by Bill Onasch
I had promised in the last Week In Review to take up the issues of the fight at Boeing, and the election of a socialist in Seattle in more depth in the next WIR. As you will see, this effort got out of hand a bit and I’m sending it out as an Extra. Another WIR will follow soon.
A new front in the class war is shaping up in the Pacific Northwest and its General Headquarters is in Seattle.
This combative description may clash with the city’s reputation. Like most stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth to perceptions about Seattle marching to a less hurried cadence. They hold the world record for coffee shops per capita and neither customers or staff seem as frantic as their counterparts in other major cities. Many commuters arrive in the city center after a leisurely ferry ride. Even in the Saturday crowds at Pike Place Market nobody tries to rush you. This atmosphere of laid back charm wins the hearts of most visitors–including me.
But the Seattle area is not primarily a tourist draw. It’s also a major center of trade and industry–such big names as Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Weyerhaeuser, have their headquarters there. Boeing no longer has their corporate offices in the region but still employs tens of thousands of blue collar and professional workers in the area. There are hundreds of small company vassals supplying these masters. And metro Seattle remains a bustling port in global maritime trade.
Those who toil for these companies great and small seldom enjoy the stereotypical relaxed environment on the job, even when unionized. The class war–which in 1919 erupted in to the biggest general strike this country has ever seen–has all along remained sleepless in Seattle.
Preliminary Regional Bouts
The Great Recession and Jobless Recovery of the last six years emboldened the class that rules to go on the offensive in the Northwest in sectors where truce had prevailed for generations.
In 2011, a multinational consortium opened the first new West Coast export grain terminal in 25 years. EGT–built with mostly nonunion labor–is in Port Longview on the Columbia River separating Washington and Oregon. EGT flouted the International Longshore &Warehouse Union’s eighty year history of jurisdiction over such work, signing a sweet heart deal with an AFL craft union.
The ILWU, with support from some other unions and Occupy, responded with mass picketing, blocking trains. Some grain wound up on the ground. Injunctions were obtained by the company and there were many arrests and fines during months of running confrontations with the forces of “law and order”–including the Coast Guard. The ILWU ultimately settled for a substandard contract for a handful of workers at the new terminal. Earlier this year, as the union’s existing grain terminal contracts up and down the coast expired, the bosses locked the ILWU workers out–a struggle still ongoing.
The Main Event
Now the growing hubris of the boss class has led Boeing to pick a fight with the biggest private sector union in the Seattle area. The city was once as dependent on the aviation giant as Detroit was on the Big Three automakers. The local economy is more diversified now but Boeing and its suppliers are still the prime source of blue collar manufacturing jobs. Those workers can’t all go write code at Microsoft.
A few weeks ago, Boeing summoned International and Local officials of the International Association of Machinists to secret meetings. The company wasn’t complaining about the quality or efficiency of their experienced, skilled workforce nor were they pleading poverty. In fact, they explained that their new 777X wide-body was getting an enthusiastic reception from the world’s airlines and they already had received advance orders totaling 95 billion dollars. Management would have to soon decide where this work will be done. They then laid out nonnegotiable conditions the union had to meet in order to allow Seattle to be considered. They wanted to extend the existing contract, currently covering 33,000 workers, eight years with a number of take-aways kicking in in 2016. These included:
* replacing the current defined benefit pension with a 401(k)
* hefty increases in paycheck deductions for health insurance
* a revised progression schedule that would require new hires to work twenty years to get top rate
* general wage increases of only one percent–every other year
For Boeing, their take it or we leave you demand was win-win. If their IAM leadership “partners” succeeded in selling it, these give-backs would be a seachange in labor relations worth hundreds of millions to the boss over the long haul. If, as I’m sure management expected, the ranks saw it as an offer they could only refuse, the company could blame the union as they seek bids for the work elsewhere.
When Local union officers tried to explain this ultimatum to the ranks they got such an earful they dropped it like a hot knish. The president arranged a photo op of him tearing up the proposal and he declared the company should come back to the table. The International reps knew they had left nothing on the table and pushed for acceptance. But it was rejected by a two-to-one margin.
