Aug 252013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

All Struggles Great and Small
The last couple of weeks I’ve devoted attention to discussion organized through live local, conference call, and Internet “listening sessions” leading up to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles next month. They are purported to have involved thousands. The Listeners have now prepared a list of 45 Action Sessions at the conclave open to “delegates, community members and other stakeholders.” There will be fifteen a day over three days to choose from.

The present predicament of those who need to toil to live is full of potential “teachable moments.” But the menu offered in Los Angeles by those chefs who listened has only a few tempting appetizers, lots of thin soup–and some questionable shell fish that may cause a belly ache later.

There is a timely session about “Veterans and Labor Community Partnerships”–but nothing about ongoing war. The only oblique reference to global warming that is posing a threat to our very biosphere is “Infrastructure, Jobs, and Reducing Emissions: Upgrading Natural Gas Distribution Systems.” One entitled “Workers’ Voice: An Independent Movement to Elect Progressives,” will almost certainly be tweaked to the present policy of trying to advance “accountable” candidates within the two boss parties–especially the Democrats–with a fall back position of supporting a Lesser Evil when necessary.

While the working class has proven our resilience over the more than two centuries since we were created to serve the boss, we won’t survive a nuclear war. Future generations will be denied a sustainable environment if irreversible climate change continues its present pace. These mortal threats to human civilization cannot be successfully addressed as long as the class responsible for them–the bosses and bankers–continue their uncontested rule through a monopoly of all things political in the USA.

That doesn’t mean we can or should do nothing until these overarching questions are somehow satisfactorily resolved. Those of us who follow the Prime Directive of Class Solidarity fight for even the smallest improvements for ourselves and our fellow workers–while also educating, agitating and organizing around the bigger transformational issues.

Some of the AFL Action Sessions can be useful. Among them for example, the long overdue  fight on behalf of fast food and retail workers for “fifteen dollars and a union” that has struck a responsive chord and has potential for at least some partial victories.

Sometimes small initiatives can unexpectedly mushroom in to very Big Deals. We saw that a couple of years ago when a relative handful of protesters occupied the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin as a newly elected Tea Party Governor and Legislature started enacting anti-labor laws.

Glad to see somebody finally fighting back, thousands of workers in Madison–many unorganized and not directly affected by the new legislation–responded in solidarity ranging from food for the occupiers to mass demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands. Soon weekend caravans of trade unionists from around the country started arriving to show support. It was an inspiring example of what American workers are still capable given the slightest encouragement.

The Madison actions not only alarmed the Establishment; the top tier of union officialdom was also stressed by these unauthorized outpourings and they had to hustle at an unaccustomed pace to gain control. After wisely allowing the stoked ranks to blow off some steam our leaders laid out a bold strategy: petition to recall the antiunion state officials and then replace them with our “friends.”

Though exhausting for the activists, the petitioning, gathering more than 900,000 names, was mostly successful. But the union officials didn’t get their first choice for Governor candidate–the Democrats picked the same loser defeated by the Tea Party in the general election. Sure enough, he lost again. This stratagem devouring enormous amounts of money and volunteer time was a total flop. Wisconsin unions have been getting every part of their anatomy kicked ever since. An opportunity for an important breakthrough for our side in the class war was squandered.

The Madison experiences showed both the strength and weaknesses of semi-spontaneous grass roots actions–especially when political objectives are involved. Even if they are massive enough to prevent being slapped down by the courts and armed detachments of the state, they are still vulnerable to being hijacked by boss politicians and union brass. To win big class battles requires sound strategy and tactics from the onset, skillful organization of limited material resources, and a leadership team from top to bottom that has earned the confidence of the ranks. This is not easy to do on the fly.

While there are some honorable exceptions–such as the Chicago Teachers Union, National Nurses United, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers–to the mainstream bumbling bureaucracy, there is even much more to be learned from the proud achievements of past unexpected game-changing American worker struggles.

After a long stretch of defeat or dormancy during the first phase of the Great Depression, three localized labor battles in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis erupted in the spring and summer of 1934 that soon became national headline news. While each had their own unique story they had some important common features. All were led by political radicals with a class struggle perspective. Each managed to win support from the massive numbers of unemployed. All involved confrontations with the courts, police and the National Guard. And–most importantly–each ended in victory, inspiring a powerful new national labor upsurge.

