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We Canít Defeat the Capitalist Offensive Without Changing Our Unions

The struggle against the concessionary policies of the Union hierarchy is harder than fighting the boss but we can't defeat the boss without changing our Unions
Richard Mellor
AFSCME Local 444, retired
Oakland CA

I attended a board meeting of the local transit authority here in the East Bay (San Francisco) last week. After negotiations broke down, the Alameda County Transit Authority (AC Transit) imposed a concessionary contract on Amalgamated Transit Union 192, the Union that represents the District's 1,750 employees. There were a number of Union members at the board to speak against the attacks on the Union and the cuts in service.

Yesterday, a Superior Court Judge ruled against AC Transit; which means the agency has to revert to the terms of the old contract that expired June 30th and return to the negotiating table. This is a victory in a sense, but if history is a guide, the likelihood of workers and the public taking concessions is still strong despite it not being necessary.

The employers will still pursue their aggressive agenda at the negotiating table as they have with all contract disputes. Using the economic crisis as an excuse, they have been savaging public services and the wages, working conditions, and benefits of public sector workers. Public sector workers have come under attack in the big business press for what they call our extravagant pay, benefits and particularly pensions----in some cases we can actually live on them.

According to the Pew Center, the 50 states together had pension obligations of $3.3 trillion as of 2008 and assets valued at $2.3 trillion back these obligations. I was never great at math but this looks like they can't fulfill their obligations to us, so they are preparing to outright renege on them as they have in the private sector and/or eliminate them for future generations. A climate of resentment is being generated by the big business media to prepare the groundwork for eliminating these benefits and public sector workers are being blamed for the cuts in services and for the tax increases that will follow.

After destroying the standard of living of autoworkers with the help of the heads of the UAW, the employers can now focus on the public sector. They have already made significant headway. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger has reached a tentative agreement with the leaders of six public sector Unions to increase the retirement age by five years for new hires. This is easy to do as new hires, or future workers, cannot vote on contracts that affect them. So the Union leadership makes a deal to lessen the cutbacks in the short term by screwing future workers, the youth predominantly. These decisions affect all workers, Union and non-Union alike.

The Union leaders do this because they have no offensive strategy, only a damage control strategy. The unfortunate result is the continued decline in living standards and the damaging of the Union in the eyes of newer workers. It also creates animosity on the job making solidarity more difficult weakening the Union further which will make resistance to further attacks more difficult.

We don't have to look any further than the pages of the serious journals of capitalism (Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Financial Times) etc) to see what they have in store for us. The elimination of defined benefit pension plans is a major project for them. They are also moving aggressively to lift the retirement age in order to reduce Social Security payments. "It's a very positive change that the age for receiving full benefits is increasing" says one corporate mouthpiece. "Increasing the retirement age is the single most important thing states can do." she adds. (1) Only someone with connections to money, or financial security could make a statement like that.

The employers are serious. In Utah, as of June 2011, new firefighters will have to work 25 years, up from 20, before they can retire. In Illinois, big business politicians voted earlier this year to up the retirement age for new hires to 67 from 60. "It had everything to do with the financial straits the state is in.", says Tim Blair, the executive secretary of the State Employees' Retirement System of Illinois. "The scales have tipped", he adds. (2) There are moves afoot in Congress to up the retirement age for social security to 70---a bunch of millionaires (and billionaires) voting to add more stress and less leisure time to the lives of working people.

There are two questions we have to ask. Have the scales tipped and why are the states' cash strapped?

The second question is the simpler of the two. Most workers today hate bankers and the rich. We are aware at some level that these crooks have stashed away billions and have used the wealth of this country to have a sumptuous feast at our expense. I am not alone in writing repeatedly of the massive amounts of cash in society. The obvious is the cost of the predatory wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the plundering of public funds that finance them.

Then there is the bailout, an absurd situation where we gave money to the banks to lend back to us with interest and they didn't even do that; they bought other banks with it in order to consolidate their power and market share. Eleven banks that received $175 billion in taxpayer relief paid $33 billion to their employees in bonuses.

But there is also what we are always told are legitimate monies, the billions they accumulate through speculation and gambling in the marketplace of capitalism. In 2006 the top 25 hedge fund managers earned $15 billion between them with the top guy earning $1.7 billion that year. In 2008, Wall Street paid $32 billion in bonuses to the coupon clippers it employs, only slightly less than 2007; five of these non-productive wasters earned $3 billion each in 2007. I could go on but most of us know the money is there.

