International Socialist Review Issue 25, September–October 2002
Employer’s attack: unions blink
by Lee Sustar
WITH THE Bush administration firmly behind them, employers are aggressively moving to break the strength of some of the historically most powerful unions in the U.S.–on the West Coast docks, in the airlines, and beyond.
Yet rather than prepare union members for inevitable confrontations, labor leaders are trying to sidestep these battles. In his Labor Day speeches, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sounded patriotic themes and announced “the most aggressive effort in our history to replace anti-worker, anti-union elected officials.”
But Corporate America isn’t waiting for election returns. With the economy teetering between recovery and recession, the employers are determined to extract givebacks from workers and, where possible, to render their unions irrelevant.
Leading the attack is the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the shipping lines’ West Coast bargaining group. Always aggressive, the PMA is this time backed by the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, a group that includes big importers such as Wal-Mart, Target and the Gap. The PMA wants to use technology to eliminate some 1,500 clerks’ jobs and eliminate the hiring hall that is the core strength of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), traditionally among the most militant and progressive unions. Some $300 billion worth of cargo–equivalent to 30 percent of U.S. gross domestic product–passes through ILWU members’ hands each year. Employers dislike having a strong union in such a critical role–and the PMA was infuriated in the 1990s when the ILWU invoked a clause in its contract to shut down the ports in solidarity with death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and again to support the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.
This time, the PMA wanted a strike or lockout–because it believes it can count on Bush to help break union power. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has threatened the union with the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act–an 80-day cooling off period and possibly the use of troops to move cargo–raising the specter of Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
Taft-Hartley is a serious threat. But by repeatedly postponing action, the ILWU undermined its only leverage. If union action did prompt Bush to impose Taft-Hartley, it would further expose Bush as a corporate front man–and compel all of organized labor to take up the fight against what union officials used to call the “slave labor law.”
Instead, the ILWU extended the contract after its expiration on July 1 into September. ILWU President James Spinosa publicly offered to surrender about 1,000 clerks’ jobs–but the PMA wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer. When Spinosa finally sounded the alarm against government intervention, he packaged it as an appeal to patriotism, proposing that the ILWU be responsible for inspecting cargo for terrorist threats. The IWLU rallied behind the slogan, “Fight terrorists, not American workers”–a lurch backwards for a union that has prided itself on international solidarity action in support of workers from South Africa to El Salvador. Moreover, wrapping labor in the flag plays straight into the hands of the employers and a government willing to use “national security” as a pretext to break union power. Indeed, “national security” is Bush’s pretext for attempting to deny union and civil service protections for workers in the Department of Homeland Security.
Anyone in the labor movement who believes that patriotism offers protection for unions should consider the case of the International Association of Machinists (IAM). Following September 11, IAM President Thomas Buffenbarger declared that “[IAM members] will be building the F-15, F-16, F-18, and F-22s that will impose a new reality on those who have dared attack us. For it is not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance, pure and complete.”
Instead, it is the employers who seek to “impose a new reality” on the IAM. The union is caught in a vise between concession-seeking airlines and Boeing, which used 9/11 to carry through 30,000 layoffs of commercial aircraft workers. Management wants to increase workers’ health insurance costs, keep pensions miserably low and subcontract union jobs at will. Like the PMA, Boeing sought to provoke a strike. With airline orders collapsing, the company would prefer to shut down production for a few months to save costs and train subcontractors–and then starve the IAM into accepting a union-busting contract. As IAM chief negotiator Dick Schneider put it, “Boeing put forward a job-killing, money-stealing, retiree-mugging offer.”
However, the union did little to mobilize a “no” vote on the proposed contract. Apparently, the IAM expected Boeing bosses–whom union leaders like to call “partners”–to pull back from the brink before the old agreement expired. But Boeing didn’t budge. Union officials then scrambled to call for a rejection of the deal and strike authorization in an August 28 membership vote. Next, as votes were being cast, IAM leaders announced that a federal mediator had “ordered” new negotiations and that ballots wouldn’t be counted. In fact, there was no legally binding order, and Boeing had made no agreement. IAM members returned to work with no contract and negotiations in limbo.
