The War on Working People
By Caroline Lund
Whether you supported Bush, Kerry or Nader, or didn’t even vote, I think we could all agree that hard times are ahead for working people. Things are not just getting worse. The past few years have witnessed a catastrophic attack on the rights and living standards of working people on all fronts.
The largest U.S. employer is now Walmart, with 1.4 million workers making an average of $18,000 a year. Several years ago the largest company was GM, where autoworkers earn about three times the income of a Walmart worker.
To further reduce wages and benefits, employers have turned to temporary workers. In 1982 there were 417,000 temporary workers; today there are some 2.5 million, according to the Labor Department.
Record numbers of pensions plans are going under due to insufficient funding. Also, “companies are racing to cut or drop retiree medical benefits to give a quick boost to their bottom lines,” reports Business Week.
Companies with unions have gone the route of two-tier wages and benefits. An example is the 60,000 Southern California supermarket workers, whose strike/lockout resulted in sharply reduced wages and benefits for all new hires.
Meanwhile, airline workers (among the most unionized of any industry) are under attack by the corporations’ use of bankruptcy laws. United, USAirways, and others are threatening to invalidate whole union contracts and dictate cuts to wages and benefits under the protection of the courts.
Other once-powerful unions find themselves stymied, with no clue as to what to do to fight back. Caterpillar workers were once one of the strongest pillars of the UAW. Now the 9,000 UAW Cat workers have been working without a contract for a year after voting down “final” company offers of concession contracts. Northern California supermarket workers similarly have worked for months under the old, extended contract.
In addition to all this, we all know that the corporations control the government, and all the tax money that could be going toward schools, hospitals, and other things working people need is going into the war on Iraq so that they can control the oil.
Mass movement needed
This is a pretty dismal picture, but don’t get discouraged. Working people do all the work that makes the rich their money. Nothing would run without us. We do have the power if we can unite and decide to use it.
The crisis is so bad today that the problems (pensions, medical care, and a living wage) won’t be solved without a mass movement in the streets like we had in the 1930s—a movement that stood up to the police, defied court orders, and occupied the plants. That is the kind of movement that won us unemployment insurance, social security, and the right to form unions.
In the 1930s the existing unions (AFL) failed to rise to the challenge, and a new union federation, the CIO rose up to lead the fight. (Later the AFL and the CIO merged.)
The national union leaderships we have now, again, don’t seem capable of rising to the challenge before us. They have gotten too timid, too bought-off, too comfortable in the dog-eat-dog business system. Rather than lead a real fight, they would rather accept concessions, screw the new hires, and call it a victory.
Also, rank-and-file union members are not mad enough yet to shake up their unions or build new unions. They are afraid for their jobs, they feel powerless, they have little confidence in their elected/appointed “leaders.”
A simple thing would help us move forward: honesty. No union or union leader is going to be able to stop the corporate attack on their own. But to build up real union power we need to tell the truth and get information to the membership. Shine a light on all the functioning of the unions.
In the years ahead union people (including here at NUMMI) will have to make imperfect deals with the corporations in order to protect ourselves as best we can, but let’s tell the truth. Don’t call a necessary concession a victory. Don’t say it’s a “win-win” when really we are giving up something in order to avoid a worse clobbering.
In our NUMMI contract negotiations over the coming seven months, we need regular reports to the membership, we should have rank-and-file observers at negotiations, and we should have the entire proposed contract available on the Internet before we have to vote on it.
This is issue #62 of The Barking Dog, put out by the author, UAW Local 2244 at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA.