Silvertown: A review

When workers resist capital’s relentless accumulation of more capital, the fight is more important than the outcome. Workers may lose the fight, but without fighting, there’s no chance of winning.

Those who fight and lose deserve as much attention as those who fight and win.

Historian John Tully in his latest book Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike That Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labor Movement (Monthly Review Press) calls attention to a forgotten lost strike.

Silvertown tells the story  of 12-week strike by laborers at the Silver family’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Works, a massive factory located in London’s East End working class slum of Silvertown, named after the factory’s owners.

The strike at Silver’s India-Rubber, which took place during the fall of 1898 and involved 3,000 workers, was an important event in the long struggle to improve working class life in Britain, but it was also a crushing defeat for the workers and the nascent labor movement that supported the strike.

Because it was a lost cause, argues Tully, the Silvertown strike became a lost memory.

The recovery of this lost memory is important, writes Tully, because the Silvertown strike was “a pivot point in the (English) class warfare” and an important chapter in the history of the New Unionism movement that “was to change the face of British society.”

The New Unionism movement, which emerged in late 19th Century Britain, sought to unite workers along industrial rather than craft lines and was led by working class socialists.

In the Silvertown strike, New Unionism was up against a formidable opponent. Silver’s India-Rubber was a highly profitable firm that regularly distributed its rapidly accumulating wealth to a small clique of well-connected shareholders.

The wages of Silver’s workers, however, barely kept them alive.

Life in Silvertown, the slum where most Silver’s workers lived, was grim. The average life span for a Silvertown male was 35 years; the infant mortality rate was comparable to today’s most backward Third World country; and hunger was as prevalent as the stench from the open sewers that served as the slum’s sanitation system.

After witnessing, the successful strike of nearby dock workers, the unskilled and semi-skilled laborers at Silver’s spontaneously walked off the job when Silver’s boss, Matthew Gray, rescinded a promised pay increase.

The workers had reason to believe that their strike could win.

A year earlier, women workers, the matchstick girls as the were called, at the Bryant & May match factory had won a strike, and workers at the Beckton Gasworks had struck and won a shorter workday with no loss in pay.

The Beckton strike led to the formation of the National Union of Gasworkers & General Laborers (NUG&GW) under the leadership of Will Thorne, who played a key role in the Silvertown strike. The NUG&GW was the union that the Silvertown workers joined after the strike began.

For 12 weeks the Silvertown strikers battled the company, scabs, police, the courts, hunger, and the biting cold of an early winter, but in the end returned to work with nothing to show for their effort.

Tully uses primary and secondary sources from both sides to reconstruct the important events of the strike.

What we learn from these sources is that the Silvertown strike was a turning point for both capital and labor.

Capital prior to the strike was on the defensive. Strikes like those of the matchstick girls and dock workers had the support of public opinion because writers like Friedrich Engels had exposed the terrible conditions under which workers worked and lived.

Capitalists themselves were divided. For example, during the dock workers strike, some London merchants supported the workers because of the merchants’ antipathy toward the stevedoring companies that controlled the movement of merchandise.

But the Silvertown strike changed all that.

Gray engineered an effective public relations campaign that spread misinformation about the strikers.

The result was that public opinion lined up against the strikers. Middle-class public opinion would continue to oppose labor for decades.

Sensing that the working class was getting out of control, capital united behind Gray and his get-tough approach toward the strikers.

Gray’s formula for dealing with the strike–refusing to bargain with workers, lining up public opinion to support him, and a well-organized effort to recruit scabs en masse from the countryside–was the template that British capital used to put down strikes in the decades that followed.

Gray’s victory at Silvertown badly weakened the New Unionism. Membership in the NUG&GM declined sharply in the 1890s because of a severe Depression and because of capital’s aggressive anti-unionism, inspired by the defeat at Silvertown.

But while the immediate result for labor was a turn for the worst, the Silvertown strike had long-term consequences that helped New Unionism grow into a powerful, progressive force that improved the lives of workers.

For one thing, the Silvertown strike made it clear that nothing could be gained by appealing to officials in the established political parties.

