Steel Union Head Hopes for a Seat at the Bosses Table
By Charles Walker
Chances are that next week you wont find yourself on a bar stool next to Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, and neither will I. But if I did, Id use the opportunity to tell him about some of the beliefs and ideas that were the moral and strategic compass for some outstanding U.S. labor leaders and militants. The labor folks I have in mind are the likes of Eugene Debs, Vincent St. John, Bill Haywood and Farrell Dobbs. Each one was a class-conscious workers leader and a fighter for workers right to a civilized life. Each one had no use for capitalism in any guise. They railed against corporate and government frontal assaults on workers chief defensive organizations, trade unions, and the flanking attacks by company unions, labor-management groups and government labor boards. These labor leaders were convinced that business unionism was poison, and the antidote was workers organizational and political independence.
Correct me if Im wrong, but I think it more likely than not that Gerard would judge me terribly naïve. I say that because the officialdom of Gerards union, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), views capitalism and how unions can most effectively operate within it far differently than did the radical labor leaders I so much admire. But which views are naïve?
To my way of thinking a recent statement in Labor Notes (Feb.) by Gerard reveals that he has serious illusions about capitalism, its bosses and their politicians. His illusions may explain a lot about the deteriorating power of the steelworkers union, and the rising joblessness of its members. If so, labor partisans could do worse than try to learn from the unions failed outlook.
Gerards says that the globalization of capitalism is bad (he calls it Rambo capitalism); he says workers need a capitalism that gives labor and other progressive groups an active role, which would restore Americas historic commitment to economic and social justice In other words, the fundamental problem with capitalism today is that labor and progressive groups dont have a seat at the table, an expression common around the AFL-CIO these days.
But suppose that labor officials and social justice leaders did have a seat at the table. Would it really make a difference? Would they be little more than window dressing for bosses intent on having their way? The experience that organized workers have with such notions indicate that having a seat at the table can be and in the long run always is a deadly dead-end. For example, the participation of labor officials on wage labor boards during WWII didnt protect workers wages from inflation. Many workers then turned their backs on the so-called tripartite boards (business-labor-government) and staged recurring wild-cat strikes. More recently, the participation of the International Association of Machinists on the United Airlines executive board has not protected the unions mechanics and cleaners from the airlines current maneuver to force still more concessions.
The steelworkers have a long postwar history of labor-management, a-seat-at-the-table schemes that included no-strike pledges, economic sharing plans, and the 1973 Experimental Negotiating Agreement. Since 1980 we have worked with the companies to institute modern work practices, often in the face of great skepticism from our members, the steel union admitted just last year. But the steel unions members havent benefited like the steel bosses have, the union now says. [W]e have accepted extremely modest wage and benefit improvements allowing our standard of living to erode. Since 1980, real wages (adjusted for inflation) for Steelworkers have stagnated, while our productivity has increased by 174%.
Now whos naive? Gerard who says his members have lost 34,000 jobs in the past 16 months, while real wages (adjusted for inflation) for Steelworkers have stagnated; or the socialist who says, It never fails! Every scheme based on the fallacy of an identity of interest between labor and capital in which both are cast as partners to their mutual benefit always ends up by the workers being skinned? (Workers, Bosses, and Bureaucrats, by Tom Kerry).
No doubt, Gerard would also disagree about whos realistic and whos naive about international trade. Gerard says that, Trade Agreements like NAFTA should not be about incentives for multinational corporations to destroy communities by undermining working families living standards Trade agreements that exploit people in these ways strip them of their dignity and nurture nothing but social upheaval. Gerard is right, but that doesnt help matters since hes blind to the history of imperialistic trade that mostly divided the world into the super rich and the super poor. For example, Belgium is rich because the Congo is poor. Some of Indias former wealth still enriches the English ruling elite. Wall Streets trade relations with Latin America have made poverty endemic from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.
No golden age of capitalist trade for workers
For the worlds workers there has never been a Golden Age of capitalist trade marked by Americas historic commitment to economic and social justice. From the slave/rum trade to the indebtedness of Argentina to U.S. financial corporations, there has not been a time when capitalist trade did not strip some people of their dignity and nurture social upheaval, including wars. World War II was a continuation of World War I, which was a trade war over colonies. The fact that some American, European and Japanese workers got a small share of the wealth that imperialists shipped home didnt justify or purify the economic exploitation and political subjugation that define imperialism. In short, its naive for Gerard to ask U.S. workers and social justice activists to join him in a fight to return to a Norman Rockwell-like system of trade relations a trade system that never existed.
Gerard says that the global economic system must benefit more than the very few who now control it. Socialists say thats right, and they mean it. But socialists believe thats its naive to think that merely having a seat at the imperialists table is going to right things, anymore than labor-management, a-seat-at-the-table schemes have kept steelworkers from unwanted joblessness. Now, of course, the day that Gerard concludes that the imperialists table needs to be overturned, socialists will back him up. Might even let him buy the next round.