More Cuts on the Way for Public Sector Workers as Union Leaders Capitulate to the Employer
by Richard Mellor
AFSCME Local 444, retired
Harley Shaiken is an oft quoted “expert” on Labor issues. He must be an expert as he’s a professor at a university, at UC Berkeley to be exact. He is quoted yet again in a story in today’s Wall Street Journal. The Journal reports on the concessions state workers are accepting, in particular with regard to pension benefits. This “damage control” strategy is supposed to stave off further attacks.
“It’s an exceptional moment” says the professor, “The depth of the crisis and the lack of a near-term solution have led some unions to conclude that they’re willing to save what they can to make the system work.” (1) This is not an accurate statement as it is the Union leadership that has concluded that their members and workers in general (not them) must make concessions in order to save capitalism from itself. And while the present economic crisis is an “exceptional moment”, it is exceptional only with regard to its severity and the level of response by the state and public funds intervening to drag the system back from the abyss.
Writing in the Financial Times at the onset of the crisis, Gillian Tett attempted to reassure her class colleagues that everything would be OK, that there’s no need to panic—capitalism will survive it. She pointed out that Lehman Brothers, a major capitalist firm (remember them?), estimated that there have been 60 market crashes since 1622. “This neo-modern credit market is not very dissimilar after all from its classical predecessors”, says Leheman. “This summers turmoil will not be the last,” says Ms Tett. “..these episodes occur with striking regularity—typically at least once a decade..” the analyst states with authority. (2) So this crisis is not exceptional from a historical sense but a normal and ongoing aspect of a capitalist economy; it is the so-called free market at work.
The response from Union leaders to an exceptional crisis should also be an exceptional one. Workers naturally object to attacks on our living standards, and would welcome an alternative to concessions but, faced with an ideological assault from the employers and their media, as well as our own leaders, workers see no serious alternative out there. The heads of organized Labor use the their control of the Union and its resources to push the employers’ view of the world and carry out their agenda; we must bail out capitalism. “It was either the legislature was going to do it (impose cuts), or we were going to define it for ourselves” says Pam Manwiller a chief negotiator for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) one of the numerous California Unions whose members are losing ground.
This capitulation on Ms Manwiller’s part is not her strategy alone, capitulation and therefore collaboration is the strategy of the entire Labor leadership. “We have to take a different approach than traditional unions have taken. And that is to be part of the solution.” Says another Union official. It is no different in the private sector, “We want to make changes with a scalpel, not a chain saw.” Ron Lind, a top UFCW official announced to the world during the 5-month long grocery workers strike in California in 2004/5. This was as his members, those whose dues money paid Lind’s exorbitant salary, walked picket lines. “We could have gone for a bigger wage increase, but it would have had to come out of our health-care benefits plan…….” is another statement that shows Labor officials have given up any intention of making the boss pay as opposed to their members. The Union officials believe that the boss tells them how much money there is available and it is their job to divide it up among the workers
Comments like these cannot possibly inspire workers, they’re not intended to, they are intended to assure the employers that their profits are sacrosanct, the billions of dollars that individuals have earned and spent on luxury items is untouchable. The power of organized workers will not be used to challenge the status quo.
“Define it for ourselves” we should. We should start from a position that rejects the view that workers and the middle class should pay for this crisis. Throughout this present crisis, the hatred of the rich, the bankers and speculators, has been at fever pitch, and the system itself has been questioned by ordinary workers. The shift in consciousness has been so pronounced that the US Chamber of Commerce is unable to use the word “capitalism” in its campaign to counter the disgust that’s out there. It found in its market research that people overwhelmingly opposed the term as they associated it with the strong dominating the weak. This reflects a powerful mood that exists against greed and individualism despite any serious challenge to the ideology of the market on the part of the Labor leaders.
Concessions don’t work. Besides that, there is no shortage of money and resources in society; it is simply a question of who has the resources and how they allocate them. It is a preferred strategy of the Union hierarchy to hand over the living standards of future workers, (future Union members) to the employers; this has been what the WSJ refers to as an “easy sell”. Potential hires can’t vote on Union contracts so this avenue offers the least resistance to the Union officials’ policies of collaboration. But the recent crisis reflects a new period of global capitalism and public sector workers who thought their wages and benefits fairly secure are facing a fierce assault on them. This is especially so with pensions. Many public sector workers mistakenly thought that the bosses screwing the new hires and the Union leaders allowing it would ensure their pensions would be safe. But this is proving not to be the case.
The employers have decimated the private sector pensions, not to mention wages, benefits and Union rights on the job. They have done this not in the face of passive resistance from the Union hierarchy but with their cooperation. There is no room for fiery rhetoric or pretense anymore, as workers that reject contract concessions face a formidable combination of the employers, Democratic politicians and their own leaders that forces the issue. The employers are feeling very confident.
Activists in the Unions can play a major role in turning the tide through helping build serious fighting opposition caucuses. We have the power and the numbers. But a serious opposition, one that would have to link with community struggles and the unorganized, cannot be built without an open campaign against the policies of the Union officialdom. Workers have to see an alternative and one that fights back openly against any and all forces that argue the employers’ point of view that concessions are inevitable and we have to pay for their crisis through cuts in living standards, social services and increased taxes. I should add that it is quite likely, given the stifling role of the leadership, that more struggles will also take place outside of the traditional Unions, among the unorganized and the youth.
We are in an ideological war, a struggle for the consciousness of the worker. Workers will not simply get active because we call for “solidarity” or for democracy in the abstract. Solidarity around what? Unity around what? Many activists complain of the undemocratic nature of the Union leadership. The cause of lack of democracy is that the leadership is not doing what the members want; the members want them to fight but the leaders refuse. If they were doing what the members want there would be no reason to be undemocratic.
Rejecting the idea that we have to make concessions is a major step in the right direction. Putting forward a program that demands what we need and not what the employers and our officials tell us is “realistic” is also crucial. The past few years have shown us that there is no shortage of wealth, no shortage of resources and we can show it.
Workers will be drawn to such a strategy and program even if initially just to ask questions, become convinced that society can provide more and that we can win if we fight properly. The presence of a force on the job and in the Union that rejects the ideology of the boss, openly challenges it, and offers an alternative; this is what will help to draw workers in to activity. Weakness breed’s aggression and power attracts.
The meeting of the G20 this weekend in Toronto made it clear that the deficits will have to be brought down and it is through further cuts and increased taxes that this will be done; things are not going to get better no matter what the Union officials say about concessions staving off further cuts. An open struggle against the Union leadership’s collaborative policies, at the very least a public questioning of them, will also transform the leadership itself as splits and schisms occur due to the pressure from below and new and more militant rank and file leaders emerge to replace them.
(1) State Workers, Long Resistant, Accept Cuts in Pension Benefits: WSJ 6-29-10
(2) Fears Of A Crash Unfounded—For Now: Financial Times 8-18-07