Strike supporters tried to no avail to enlist the help of both Liberal and Tory party leaders to get Gray to bargain with the workers.

If workers wanted justice, they would have to get it by building a their own source of power, a working class movement built on the principle of solidarity.

The role that the state played in suppressing the strike also made it clear that workers needed their own political movement to advance their class interests.

The police, who prior to the strike had adopted the facade of neutral enforcer of the law, dropped the facade and assaulted and arrested picketing strikers. The court validated the police action by sentencing arrested strikers to harsh jail sentences.

Gradually the political movement that the Silvertown strike helped to found took control of some working class communities turning slums into livable neighborhoods.

The Silvertown strike also helped develop working class leaders such as Thorne, Eleanor Marx, Frederick Ling, Peter Curran and others who played important roles in transforming New Unionism into a powerful political force.

The immediate impact of the Silvertown strike was tragic. More than 200 workers were blacklisted for their strike activities. Those who returned to work won nothing for the 12 weeks of sacrifice.

But in the long run, Silvertown was an important episode in the story of progress made possible by the rise of a powerful labor movement, For that reason, it deserves to be remembered.

AFSCME and UC reach agreement that averts strike

The union representing 13,000 patient care and technical workers at five University of California Medical Centers called off an unfair labor practices strike scheduled to begin March 24 after the union and UC reached a tentative agreement on a new contract.

Members will vote March 26 and 27 on the tentative agreement.

The strike was averted after the two sides held marathon bargaining sessions over the weekend prior to the planned strike.

“This weekend the University returned to the bargaining table in a spirit of good faith, and we were able to not only avert a strike but to reach a tentative agreement that . . . patient care workers have sought for nearly two years,” said Kathryn Lybarger, president of AFSCME Local 3299, the workers’ union.

Lybarger also said that the tentative agreement “reflects compromises on both sides.”

Bargaining between UC and Local 3299 began 20 months ago.

UC sought a number of concessions, some of which, said the union, put patient safety at risk.

When negotiations and mediation failed to resolve these issues, Local 3299 members in May voted overwhelmingly to conduct an unfair labor practice strike.

Shortly after the strike vote, members conducted the first ever unfair labor practices strike at UC Medical Centers and clinics.

The strike last two days. Local 3299 members planned carefully and took steps to ensure that no patients were put at risk during the strike.

When the strike concluded, UC began harassing and intimidating strike supporters.

In July, UC announced that without further negotiations it would impose its last contract offer.

That announcement led to an act of civil disobedience at a UC Regents meeting in Los Angeles.

Twenty-five Local 3299 members were arrested for blocking traffic outside of the meeting.

UC eventually returned to the bargaining table, but negotiations faltered until members in March voted to conduct another unfair labor practices strike.

The tentative agreement addresses some patient safety issues raised by the union during negotiations.

For example, it limits UC’s ability to contract work out to low-bid, low-wage private contractors.

It also expands the staffing committees to give workers a greater voice in matters involving safe staffing levels, an important factor for ensuring patient safety.

The wage increases in the new contract should go a long way toward helping UC retain highly qualified patient care workers, which in turn will mean better care for patients.

The agreement calls for across the board wage increases of 21 percent over the four-year life of the contract.

Also included in the contract are four 2 percent step increases that will be implemented annually.

The tentative agreement requires workers to increase their pension contribution by 2.5 percent, which had been one of UC’s top priorities during negotiations.

In a statement about the tentative agreement, Lybarger said that she hoped that the new agreement would lead to a new era of cooperation between workers and UC.

In her statement, Lybarger referred to another agreement that Local 3299 and UC reached concerning service workers at UC’s nine academic campuses.

“Moving forward, Local 3299 will continue working with University administrators to enforce and build on the recent agreements we have secured both for service and patient care workers,” said Lybarger. “While we don’t expect to always agree, we hope UC will join us in working to begin a new era of cooperation, rooted in constructive dialogue and finding common solutions to benefit the patients, students and communities we serve.”

NLRB ruling could end independent contractor status for port truck drivers

Truck drivers at the Port of Long Beach, California on March 21 announced a National Labor Relations Board settlement with a trucking firm that could end the practice of misclassifying short-haul truck drivers as independent contractors.