If IAM officials hoped to use a powerless federal agency to escape Boeing’s onslaught, another far more powerful arm of the government is helping the airlines attack the union. The Air Transportation Stability Board (ATSB), created as part of the congressional airline bailout bill after 9/11, requires that airlines seeking federal loan guarantees cut “labor costs”–a euphemism for concessions. US Airways and United Airlines have both used ATSB loan applications to try to extract concessions from the unions. Pilots at bankrupt US Airways did agree to wage cuts, while IAM mechanics turned them down. Management then asked a bankruptcy judge to impose the wage cuts anyway, just as Continental Airlines did in the 1980s. At United–where the IAM and other unions took concessions in 1994 in exchange for an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP), management wants a staggering $1.5 billion in concessions per year.
Partnership–a dead end for labor
The contradictory role of the IAM at United highlights the disastrous results of labor-management “partnership.” Employers such as the Big Three automakers accepted the faÁade of partnership during the boom years while slowly grinding down the membership and strength of the United Auto Workers. And while the Communications Workers of America could strike Bell Atlantic/Verizon and win quickly during the boom, management is attempting to roll back those gains today.
The unions face such attacks without having recovered from their long-term decline. Just 13.5 percent of workers were unionized in 2001, compared to about 33 percent in the midñ1950s. In the private sector, just 9 percent of workers are unionized, a figure comparable to that of the 1920s, when employers carried out an anti-union “open shop movement” also known as the “American Plan.”
Nevertheless, the corporate scandals present an extraordinary opportunity for unions to take the offensive ideologically, appealing to the 50 percent of workers who indicated in a recent Peter Hart poll for the AFL-CIO that they would like to join a union. Instead, labor is presenting itself as a defender of shareholders as well as workers. Labor leaders are themselves implicated in corporate wrongdoing, with several top officials accused of insider trading scandals involving a union-run insurance company and the bankrupt telecommunications company Global Crossing.
One labor leader did speak out on these issues long before the corporate scandals broke. “Some politicians ought to wear the logos of their corporate sponsors on their suits, just like athletes wear them on their uniforms,” he said in a nationally broadcast speech. “If Abraham Lincoln were giving the Gettysburg Address here today he would have to say that we have a government ëof the corporations, by big business, and for the special interests.’”
That labor leader was then-Teamster President Ron Carey, speaking just weeks after a groundbreaking–and widely popular–strike victory at United Parcel Service in 1997 that forced the company to create full-time jobs for part-timers. Soon afterward, however, Carey was removed from the union by government overseers amid charges of election violations and a witch hunt by employers and congressional Republicans. When Carey finally had his day in federal court earlier this year, he was cleared of all wrongdoing. But the damage was done: The union is now run by James P. Hoffa, the leader of the union’s corrupt and corporate-friendly old guard. Hoffa’s recently negotiated six-year deal with UPS, hailed as the “best ever,” will in fact reverse many of the gains of the 1997 strike by increasing the percentage of part-time workers at the company and by widening the wage gap between part-time and full-time workers. Hoffa’s deal is a good example of the only kind of partnership Corporate America will accept: one that’s on the employers’ terms.
Partnership inevitably means accepting the priority of profits over workers’ jobs and wages in good times and concessions in bad ones. But the scale of the crisis means that it can’t be solved on a company-by-company basis even if unions surrender to management. The airline meltdown, the hemorrhaging of telecommunications jobs, and the steel industry’s string of bankruptcies demand a different approach–one based on class struggle and a political challenge to deregulation, corporate tax breaks, and other free-market policies. For example, the Labor Day bankruptcy of Consolidated Freightways that wiped out 12,000 Teamster jobs wasn’t simply the fate of a weak company in a lousy economy. It was the result of its former parent company’s decision to spin off the firm in 1996 while retaining several high-tech, profitable–and nonunion –subsidiaries, thanks to the deregulation of the trucking industry. Similarly, the steelworkers teamed up with employers to pressure Bush to impose steel tariffs–but failed to win protection for retirees’ health benefits and pensions–and employers demanded more concessions anyway. In the public sector, unions face a similar challenge. Continuing to fight budget cuts and layoffs only city by city or state by state isn’t sufficient. Unions must also undertake a political struggle to tax business and the rich to fund government jobs and services.