I may be a bit biased but I’ve always thought Minneapolis was the most instructive of the three; it certainly is the best documented. And the battle of Minneapolis truck drivers and inside workers for union recognition and a raise generated every aspect of class warfare you could imagine.

There were casualties on both sides in confrontations with police and “special deputies” with the union side prevailing. A later mobilization of the National Guard required a more nuanced response as the strikers maneuvered with the union backed Farmer-Labor Party Governor. The insurgent union published a daily newspaper answering the lies and rumors of the boss controlled press, distributed not only to strikers but also the working class public. Alliances were formed with family farmers as well as the jobless. The strike headquarters included a garage from which auto and motorcycle flying squadron pickets were dispatched; a kitchen serving hot meals to strikers and their families; and even a small hospital where volunteer doctors and nurses took care of picket line injuries. The central strike leaders included a broad based Committee of 100 in all their deliberations about major strike objectives and the bosses and politicians soon knew the union negotiators had solid backing from the ranks. This rare democratic unionism was indispensable in resisting pressure from Federal mediators for a rotten compromise.

Farrell Dobbs, one of the principal strategists, wrote Teamster Rebellion, a detailed account of how the strikes were prepared and implemented. He went on to write three more volumes about the subsequent history of further victories–and ultimate decisive defeat as a result of the first use of the odious Smith Act–of this dynamic union current. These books deserve to be read by every labor activist. They are widely available; if you can’t find them in your area they can be ordered from MayDay Books in Minneapolis.

There is also an excellent 43 minute documentary film about the 1934 strikes aptly titled Labor’s Turning Point. It weaves together visual records of the strikes with interviews of veterans of the 1934 battles and historians. Through the use of newsreel footage it also sets the struggle in the social and political context of the day.

Kansas City Labor Party Advocates has chosen a screening and discussion of this film for our Labor Day Weekend event, this coming Saturday, August 31, 1 PM, at the North Kansas City Library. We don’t expect that we can exactly duplicate what was done in Minneapolis 79 years ago but we think we can find plenty of relevant lessons from this heritage that can help us find at long last a turning point in the class war against us today.

I will give some brief introductory remarks–mainly about some personal discussions I was fortunate to have with the late Ray Dunne and other 1934 leaders while I lived in Minneapolis in the mid-Sixties. After showing the film, and taking a short break to consume some provided food and beverage, Danny Alexander, a professor at Johnson County Community College, will use his pedagogic skills to moderate a discussion. If you are in the Kansas City region I hope you will join us.

Race to the Top South of the Border
The Mexican government’s attempt to emulate their senior NAFTA partner’s education “reform” has encountered a few glitches. AP reported,

“As Mexican children trooped back to school on Monday, they had already learned one lesson: You can’t believe everything you read in your textbook. Their new government-provided books are riddled with the sort of errors that students are supposed to be learning to avoid: misspellings, errors of grammar and punctuation, and at least one city located in the wrong state.”

Today’s New York Times tells of further troubles before the blush of embarrassment on expert faces over that gaff could fade,

“Mexico’s highly anticipated education overhaul program–intended to weed out poorly performing teachers, establish professional hiring standards and weaken the powerful teachers’ union–is buckling under the tried-and-true tactic of huge street protests, throwing the heart of the capital into chaos. A radical teachers’ group mobilized thousands of members in Mexico City last week, chasing lawmakers from their chambers, occupying the city’s historic central square, blocking access to hotels and the international airport, and threatening to bring an already congested city to a halt in the coming days.”

Could there be a lesson here for U.S. teachers?

In Brief…
* From the Washington Post, “Emboldened by an outpouring of support on social media, low-wage fast-food and retail workers from eight cities who have staged walkouts this year are calling for a national day of strikes Aug. 29….The workers are calling for a wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.” In Kansas City, if you are available to help for the day you can  get an assignment at 6:30 AM at St Mark Church, 3800 Troost. If you’ve got a day job you can join a 4:30 PM rally at Grove Park, Truman Rd and Chestnut.
* The recent annual report of Social Security Trustees shows payroll contributions increased 54 billion dollars in 2012 boosting reserves to 2.73 trillion. It also confirms the extremely low cost of administration–eight tenths of one percent. Despite these numbers a spokesman for the American Academy of Actuaries told a friendly Congress they must quickly act to raise the partial benefit minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Many long term unemployed have reluctantly chosen the “early” retirement as their only option for steady income.
* A union to which I once proudly belonged, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers, are beginning their convention in Chicago. Reflecting their connection to many struggles, guest speakers include the Reverend Doctor William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, who has been leading the dramatic “Moral Mondays” mass protests at the North Carolina state legislative building in Raleigh; Kristine Mayle, financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU); Benedicto Martínez, co-president of Mexico’s FAT, (Authentic Labor Front); Keisuke Fuse, director of the international bureau of the Japanese labor federation Zenroren;  and Dominique Daigneult, general secretary of the Central Montreal Council of the Confederation of National Unions of Quebec. They, of course, will devote much of their attention to the fight against runaway jobs at GE Erie and the union’s campaigns in Chicago’s Logistics Belt. I wish them well.