Members of Justice for Port Truck Drivers and Teamster officials at a media conference said that the NLRB Region 21 office had negotiated a settlement between the Teamsters and Pacific 9 Transportation that requires the company to treat its truck drivers as employees.

The California state labor board has also taken action supporting the workers’ claim that they are employees rather than independent contractors.

The NLRB settlement, the result of an unfair labor practices charged filed by Pacific 9 drivers and the Teamsters, requires the company to post notices affirming that the drivers are employees who have the right to organize a union without fear of recriminations from the company.

The company had asserted that the employees were independent contractors, who don’t have the right to form unions.

The NLRB’s ruling could change the employment practices of short-haul trucking companies throughout the US, which since the trucking industry was de-regulated 30 years ago have lowered wages of their drivers by misclassifying them as independent contractors.

“The 30-year debate is over,” said Eric Tate Teamster Local 848 secretary-treasurer at the media conference. “The misclassification lie has been busted. The port drivers are, in fact, employees. The NLRB has said so. . . . Pac 9 has said so. Now every port truck driver who wants to end their sweatshop conditions can bargain collectively to climb the economic ladder into the middle class.”

The unfair labor practices charge that led to the settlement was filed in 2013.

Drivers at Pacific 9 complained that when they began talking about forming a union, management began interrogating them about their union activities and threatened to close down operations if the workers continued to try to organize a union.

The company denied the charge and argued that the drivers were independent contractors who aren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Low pay and general lack of respect from the company drove workers to consider forming a union.

“I work more than full time for Pac 9, and the company tells me where to go, what to do, and how much I will be paid,” said Amador Rojas, a Pacific 9 driver. “I do the exact same work and in the same way as employee drivers, but I earn a lot less because the company deducts their business expenses from my paycheck.”

Short-haul drivers misclassified as independent contracts pay for truck maintenance, fuel, parking, insurance, and vehicle fees that according to the Los Angeles Times, reduce take home pay to as little as $20,000 a year.

“We are making peanuts over there,” said Daniel Linares, a Pacific 9 driver to the Times at the media conference. “Some people working at McDonald’s, they  make more money than us.” We want a union “so we can get decent pay and benefits, in order to lead a decent life.”

Pacific 9 drivers have also filed 50 wage and hours claims against the company that will soon be heard by the California Division of Labor Standards.

The drivers have charged the company with wage theft and making illegal deductions from their paychecks. The claims are worth $5 million.

Other short-haul drivers in the Los Angeles area have made similar claims against their employers. In total, 400 wage theft claims have been filed against Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach trucking companies.

So far, the labor board has ruled on 30 of the claims, found in favor of the drivers in all of them, and awarded $3.5 million in back pay.

TCU food service workers to take union vote

Food service workers at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth will soon be voting on whether to join a union.

A union organizing campaign began after the workers’ employer, Sodexo, announced that it was redefining its definition of full-time employment, and as a result, dozens of TCU food service workers would be losing their health care and other benefits.

The announcement led workers to ask United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1000 to help them organize a union.

The workers and UFCW organizers formed TCU Sodexo Workers United, which has spearheaded the organizing campaign and in February petitioned the National Labor Relations board for a union election.

The election will held on March 24.

“[The workers] want a secure union contract that shows their wages, their benefits, raises, everything laid out in a contract so they can have a sense of security,” said Abraham Wangnoo, a UFCW organizer to TCU 360.

Sodexo, a global food service corporation that operates student dining halls at universities throughout the US, in the fall announced that it was changing its definition of full-time employees.

Before the change, Sodexo defined full-time work as 30 hours a week for six or more weeks each quarter.

The new definition requires workers to work an average of 30 hours a week over a 52-week period.

As a result of the change, 77 Sodexo workers at TCU were reclassified as part-time and will lose their health care and other benefits.

“Besides their health insurance, full-time Sodexo workers stand to lose eight paid holidays, five vacation days (more if employed more than five years) and up to 10 days of sick leave,” reads a posting on the TCU Sodexo Workers United Facebook page.

