalist system. Looking to the future and to the building of a new movement we can see there are two dominant factors that drive workers in to activity:
One is the bosses themselves and the profit-addicted system they perpetuate. In a sense they are our allies in building a new movement in that it is guaranteed that their system will continue to force them to attack working people further; they won’t let up. By their capitulation, the present leadership of the AFL-CIO and so-called Change To Win coalition whets the employers’ appetite to attack workers even further. The employers see the weakness of the labor leaders and as is well known; weakness breeds aggression.
The other factor is the presence of an opposition, an alternative leadership in the labor movement or working class that offers and campaigns on a concrete program of demands that meets the needs of working people; that gives working people something to fight for that will improve our material well-being and that spells out a way to fight for this. A program of concrete demands and a concrete explanation of how these can be fought for and won is essential as opposed to abstract calls for solidarity, fairness, justice and democracy. These are desirable and essential aims of course, but they have different meanings to different people and are not in themselves demands that will mobilize workers. They have to be filled out with class content.
Fairness to a Wall Street banker means fairness to compete with the other Wall Street bankers. Fairness to a low paid working class person means that society has to give all its members a decent living standard. If we are to build serious oppositions in the Unions that will in turn help build a national movement in society as a whole, we have to show that we have a different method than the leadership that is presently at the helm; we have to be seen as completely different from them.
Over the years I have run across numerous opposition groupings of one form or another, from the Rank and File Against Concessions conference that I went to after or around the time of the great P9 struggle against Hormel in 1986 to the present. Since those struggles in the eighties there have been thousands of activists within the Unions that claim to want change and would agree with some of the demands and methods I outline above; some would say they’re socialists or anarchists, some have positions or are Union staffers.
Why when not a single strike can be won unless it fights for the entire community and within an entire industry has the activist movement not taken up such a strategy and demands?
I believe that the answer lies in their relationship to the Union Bureaucracy. No one can deny that the present Union leadership has a strategy of concessions. Its policy is at best damage control. The heads of Organized Labor support the employers’ view of the world. They worship the market and believe that we as workers have to compete with other workers in order to help our employers win market share from their rivals. They institute this strategy through the Team Concept.
Consequently, any opposition in the Unions putting forward a “Fight To Win” Direct Action strategy and program as outlined above would be forced in to an open conflict with the Union hierarchy; they would have to openly break with them.
My experience has been that the reason why many of the tens of thousands of left activists which exist do not come together and take up the program and method outlined above is that many of them, such as groups like Labor Notes for example, are not prepared to take up such a strategy and program because it would bring them into conflict with the present labor leadership. They are unwilling to break with the present labor leadership, especially the liberal wing of that leadership.
For some, they have taken positions within the bureaucracy with its approval rather than through building a base among the ranks around a clear program and being thrust in to leadership against the bureaucracy's wishes. They can have liberal views on all sorts of social issues but If they openly support any movement from within the ranks that challenges the present leadership's policy of collaboration, they are out; so they keep quiet and by their silence assist the bureaucracy. It's similar to management in the workplace.
It is not possible to seriously fight for the interests of the rank and file in the Unions and for all workers, both domestic and international, without coming in to conflict with the Union bureaucracy.
By refusing to break with the union leadership and especially its liberal wing, which covers the flanks of the more right wing top union leadership, these left activists increasingly find themselves putting forward policies that hold the worker’s struggles back. Or at the very best involve themselves in the workers struggles in a way that does not allow them to be effective and win. It is not enough to explain what has to be done. It is necessary to build the fighting oppositions in the Union locals and the Union movement as a whole, it is necessary to build the community groups and link them with the Union opposition groups and locals, it is necessary to build these forces on a program that challenges capitalism and explains that its offensive must be confronted and thrown back, and it is necessary to explain the mass direct action methods of the occupations and strikes and general strikes and refusal to accept the bosses’ laws which won the gains that we enjoy today that the bosses are eliminating.
There is also left sectarianism amongst many activists. This is where some political groupings put the building of their own groups above the interest of working people. At a recent rally I attended in Detroit in support of UAW members I was attacked by a member of a left group and Labor Notes activist for supporting a section of the rally that wanted to be a little more confrontational in approach, that wanted to challenge the efforts of the police to keep the rally contained and ineffective. This person opposed this and attacked me for being from California and for not being a UAW member. Many rank and file people that heard this divisive attack were stunned.
This is a very damaging approach and is common among members of left groups. It should be identified and openly opposed by all activists.
Only an approach like that outlined above will result in a movement being built that can take workers' living standards forward. This approach will result in coming into confrontation with the union leaders. But this cannot be helped. If they change their ways and stop collaborating with the employers and repressing active workers in the ranks of the unions they will be welcome to play a full role in the union movement. But their present role of collaborating with the bosses against the members has to be confronted at every turn. Those left activists who refuse to take up this struggle are in turn collaborating with the union leaders and in turn holding down the development of a new movement.
1. Read more about the Cleveland Five at: http://www.justice4five.com
2. AFL-CIO 1-17-08 firstname.lastname@example.org