The following was submitted by Pancho Valdez, member of Laborers Local 1095. Valdez has been active in the movement for justice since 1965. He can be reached at: 210-882-2230 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Labor Day 2011: State of Today’s Unions
“All that serves labor serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool. There is no America without labor and to fleece the one is to rob the other.”– Abraham Lincoln
This past spring the nation witnessed an attack on organized labor unlike any other in the past 30 years. Public workers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Missouri, Michigan and Minnesota have been made the scapegoat of their state’s economic crisis which is as phony as a three dollar bill given the fact that the crisis was not only caused by Wall Street, but also profited Wall Street as well. Another major factor to our nation’s economic woes that seldom is mentioned is the huge war budget wasted on the unjustified wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.
Workers belonging to such unions as the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the public sector division of the Communications Workers were the target of a well planned, vicious assault by the Tea Party and other Republican extremists using the falsehood of “balancing the state budgets”. As was shown in Wisconsin and elsewhere the real reason for the anti-union attacks was to weaken and/or destroy public worker unions and their right to collective bargaining. The state budget of these states not unlike the state budget of Texas could have been balanced by means of taxing the profits of large corporations and the incomes of the wealthy. Of course such a move requires that state legislators to have courage and the wisdom to do so. As has been shown, most elected officials lack these essential qualities!
In light of a concerted attempt to weaken or destroy public sector unions we must take into account the percentage of organized workers in the private sector, which is now around a dismal 7%! With such a low number of organized workers it is very clear that the working class of the U.S. is in for more hard times. When one sees the small percentage of private sector workers that are organized, one must ask; Why? There are several pertinent factors for this. 1) Many (if not most) jobs in the basic industries such as auto, steel, electrical appliances, garment, shoe and rubber have been off shored to such places as S. Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras and other Third World countries. The number one factor for this is cheap labor, weak or controlled unions even weaker than the U.S. trade unions or labor laws that are seldom enforced by right-wing governments friendly to the U.S. and the corporations. 2) Another factor that comes to play a vital role in keeping the U.S. labor force non-union is the fact that under current labor laws, employers have had a free reign to harass, intimidate and fire workers who expressed interest in organizing. Along with weak enforcement of vital labor laws, other laws passed in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s forbid unions from engaging in such militant acts as sit-down strikes, secondary boycotts and other effective tactics utilized by the CIO during the 1930’s when the American labor movement had it’s greatest growth. It could be said with accuracy that U.S. labor unions grew at a faster rate when we had no federal laws to “protect” us as compared to today with laws in place!
One other major factor is the fact that today’s labor unions appear reluctant to use strikes as a means of offensive strategy. In the past decade labor strikes have averaged only 20 per year as compared to 350 per year in the 1950’s. While I have yet to see or hear any official reason from labor leaders for this decline in strikes, my guess is that the use of strikes has been put on hold due to weak enforcement of labor laws which basically give employers an open door to replace strikers with scabs ( common word describing strike breakers). One factor that should be discussed is the mindset of “cooperation” that was prevalent in the middle 1970’s and early 1980’s. This way of thinking promoted “labor peace and harmony” as a means of settling contractual disputes. I can remember several unions that were big on this idea that included the United Steelworkers, the United Autoworkers and the Transport Workers Union, a public transit and airline industry union. This absurd policy resulted in weaker contractual gains, demoralized memberships and did not prevent employers such as Ford, GM, United Steel, Bethlehem Steel from shutting down mills and factories in the U.S. and moving operations to the aforementioned Third World countries. At the time of this revolutionary concept labor leaders were counting on bosses not to de-certify unions, or shut down operations. It doesn’t take a PhD. in Industrial Relations to see that such a lame idea puts workers at a distinct disadvantage and gives employers the signal that it’s ok to do whatever it takes to cut down labor costs! Anytime a labor organization goes into negotiations from a point of weakness, quite naturally the employer will go on the offensive and attack without mercy! In an attempt to impress upon the employers, the news media and the government that labor believed in the concept of “what’s good for GM is good for America” it weakened itself into the present day situation.