Sodexo justified its reclassification, which affects all Sodexo workers in the US, by saying that the company took the action to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), the US’ new health care law.

A more likely explanation is that Sodexo is taking advantage of a weakness in ACA.

ACA mandates that employers with 50 or more employees provide their workers with health care benefits, but the mandate doesn’t apply to part-time workers.

Food service work at TCU is seasonal. During the summer when there are fewer students on campus, there isn’t enough work for everybody.

Under the old definition of full-time employment, a worker could be laid off during the summer and return to work in the fall with her benefits intact.

But for some, that will no longer be the case.

Sodexo’s unilateral decision to redefine full-time work, caused concern among some full-time workers who won’t be affected by the reclassification.

“A number of employees I’ve spoken with are fearful that there’s no protection that guarantees that they’ll remain in that capacity.” said Wangnoo to TCU 360. “At any given time they can be moved or reclassified as a part-time worker.”

A collective bargaining agreement would provide workers with some protection and make their benefits more secure.

Moral Mondays coalitions spread

The Moral Monday movement, a coalition of religious, civil rights, labor, and progressive activists, has spread from North Carolina the home of its origin.

People in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and New York have taken action to press their state leaders to prioritize the needs of working families over those of the 1 percent.

In Georgia, 10 people were arrested in January during a Moral Monday sit-in at Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. The protestors wanted Gov. Deal and legislators to make health care available to low-wage Georgia workers by expanding Medicaid.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, the federal government offers substantial enhanced funding to states that expand their Medicaid program.

So far, Georgia has refused to do so.

“Georgia should take advantage of new federal funding to expand Medicaid in 2014 to boost Georgia’s economy and create tens of thousands of new jobs, all while extending health coverage to 650,000 Georgians,” said the protestors in their letter to the governor.

On March 3, Moral Monday Georgia organized a march to the state capitol in Atlanta to protest recent attacks by right-wing lawmakers on “hard working Georgians.”

Specifically they were protesting proposed bills that would eliminate unemployment benefits for school employees and allow employers to misclassify workers as independent contractors.

They also urged lawmakers to raise the state’s minimum wage.

Moral Monday Georgia has also been fighting to get Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and to stop efforts by some lawmakers who want to make it more difficult to vote by limiting early voting.

In New York, the Moral Monday coalition has been urging law makers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to adopt a budget with fewer handouts to the rich and more help for working people.

At a Moral Mondays rally on March 10 in Binghamton, Kate Murray, a NABET-CWA steward and vice-president of the local labor federation said that Moral Monday rallies like the one in Binghamton would continue throughout the state as long as the state’s budget is under consideration in Albany.

We want lawmakers to “think and vote with their conscience,” said Murray.

The Rev. Fred Brooks was more specific.

“We shall continue to call for the strengthening of programs that increase employment, serve children and the elderly, the homeless and that support our educational communities and municipalities.”

At an earlier rally in New York City, the Rev. Donna Schaper said that the state’s proposed budget would increase income inequality.

“It is morally shocking how tilted this budget is to helping the rich and hurting  the poor,” said Schaper.

The proposed budget includes a $750 estate tax reduction that would largely benefit 200 of New York State’s 1 percenters. It also eliminates the dedicated bank tax, a $350 million windfall to Wall Street.

In Tennessee the Put the People First coalition rallied in Nashville, then a delegation from the 500-strong rally delivered a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam calling on him and state lawmakers “to make the interests of Tennessee working people your top priority.”

“Our governor, this legislature, and their millionaire backers are trying to destroy 150 years of progressive reforms that the working class has won in our state,” said Tom Anderson, president of UCW-CWA Local 3865 at the rally. “But we won’t go backward! And when we stand up and fight back, it isn’t just at a single rally. Today we’re launching of a movement to Put the People First! Just like our sisters and brothers did with Moral Mondays in North Carolina. And we won’t stop until they give us what we want!”

Like the Moral Mondays coalition, Put the People First is a movement that unites a broad spectrum of groups including unions, the NAACP, Workers Interfaith Network, Jobs with Justice, student activists, and environmental justice groups.