What Can Boeing Workers Do?
Boeing can not unilaterally change the conditions of the existing contract covering the Seattle area bargaining unit that remains in force for another two years. I don’t know if that contract has any provision for severance pay and benefits for jobs that may be eliminated before 2016. Labor law requires them to bargain over impact of full or partial plant shutdowns–but bargain, not results, is the only guarantee.
A few months ago, a knowledgeable socialist acquaintance from my Young Socialist Chicago days a half-century ago–who I hadn’t heard from for decades–tracked me down. He now follows, and is generally supportive of the WIR and we’ve corresponded about the Boeing crisis. He recently wrote,
“Boeing must be kept from moving. All the laws say it’s OK for them to do it. The laws must be broken. New law must be forged it battle. This is not just a worker’s issue though they are at the center of it and they must provide leadership cadres in the fight. But everyone should be mobilized. When there is mass picketing at every Boeing factory round the clock Boeing will negotiate. When the money stops rolling in Boeing will agree to stay put and give real guarantees. A General Strike has to be organized. That and nothing less will save the working class of Seattle.”
Adding A Little Extra to Legal
I have no qualms about breaking unjust laws. We wouldn’t have unions today if past generations had not waged battles such as the semi-insurrections in the 1934 Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco strikes, and hundreds of sit-down strikes during the 1930s that challenged fundamental private property and management rights.
I do a workshop on the need for a Labor Party today that includes the screening of Labor’s Turning Point, an excellent documentary about the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. It’s a graphic presentation of what workers were up against as they not only had to take on the employers and scabs but also the courts, the cops, and the National Guard in sometimes bloody confrontations that led to fatalities on both sides. They did what they had to do to win. That included building strong alliances with the unemployed, family farmers, and college students.
The labor upsurge during the 1930s–which briefly resumed for a couple of years following World War II–was able to prevail because of widespread class consciousness and active class solidarity among workers with no personal stake in the outcome. That key ingredient is largely missing today. As our unions became mostly bureaucratized during the Cold War they demobilized the ranks as well. They taught us to think of ourselves as “middle class,” not workers exploited by the boss.
And the American labor movement failed to carry through to the indicated next step of forming a party of our own as unions in Europe, Canada, and Australia did long ago. That’s why we don’t have socialized medicine like the British workers. We don’t have six weeks of vacation like the German workers. Our kids don’t get free higher education like the French workers. And we sure don’t have the threat of substantial government imposed financial penalties that discourage plant closings in many European countries.
But we didn’t just fail to get better laws. We got stuck with the worst laws. Taft-Hartley outlaws every effective union tactic from labor’s heyday–bar none. When we say American labor law is the most repressive of any industrialized country that’s not hyperbole–it’s the literal and painful truth. The ILWU got a fresh reminder of that in their fight against EGT in Port Longview.
We’ll Take That Deal Boss
An odious example of the deterioration of solidarity on the most basic level can be found on the other side of my home state Missouri. An article in the Missouri Times begins,
“Boeing Co., one of the largest employers in the state, is looking for a place to build its newly announced 777X commercial jet. Gov. Jay Nixon and other state lawmakers and business leaders are hoping to pitch Missouri, where 15,000 Boeing jobs already exist, as the home of the new jet.”
That’s to be expected. Continuing,
“Jeff Aboussie, Executive Secretary Treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council says he hoped the opportunity would unite unions with lawmakers who sometimes don’t always agree with them.”
No surprise there either. Trades bureaucrats would be happy to build the gallows for their own hanging. But there’s more, about the union representing Boeing workers in the St Louis area,
“The International Association of Machinists, the same labor union that declined a new contract from Boeing with pension changes that would have brought the 777X to Washington state, represents the Boeing assembly line workers in St. Louis. However, the IAM local 837 has not yet declined any arrangement and has publically supported consideration of the contract. One inside source who asked not to be identified discussing an internal matter says the local is currently considering approving the same package that the Seattle local just rejected.”