One is probably asking; why would any competent labor leader ever agree to such nonsense? The reason is quite simple. When worker’ organizations fail to see or comprehend the difference between the interests of capital and the interests of labor there will be serious errors made and grave consequences to face. This failure on the part of organized labor’s true role is the direct result of the shameful purge of communists and socialists from labor’s ranks during the McCarthy era. Without the presence of strong working class ideology organized labor opened itself up to be used and abused by the ruling class. It also gave a free ticket to social democrats to assume “leadership roles” and reward themselves to lucrative salaries for themselves, their friends and relatives. Such corruption along with mob control of many local unions of the Teamsters, International Longshoremen’s Association, some local unions of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees, the Laborers International Union and others resulted in sweetheart deals and reduced the organizations to being merely “paper tigers!” While employers prefer NO union at all, they will settle for one that is mob controlled as the workers have no democracy in these organizations. Sweetheart agreements are about as good as it’s going to get and even in local unions not corrupted by the mob, workers ownership of their unions was taken away as union leadership chose a top down approach in running their organizations. When workers have little if any control over their unions, participation is very shallow and in the event of an employer turning on its workers, the members are ill prepared for an effective and successful defense.
Today’s labor organizations have become far too dependent on utilizing attorneys, mediators, arbitrators and administrative hearing to resolve disputes. Gone are the times when a group of workers would engage in old-fashioned “get in your face” tactics. While labor and governmental bureaucrats along with attorneys are all in favor of this change of strategies, it does nothing to build a strong and militant labor movement in the U.S. Many younger workers today are reluctant to join a union not willing to fight for it’s members.
While organized labor in the U.S. has its flaws, it would be unfair to describe only those without mentioning its strengths. Within the past 30 years the AFL-CIO has begun supporting the call for progressive immigration reform. The labor federation has learned that many of the immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American nations have extensive labor and political experiences that make them good union activists here in the US, undocumented factory, building service, meat processing and hospitality industry workers have all stepped up and joined organizing campaigns with some degree of success. Other areas where organized labor has shown willingness to open up and become more progressive are in the areas of women trade unionists, African-American, Asian American and Latino trade unionists as well as an organization for gay and lesbian trade unionists.
Before viable solutions to this present day situation are discussed, it is important to know that not all labor organizations fall into the above mentioned categories. In San Antonio and across the nation UNITE HERE is organizing hospitality workers and has no problem using mass picketing as well as civil disobedience to protest unsafe and unfair working conditions. Unions like the independent United Electrical Workers and the west coast International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) are examples of two left led labor organizations that also use much more militant and confrontational tactics with a great deal of success. Recently the ILWU locals in Oakland and San Francisco refused to unload cargo that was from Israel in a show of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians in Gaza! This is reminiscent of their refusal to unload or load ships either from or headed to S. Africa during the struggle against apartheid. The UE is the union that got national attention when it took over a small factory in Chicago when workers were laid off without proper notice and denied their pay. At that time even the president expressed support for these workers who through their action received the unpaid checks and the factory was reopened with a new owner making a different product.
A more recent and surprising development is the AFL-CIO participating and helping to organize May Day events across the nation. May Day was abandoned as the official Labor Day in the height of the McCarthy era to appease right-wing politicians who were hell bent in destroying anyone with Left wing tendencies.
While all is not where it could or should be within the American labor movement, it has progressed since the days of George Meany who bragged that he never walked a picket line! Meany was also against racial equality and a big proponent of the Vietnam war.
There are solutions to help improve the situation within the labor movement which would include assuring that all affiliated local unions are democratic whereby workers have the right to approve or disapprove contractual agreements. Workers should also have the right to run reform candidates without fear of beatings, killings, expulsion from their union and retaliation from their employers.
Another major reform idea would be for the labor movement to seriously begin working on organizing and building a worker based political party as a viable alternative to the Democratic or Republican parties. This party would include civil rights, civil liberty, environmental, gay and lesbian, peace activists and others who feel disenfranchised from the electoral system as both major parties are controlled by corporate bribes disguised as “campaign donations.” An important factor of this new party would be full support and adherence to our nation’s Constitution.
Another change would be for organized labor to depend less on federal agencies, attorneys, arbitrators and mediators to resolve disputes. Adoption of the proven and far more militant tactics of the CIO are in definite order. Laws and regulations designed solely to protect the interests of the bosses should be ignored and broken whenever possible. A union that is afraid to fight is a union that does not deserve to collect dues from its members!
A step in this direction will help make the U.S. trade union movement a force to be reckoned with by elected officials and employers alike. It may sound like wishful thinking, but it can be done. Doing it depends on our willingness to make it happen!