That’s all for this week.


Aug 182013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

All Hands To Their (Listening) Post
To continue where we left off in the lead of the last WIR

One of the hats worn by brother Traven Leyshon is secretary-treasurer of the Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Though writing in personal capacity, his connection with the Federation gives him some insight in to the project he describes in Labor Notes, AFL-CIO: Let’s Talk About Building a Movement. He begins,

“In the run-up to its September convention, the national AFL-CIO is calling on its affiliates and allies to hold ‘listening sessions.’ We’re being asked to think big. With union density at 11.3 percent and unions facing a not-so-gradual decline toward irrelevance, leaders are having ‘a come-to-Jesus moment.’ The ‘Building a Movement for Shared Prosperity’ project urges unions to reach beyond officials and staff to members (including those in non-AFL-CIO unions), non-union workers, civil rights, immigrant, LGBT, and youth groups, the unemployed, and worker centers.”

He reports that over six thousand have participated, some in live meetings, many through an Internet format. After citing a few cogent comments from the Audience to the Listeners, Leyshon shares an excerpt from a Fed summary,

“‘A repeated theme among participants,’ the AFL-CIO reports, ‘is advocating that the labor movement invest more in our own infrastructure and in organizing and less in the Democratic Party—and to hold elected Democrats accountable for their votes on working family issues. The recent experiences of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the fight against the school closings and the Walmart campaign give the labor movement a wealth of experiences in building labor-community solidarity to mull over.’”

That members and allies of the labor movement want to stop spending on the Democrats will surprise no one. All polls show disgust with both parties has reached a record high among the working class majority.

Of course, the call to shift money from politics to organizing is a hearty perennial. It was a central plank in Andy Stern’s platform when he led the Change to Win split from the Federation eight years ago. But SEIU and the Teamsters–the only two remaining major CtW unions–all along maintained their PACs and created SuperPACs like the AFL, to fund their “friends” in the two parties held in such contempt by their members.

Leyshon is in tune with local leaders who want to mobilize the strength of the ranks and notes they,

“…are concerned that, unless unions that currently give huge amounts to the Democratic Party agree to redirect some of that to the AFL-CIO to fund internal organizing, education, and community engagement, the federation will lack the capacity to actually begin ‘building a movement for shared prosperity.’”

Under a subheading Politics the Answer? Leyshon writes,

“In the hostile environment for bargaining and organizing, unions have looked to politics to rescue us from irrelevance. There is a real danger that the AFL-CIO convention will approve a policy that continues in that direction—seeing the federation’s community arm Working America, and even unions themselves, primarily as political campaign and pressure vehicles.
On the contrary, we need more of a focus on workplace activity, because that is precisely where members can develop their sense of power and self-confidence.”

Under a new sub Another Way he continues,

“The Chicago Teachers Union is an inspiring example. New officers cut their own pay, prioritized internal organizing, and started rebuilding their union on democratic, ‘social-movement unionism’ principles, meaning they take on their allies’ issues–even if it means fighting employers and the government. Unions that focus resources into internal organizing can get results, particularly if we organize around the issues members confront in the workplace.”

Here I must diverge from brother Leyshon’s overall sound approach.

The Chicago Teachers Union is indeed an inspiring example–one of the few in recent years. Their approach warrants emulation. But, though justly proud of what they accomplished in their strike, even the CTU leaders frankly acknowledge they fell far short of complete victory. For example, they have continued to fight post-strike protest battles against thousands of layoffs in Chicago Public Schools ordered by the Democrat Mayor. Some concessions in their settlement had been imposed by the state legislature.

The CTU failed to win some crucial issues not out of lack of mobilization of members and allies but because they–and the rest of the working class–have no political power. Allowing the bosses and bankers a monopoly of all things political not only renders us powerless on the truly big issues facing all of us–war, climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia; it also undermines important ones that we have mistakenly tried for generations to resolve through collective bargaining.

