AFL-CIO Leadership Give the Employers Another Victory
By Richard Mellor
I wrote an article at the end of the last century that was quite popular among some union activists. It was titled, The Crisis Within. I explained that the reason for the continued setbacks and defeats for organized labor was the failure of our leaders, the heads of the AFL-CIO, to go on the offensive. I commented that if the policy makers of the AFL-CIO were the heads of major corporations they would have been fired long ago for failing to produce adequate returns.
Some Union activists were fooled for a moment when there was a revolt within the AFL-CIO bureaucracy in 1995 and John Sweeney, formerly President of SEIU, ousted Lane Kirkland in what was the first contested election for the presidency of the federation in the 20th century. Sweeney and his supporters, Richard Trumka of the UMW and Linda Chavez-Thompson of AFSCME who joined Sweeney in the leadership, were elected on a program that claimed Labor could not continue to fight only defensive battles and that ...we cannot wait for change in the political climate to provide us with the opportunities to grow. We must first organize despite the law if we are ever to organize with the law.1
Richard Trumka said on October 26th, 1995, While we are always willing to negotiate as equals, the era of union busting, contract trashing and strike breaking is at an end. Today, we say that when you pick a fight with any of us, you pick a fight with all of us! And that when you push us, we will push back. In the light of the recent grocery strike defeat one would think Trumka would feel a little embarrassed but like the bourgeois politicians they look up to, they reject accountability.
Here we are in 2004 and nothing has changed. 60,000 grocery workers, members of the UFCW, have just accepted a concessionary contract after five months on strike. On October 11th, 2003, workers struck Vons and Pavilions stores owned by Safeway. In solidarity with Safeway, Albertsons and Ralphs, the other chains in negotiations, locked out their employees. The employers know how important unity in action is, you see. The strike dragged on and the employers refused to back down despite the Union leadership offering millions in concessions. The strike was isolated to Southern California because contracts were still in place in the North, so the union leadership refused to strike these stores; it would not be fair play to violate a contract. Were the higher officials in the labor movement to work under the contracts they force on their members they would see that the employers violate them all the time.
Instead, they organized a boycott against Safeway and sent pickets to Northern California to leaflet stores urging consumers not to shop there. Shoppers were told to go to Albertsons, the chain that locked out their members in solidarity with Safeway. The CEO of Safeway was demonized and blamed for the strike much like Lorenzo was during the Eastern Airlines strike. Rather than a struggle between labor and capital the struggle is simply the product of a greedy CEO.
So despite the promises of the Sweeney slate in the 1995 election, the heads of organized labor continue to confront the employers with tactics that have repeatedly failed, with disastrous consequences for their members. The problem is that the heads of organized labor actually do see themselves as CEOs. Their job as heads of the unions is to supply labor at the best price to the employers. They have the same worldview as the employer, which means they defend the market and profits in the last analysis. In all aspects of political and economic life they have no independent view separate and distinct from those of the strategists of capital and the bankers and traders of Wall Street.
This subordination of working-class interests to those of the employers permeates the entire labor movement. Art Pulaski, Secretary Treasurer of the 2-million member California State Labor Federation enthusiastically backed Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggers $15 billion bond measure to ease the states financial crisis. We want to work with the governor to get the state out of financial crisis, says Pulaski. He adds, Its really the best option for the short-term crisis.2 I have a question for brother Pulaski: What is his strategy for the long-term? How can it benefit working people for our leaders to work with big business politicians? If they were doing their job, they would be working against them. But for the heads of Organized Labor that can only mean chaos. For them it is the employers that are the creators of all wealth and not labor, as is the case. The rights of the employers must be guaranteed in the last analysis.
In order to justify their position and their continued failure to produce the goods, the union leadership blames the rank and file. Terrified of the potential power of their own members they appeal to the liberal wing of the capitalist class and their progressive friends. Stewart Acuff, director of organizing at the AFL-CIO, wrote a commentary recently appealing to the progressive community.3 He is somewhat concerned at the present state of affairs within Organized Labor and the increased aggressiveness of the employers. Like all labor officials he has great esteem for liberal academics and quotes statistics from Cornell Universitys Kate Bronfenbrenner documenting employer resistance to union organizing drives. The facts are, astounding and frightening, writes Acuff, and the effects on our society of depriving workers of a fundamental human right are devastating. Brother Acuff then goes on to give some examples of this devastation.