The coalition plans more actions like the one in Nashville including May 1 rallies in  Middle, West and East Tennessee.

In Mississippi the Ethical Thursday coalition is bringing thousands of Mississippi activists to the state capitol in Jackson to stand up for economic justice and democracy.

“We believe that by uniting together, it will go a long way to building and sustaining a Mississippi movement to counter those whose agenda is to set our state on a return to economic and moral dishonesty,” said Brenda Rice-Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees CWA Local 3570 at a recent Ethical Thursday rally in Jackson, the state capital.

The Mississippi Legislature has attacked workers’ pensions, refused to support the expansion of Medicaid, passed anti-union laws, and is looking to do away with due process for state workers.

“We believe that by uniting together, it will go a long way to building and sustaining a Mississippi movement to counter those whose agenda is to set our state on a return to economic and moral dishonesty,” said Rice-Scott.

Rice-Scott called for a united effort of state employees and “the people we serve to advance the gains we’ve made together over the years.”

Accenture helps private sector eliminate jobs too

Some public universities like the University of Texas at Austin have contracted with Accenture, a global consulting firm based in Ireland, to find ways to make  universities operate more efficiently.

Last year, Accenture produced the first part of its plan to make UT more efficient. The plan, called Shared Services, would eliminate 500 jobs.

Accenture also contracts with private corporations for the same purpose. The company’s recent partnership with private equity firms that bought H.J. Heinz Co., the ketchup and other food products manufacturer, demonstrates that Accenture has a one-size-fits-all formula for creating efficiencies–eliminate jobs.

The Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2013 paid $23.3 billion to buy Heinz. The deal paid shareholders $72.50 per share, so that the new owners could take the company private.

After the two private equity companies bought Heinz, Accenture was called in to study the company’s cost structure.

In August, Heinz announced that it was eliminating 600 office jobs, including 350 in Pittsburg, the company’s headquarters, and in November, the company announced that over the next six to eight months, it would be closing three plants in North America, eliminating nearly 900 jobs.

The lost jobs are about 10 percent of the company’s workforce.

According to Heinz the job cuts and plant closures were regrettable but necessary because they would “enable faster decision-making, increase accountability, and accelerate growth.”

The company’s statement makes it sound like Heinz was bloated with job redundancies.

But Fortune reports that before the 3G-Berkshire takeover, “Heinz was already viewed by analysts and competitors as a relatively lean, hard-working enterprise.”

The company’s assertion that the plant closures and job cuts would lead to greater efficiency puzzled the leader of the economic development corporation in one town where Heinz closed a plant.

John Regetz, executive director of the Bannock Development Corporation in Pocatello, Idaho, where the Heinz is closing its plant, told the Idaho State Journal that in 2011, the Pocatello plant was recognized as being the most productive facility in the entire Heinz operation.

IUF’s Private Equity Buyout Watch argues that the Heinz job cuts are less about creating efficiencies and more about shedding labor costs, so that when the new owners decide to sell Heinz, as they will surely do, the company will fetch substantially more than the investors paid.

Shedding labor costs also helps 3G and Berkshire enhance their short-term rate of return.

The Heinz acquisition isn’t the first time that 3G and Accenture have worked together.

According to the Financial Times, 3G hired Accenture to help it trim costs after 3G bought AB InBev, an international brewing company that owns more than 200 brands including Budweiser and Stella Artois, and Burger King.

In both instances, 3G implemented aggressive cost cutting measures that included significant job cuts.

The Wall Street Journal reports that shortly after 3G acquired Burger King in 2010, 300 employees at the company’s headquarters were let go and layoffs continued for months after that.

According to the South Florida Business Journal, by 2011 40 percent of the employees at Burger King corporate headquarters had been laid off. Some were top executives, but plenty of middle-class people working as administrative assistants, analysts, quality control supervisors, and others lost their jobs.

Low-wage workers at Burger King restaurants weren’t affected because most of them work for franchise owners.

Private Equity Watch reports that by shedding labor costs, 3G “achieved the seemingly impossible by squeezing even more cash out of Burger King when they took over from earlier rounds of private equity investors who effectively vacuumed out large quantities of cash.”