Some labor leaders, faced with a fight for the survival of their unions, will eventually make a stand. But for now labor leaders are pushing their usual political strategy of seeking Democratic victories in congressional elections. But although one in four voters in the 2000 elections came from a union household, that hasn’t translated into political clout. On the contrary, Hoffa and carpenters’ leader Doug McCarron consort with Bush. Even the liberal New York unions are lining up behind Republican Governor George Pataki. Meanwhile, the small Labor Party, which had its third convention in 2002, has declined and remains unwilling to challenge the Democrats at the ballot box. For his part, Sweeney has taken his cues from the moderate Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Sweeney also kept silent as debate swirled around Bush’s planned war on Iraq–instead using his Labor Day speech to hail workers’ willingness “to fight the enemy in places we can’t even pronounce” after September 11. But the result of such a war won’t only be the slaughter of Iraqis, but the deaths of U.S. soldiers along with economic and social costs suffered by workers at home. Unlike the 1960s, when the U.S. ruling class could offer prosperity at home while waging war abroad, Bush’s “war on terror” comes amid downward mobility for millions of workers. In this context, antiwar initiatives taken by union activists after 9/11, such as New York City Labor Against War and San Francisco Labor for Peace and Justice, can begin to gain a wider hearing. For example, the Washington State AFL-CIO convention passed an antiwar resolution at its convention in August.
Ultimately, the renewal of the labor movement will depend on what it always has–the initiative and action of the union rank and file. Yet there are obstacles to be overcome. In almost every union, leaders routinely ignore or suppress all criticism from the rank and file, fill union publications with happy talk and apologies for the Democratic Party, and often squelch shop-floor militants on behalf of management. Even the liberal leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) oppose direct elections for top union officials and have imposed a top-down, corporate-style merger of locals. Thus in many unions, frustrated activists have responded by attempting to decertify their unions and replace them with others–including Bay Area janitors in the SEIU, Teamster flight attendants at Northwest Airlines, and mechanics at United Airlines. But such efforts are a diversion from the long, hard work of building rank-and-file organization that can stand up to employers and fight, whether or not union leaders are prepared to go along. Switching unions–or even electing more responsive, combative leaders–can never substitute for organizing the rank and file.
Labor activists should recall that the great labor upsurge of the 1930s was preceded by long and difficult struggles–many of them lost due to the incompetence of conservative leaders of the old AFL. Yet in those struggles, workers developed the organization, politics, and tactics needed to win. While it is impossible to predict when big struggles will break out again, it is possible–and necessary–to prepare for them today. Learning the lessons of the past is key–as is rebuilding the socialist current in the unions that played a critical role in labor’s key victories of the past.
The potential for a fightback is there. Unlike 20 years ago, when the labor leaders from then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland on down openly called for a retreat to help U.S. “competitiveness” against Japan, union leaders find themselves trapped between workers’ bitterness and employers’ aggression. Sooner or later, the battles will take place–the employers will see to that. The question is whether unions will be prepared.
Some of the struggles that have broken out in local and regional strikes–such as the IAM against Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney, or private-line bus drivers in New York City–show that some important groups of unionized workers are prepared to take on tough fights. The best example are the 7,000 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 1 in Chicago, who mobilized in a months-long contract campaign that included an inspiring 4,000-strong march through an upscale downtown shopping district. But when the strike deadline came, the union kept talking for two more days–with the state governor and the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor joining in negotiations. While HERE did make impressive gains, it could have gotten more by striking on the eve of a big convention.
But the importance of a strike went beyond wages and benefits. HERE Local 1 was for decades a dues collection machine for organized crime–and had never been on strike. Even a short walkout would have given workers a taste of union power, boosted labor’s prestige in immigrant communities, and taught management a lesson. Instead union leaders, for the “good of the city’s economy,” cut a deal that sold workers’ short.
Thus while the level of struggle has been low, there are tremendous pressures building up beneath the surface. Aggressive and arrogant employers are determined to use the weak economy to gut union power. Hesitant union leaders sometimes mobilize the ranks but cut deals to avoid confrontation. Large numbers of unorganized workers are receptive to the idea of unionization, but most have little or no contact with organized labor, which spends more money on Democratic politicians than organizing. Rank and file union members are fed up with years of abuse from management and frustrated at their union leaders’ ineffectiveness, but still lack the confidence and organization to take the struggle forward.
Nevertheless, the vitality and determination of the HERE Chicago contract campaign showed the possibility of a fighting future for labor. At the union’s inspiring rally August 23, the workers–Black, Brown and white, immigrants from Bosnia and Poland and elsewhere–together chanted the slogan made famous by the California farmworkers’ struggles in the 1960s, SÌ se puede–yes we can. As labor faces its greatest challenge in decades, it will need to rediscover the fighting traditions and the working-class politics that can fulfill that promise.