Brother Acuff is incensed at the treatment workers receive trying to organize unions, after all, members are the source of his income. The moral catastrophe of firing an immigrant laundry worker because she tried to form a union to get health care for her kids must become a public crisis, he writes. Drawing the necessary conclusion he continues, Today, that sort of abuse is business as usual, and we must find ways to disrupt it.
This is all well and good, but the AFL-CIO is doing precious little to prevent employers from eliminating health benefits and passing increased medical costs on to their workers. The recent grocery strike over just this issue didnt see much disruption by the AFL-CIO outside of Southern California and the workers immediately involved, a strategy that lead to defeat. I would like to read what Brother Acuff has written about the AFL-CIOs strategy for the grocery strike or for all the defeated struggles over the past period. I am not hopeful, I am convinced he has gone along with the program in every instance.
Instead of a policy of disruption, brother Acuff, writing primarily on organizing drives, informs us that, We spent last summer sitting the Democratic presidential candidates down with small groups of workers so they could hear the horror stories themselves. Not only have the candidates pledged to support labor law reform, but where appropriate, they have agreed to intervene with abusive employers.
I know its hard not to laugh at the statement above but this man is one of our top officials. We just have to sit these big business politicians down with some working folkthatll do it.
This is the strategy of the AFL-CIO as mapped out by Brother Acuff and his colleagues. Look to any force in society but dont unleash the power of the working class, and obey the law at all times. In the article quoted here he appeals desperately to the progressive community for help. But he has some plans for within the AFL-CIO too. He writes, Internally, we have to teach union members that there is an all-out, coordinated assault on their collective bargaining rights and the rights of other workers to organize.
Brother Acuff is going to teach workers. Perhaps the esteemed Cornell scholar will assist him. It is hard for me to contain my anger at such arrogance. Does this well-paid, high-placed Union official who rubs shoulders with big business politicians and members of academia have a clue about what the people who pay his salary are thinking? I think not. As if workers need educating about the employers all-out assault. I can assure Brother Acuff that the grocery workers have felt first hand the employers resolve. The Detroit Teamsters who fought the press bosses, UAW members, machinists, and millions of workers who are abused every day on the job are well aware of the coordinated assault by the employers on our standard of living. We are also aware of the impotence of the trade union leadership in the face of this assault.
The aftermath of the grocery strike will mean more demoralization and further hostility and division on the job as newer hires find themselves doing the same job for less money. They will blame the union for this. Naturally, they were an easy target as they couldnt vote on the contract and the union officials, whose inept handling of the strike led to this situation, dont have to face them every day on the job. Isolating themselves from the members is rule number one for our officials.
The defeat of the grocery workers has set us back. But the employers will not stop here, as any worker knows. Understanding that we have to fight the boss in some way or another is not difficult for working people to understand, accepting that we have to fight our own leaders is much more complicated and harder to do, after all, theyre supposed to be on our side. But this is a battle that cannot be avoided in the long run. A first and important step in the struggle against the employers and the failed policies of our leaders is to reject what they tell us is realistic; what is realistic for the employers and the trade union leadership is accepting that as workers we have to compete in the labor market in order to offer the employer the best deal; the deal that will assist them in gaining market share over their rivals.
In this scenario we compete with each other for who can work fastest and cheapest and with the least impediments to profit talking. The result is a never-ending race to the bottom for working people.
We must demand not what the employers and the labor leaders tell us is realistic but what we need to live a decent life and provide a healthy and productive environment for ourselves, our families and our communities. In order to reverse the decline in living standards we must return to the methods that built the unions in the first place; mass picketing, workplace occupations, drawing all sections of the working class into the struggle against the employers and the rejection of blind obedience to the employers laws.
It is important for activists in the movement to assist in struggles of working people wherever they occur in Unions or out. Where we are in Unions and the opportunity arises to lead, participate or assist in struggles outside the official union structures we should do this also. There are thousands of trade union activists, socialists and other anti-capitalists in this country separated most frequently by the scourge of sectarianism, this weakens our ability to assist the working class in the struggle against the capitalists offensive; driving back this offensive is the first step along the road to freeing ourselves from the dictatorship that big business holds over society.
Richard Mellor is a member of AFSCME Local 444, Oakland, California.
1 A New Voice For American Workers: A Summary of Proposals From The Unions supporting John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson, June 28, 1995.
2 Labor, Tech Groups Back Bond Measure, San Francisco Chronicle, February 11, 2004.
3 Standing Up For Workers Rights, February 11, 2004. (Common Dreams).