Our employer group health insurance–whether it be Cadillac or Corolla plan–is paid for out of our total negotiated compensation package. Neither the union or the boss have much control over soaring insurance costs. The cynically named Affordable Care Act will make access to health care less affordable than ever to millions. Most of this money spent on insurance could otherwise be applied to wages. (Check out a good update by National Nurses United Co-President Deborah Burger.)

As technology and outsourcing shrunk bastions of unionism, the good defined benefit pensions negotiated by most unions became an unsustainable “retiree burden”–and have now been mostly frozen or even eliminated. Public sector workers and retirees are also beginning to lose existing pension plans in bankruptcy court.

Workers in most European industrialized countries don’t negotiate with employers for these benefits–or vacations, paid sick leave, or standard working hours either. These are legislated, guaranteed to all workers. These same countries also provide free or very low cost college or vocational education to the daughters and sons of the working class. Because of what mass working class parties have done through politics, European unions can focus on their primary mission–wages and working conditions on the job.

It can be done here. We don’t have to engage in futile begging and bribing boss politicians or accepting the Lesser Evil. The American working class so alienated from the political Establishment is as capable as European workers of presenting our own class alternative– likely to start in our only existing mass organizations, our unions.

In February, 2012 I posted an article Forging A Trident Strategy For American Workers where I argued,

“I believe the class war pursued by the bosses and bankers against us needs to be fought using three distinct tines:

* In the workplace
* In the communities
* In the electoral arena

“While there is some overlap, each has its own constituency, mission, and methods of functioning that need to be respected. On their own, the achievements of each will be tenuous and temporary. Attached to a unifying handle, their synergy can save our world even from the crises that recently led to the Doomsday Clock being advanced perilously closer to Midnight.”

The “handle” of the trident metaphor to which I alluded is a Labor Party. Leyshon does not mention the once promising Labor Party project in this country. After the 2000 election fiasco union officials became fearful of “spoilers” that could lead to a reactionary administration such as Bush. As they doubled down their bets on Democrats, union material support for the Labor Party gradually dried up–eventually putting the party out of business. In 2012, those same union officials worked hard, and spent a lot of our money, to get a second term for the most reactionary administration in living memory.

Brother Leyshon says many good things in his article and I look forward to collaborating with him and others on worthwhile ideas he advances.

But he misses the main task upon which so much else depends–reviving the movement for a Labor Party to unify the many fronts in the class war between us and them. While respecting those coming to Jesus, a Come-to-Debs moment seems more appropriate for our corporeal needs today. More on this next time.

In Brief…
* The Labor Campaign for Single Payer is asking trade union members to sign an open letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka urging Federation support for renewed efforts to win Medicare For All. You can view and sign the letter here.
* Many unions will be participating in the Fiftieth Anniversary March on Washington this coming Saturday, August 24.
* A New York Times article says, “Thousands of platinum miners and their supporters gathered to commemorate the killing of 34 striking workers by the police one year earlier, an episode that many here call a massacre. Before the ANC came to power, when it was still a liberation movement struggling against the bridle of apartheid, the killings of workers by security forces would have been a potent rallying cry for its fight against state brutality. But in this case, the ANC is seen by many South Africans as a source of contention, not inspiration. The chairs set up for government officials on a stage for the memorial event Friday sat empty. A regional party spokesman said in a curt statement that the commemoration had been ‘organized by an illegitimate team,’ and that the ANC would not be participating.”
* Also from the NYT, “Cuadrilla Resources, a British shale gas company, has suspended drilling activity at its site in Balcombe, the village south of London that has become a focus of protests against Britain’s efforts to develop a shale gas industry.”
* And from yet another Times story, “A troubled new computer system for the nation’s 6,500 meatpacking and processing plants shut down for two days this month, putting at risk millions of pounds of beef, poultry, pork and lamb that had left the plants before workers could collect samples to check for E. coli bacteria and other contaminants.”
* From Reuters: “Greece will lift restrictions on home foreclosures to allow banks to recover bad loans, the finance minister said on Saturday, adding fuel to a row that may test the cohesion of its fragile coalition government. Cash-strapped banks are currently barred from auctioning most first homes owned by delinquent borrowers, under a temporary measure introduced in 2010 to protect austerity-hit households.”

Much of the material for the Week In Review comes from stories posted on our companion Labor Advocate News Blog, updated by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week.