After the mass sackings at Burger King, 3G cashed out. In 2012, it took Burger King public again in a $1.4 billion deal with Justice Holdings Limited, a UK investment firm.

Accenture’s work has caught the eye of other private equity investors in the food production industry.

Mondelez, the maker of such snack foods as Oreos and Cadbury chocolates, recently announced that it had hired Accenture to help it slash costs.

“We’ve watched the work that 3G has done with AB InBev and Heinz – Accenture was the partner with them, and we believe they can be of great help to us,” said Irene Rosenfeld, chief executive of Mondelez to the Financial Times.

“(Accenture) has managed more synergy than anticipated in the merger between AB Inbev and Interbrew, while it also shut down 3 Heinz factories with 2,000 jobs lost,” added Johan Van Geyte writing for retaildetail.

US workers support fired Honduran dock workers

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on March 7 picketed the Honduran Consulate in San Francisco to support Honduran dock workers facing human rights violations.

The Honduran government last year contracted with ICTSI to privatize terminal operations at Puerto Cortės, the nation’s largest port.

The government and ICTSI, a global company based in the Philippines, have been acting in concert to retaliate against workers who oppose a labor agreement between the government and the company that gives ICTSI free rein to fire workers who are members of SGTM, the dock workers union.

SGTM members and leaders have received death threats and members of the union have been rounded up and arrested.

“ICTSI and the government of Honduras need to stop violating the human rights of these dock workers,” said Bob McEllrath, president of ILWU, who along with about 100 ILWU members were picketing the consulate.

In 2013, ICTSI and the government signed the labor agreement without consulting the SGTM. Union members never had a chance to vote on the agreement.

When the union protested the sham agreement, union leaders started receiving death threats.

One union leader, Victor Crespo, had to leave the country after a group of armed men tried to invade his home and kill him. Crespo’s father was later killed and his mother injured when they were run over by a truck outside their home.

In December, ICTSI began hiring workers who weren’t SGTM members and firing those who were members.

Things came to a head in February when SGTM members demonstrated at Puerto Cortės against the firings. The Honduran military invaded the port and arrested 129 of the participants charging them with terrorism and damaging the national economy.

On March 4, four SGTM members traveled to Oregon where ICTSI operates a terminal at the Port of Portland. They established a picket line at the ICTSI terminal and carried signs saying “SGTM locked out (by) ICTSI.”

Portland ILWU members refused to cross the picket line.

When the SGTM members returned to Honduras, they learned that the National Police and an ICTSI representative had visited SGTM headquarters looking for two of the SGTM leaders who traveled to Portland, Carlos Alvarado and Glen Galdames. The police were planning to arrest the two for taking part in the Portland demonstration.

The San Francisco demonstration was aimed at exposing the repressive collusion between ICTSI and the Honduran government.

A hand delivered letter to the US Embassy in Honduras from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center also charged the Honduran  government with collusion to suppress worker rights.

“It is . . .  disturbing that the Honduran government and police appear to be acting on behalf of and under the direction of ICTSI, and that the company provided the Honduran government and police with the information of the protest in Portland and the picture of the SGTM members from the Oregonian,” reads the letter from   Solidarity Center. “That ICTSI is utilizing its influence with the Honduran police to conduct reprisals on SGTM members’ raises even further concern about issues of corruption within the Honduran police and a continued failure by the Honduran police to respect and uphold human rights.”

After the police tried to arrest Alvarado and Galdames, Crespo returned from exile and immediately filed human rights violation complaints with Honduran national authorities.

The International Transportation Federation (ITF) , a worldwide federation of transport unions, praised Crespo for his courage and warned the government that ITF will support Crespo and SGTM in their fight to regain work that rightfully belongs to SGTM members.

“Victor is fully aware that his return to Honduras puts his life in immediate danger,” said Stephen Cotton, ITF acting general secretary. “He is standing with his members in a time of need for union rights, the survival of his union, and for democracy. The ITF family will stand shoulder to shoulder with the SGTM and the dockers in Puerto Cortės to ensure that attacks that threaten lives and union rights cease.”