The other issue is a bit more complicated. Have the scales "tipped"? There is no doubt we have been driven backwards as the employers, brimming with confidence, have gone a long way to eliminating much of the advances workers have made the last 70 years. And, if the capitalists get their way, the next few years will significantly add to this downward trajectory as the examples above clearly show.

But the bosses have not been as successful as they have because workers are weak and they are strong as some liberals and Union officials argue. The working class is potentially stronger and more diverse than ever before. Most of the major industries are still Unionized, the docks for instance, transportation, communication and the public sector is around 35% Unionized. The teacher's Union, the NEA, is the largest Union in the US with over three million members.

This organized sector could play a leading role in transforming the balance of class forces but the heads of organized Labor are completely subservient to capital and the employers. Let me return to the board meeting I attended. There were representatives of the Alameda Central Labor Council at that meeting, two of them. An international rep from the ATU was also present. But they said nothing of any significance other than the council doesn't support what the board is doing; they basically pleaded with the board to do the right thing. The Alameda Central Labor Council has over 100,000 workers affiliated to it. Most of these workers wouldn't have a clue what the Labor council is or who its leaders are. The dues paying member is not to blame for this. These higher bodies play no significant role whatsoever in the lives of the members they represent. The heads of the major Unions will be sending resources in to the campaign to elect Jerry Brown, an enemy of workers and the poor, as the next governor of California.

The Board felt no fear, they were secure in their thinking that the leaders of this body were not going to mobilize its 100,000 members to go on the offensive and fight on our own behalf; it would be business as usual.

Local 192 cannot drive back the attacks its members and the public are facing alone; no individual local or community can. The leadership of the Internationals that make up the AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition refuse to mobilize the membership of these organizations and wage a generalized offensive against the employers. Just a week or so before the board meeting I attended there was the rally in support of Oscar Grant in Oakland, a block or two from the AC Transit headquarters. All the local employers sent their employees home early and whole office buildings became vacant. The local Labor movement should have organized that rally and spent the weeks before the verdict educating members, visiting workplaces, jobsites, Union halls and linking the attacks on youth, police abuse, unemployment, foreclosures and other issues with the cuts in wages and conditions on the job.

They should have urged their members to attend. This would have changed the dynamic of the rally and the young people would have seen the potential power in uniting with workers. It would have opened the door to building a genuine, united mass movement against the cuts. Instead, as I wrote in a previous commentary ( http://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-rally-in-support-of-oscar-grant-in.html), the youth were left to face the police and the state alone, just like individual Union locals are.

In the recent period, the rank and file of two locals in San Francisco voted down concessionary contracts only to face a combined force of employers and their own leaders determined to force the concessions down their throats. The scales have "tipped" of late due to the concessionary policies of the Labor leadership at the highest levels.

Local Leaders
There are undoubtedly leaders at the local level who genuinely want to change this situation; who oppose concessions. But they find it very difficult to have an open confrontation with the hierarchy in the higher bodies and the International staffers and others whose job it is to ensure that the concessionary Union policies are not challenged. This is a difficult thing to do; I speak from experience here. But we have to do it if we want to change the disastrous course the leadership of our Unions is taking. It is not enough that local leaders oppose the concessionary policies of the right wing bureaucracy in words.

What has to be taken up is the building of fighting opposition caucuses that openly challenge these concessionary policies and put forward an alternative; that demand and fight for what we need and not what the bosses, their political representatives and overly paid Union officials tell us is realistic. These caucuses can link up between locals and will start to draw in to them some of the best Union fighters who have become so disillusioned with the present leadership. Through this process, new leadership will emerge and by linking up with the communities, the youth and all victims of the bankers and their so-called free market, a movement can be built that will not only transform organized Labor but the present state of affairs in society as well.

When I spoke at the transit board I reminded folks that the public sector Unions alone could and should shut down the city of Oakland; we did it before in 1946. Let's not forget Seattle in 1999. This is what needs to be done; it would inspire millions of workers, something that terrifies the Union hierarchy; power attracts and a victory whets the appetite for more. There is tremendous anger in US society that has no organized expression; this is what we have to change.

I don't profess to have all the answers; these are always reached collectively, through the great experience of struggle and with the participation of all involved. But I do know that the capitalist offensive will not retreat voluntarily, we have to halt it.

(1) Alicia Munnell Center For Retirement Research Boston College, WSJ 8-2-10
(2) Stressed States Are Forcing Workers to Retire Later. Wall Street Journal, 8-2-10

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