The Seattle Boeing workers have been getting support from unions and community in their home town. We should unconditionally back whatever tactics the targeted workers decide to pursue.
It’s also in order to suggest other strategies, such as the one my e-mail correspondent recommended, that have had success in the past and can again–under similar conditions. It doesn’t appear likely those conditions will come together in the short term–but you never know. The 1934 strikes, and the Flint sit-downs took everybody by surprise.
For now, to prepare the revival of mass class solidarity needed to win big battles, I believe the task of class conscious workers is one of education, patiently explaining our perspective, engaging in fraternal discussion while doing the solidarity walk as well as talk.
That same basic approach is also appropriate to resurrecting the movement to complete the unfinished job of building a labor party. Needed official union support is paltry. That’s why labor party supporters in the Midwest, Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest are trying to regroup Labor Party Advocates.
Old time union organizers used to say–unions don’t organize workers, bosses do. That is if the employers treated their employees fairly the workers wouldn’t rock the boat by demanding a union. That same aphorism can be applied to political parties. During the salad days of Middle Class prosperity for many workers they followed the advice of their leaders in accepting the two official party alternatives as Divine Will. But that’s changed big time.
I opened an article I wrote a few weeks ago for Labor Standard with an excerpt from a Gallup Poll summary,
“Amid the government shutdown, 60 percent of Americans say the Democratic and Republicans parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed. That is the highest Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of [Gallup asking] this question. A new low of 26 percent believe the two major parties adequately represent Americans. — October 11, 2013 Gallup Poll summary.”
As I argued in Labor Standard, this can give a big boost to promoting a labor party championing the interests of all working people.
There was another more decisive poll confirming this changed sentiment–at the ballot box in Seattle.
Shock and Awe Election
When the newly elected Seattle City Council is sworn in one of their number will be as red as the Sockeye Salmon so highly prized and protected in the region. I’m talking politics here, not skin pigment. Kshama Sawant is the first avowed socialist elected to office in Seattle since the early 1920s. Winning over 93,000 votes, she defeated a liberal Democrat who had held the seat for sixteen years.
She did this without expert political consultants. There were no focus groups. She told her victory rally “When you are challenging the status quo you cannot speak in sound bites. It takes time.” This red college professor confirmed that when you have something worthwhile to say even workers who may fidget in church or union meetings pay attention.
My friend and LPA supporter Ann Montague, a leader in the SEIU state employees union in Oregon, wrote a good wrap-up story in Labor Standard about the Sawant campaign. She was assisted with some on the scene reports by an even older friend and Labor Party Advocate in Seattle, Rita Shaw. Montague writes,
“Her grassroots campaign was rooted in the movement for $15 minimum wage, a millionaires tax to fund public transit and rent control. Sawant teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College and was an organizer for Occupy Seattle. She was arrested during foreclosure fights and supported the mass movement against coal trains and the building of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. She has pledged to give most of her $120,000 city council salary to the social movements in the Seattle area.”
(Voters in the nearby small town of SeaTac, named after the airport that serves the area, voted by a narrow margin to establish the 15 dollar minimum wage there.)
Back to Montague,
“Sawant is a member of AFT Local 1719 and they endorsed her along with CWA local 37083, APWU of Greater Seattle, IBEW local 46, AFSCME/WFSE local 1488. A majority of the King County Labor Council voted to endorse her but 2/3 was required for an official endorsement.“
Rita Shaw was part of the standing room only crowd of more than 500 at the campaign victory rally. She noted the venue was at a big SEIU hall that had not endorsed the campaign. King County Labor Council Executive Director David Freiboth spoke at the event even though he had supported Sawant’s opponent.
“The day after the victory party Sawant sent out an e-mail to all her supporters saying, ‘This is our fight, all of us,’ and calling on all her supporters to stand in solidarity with Boeing machinists at their rally that afternoon. She pointed out the Democratic controlled legislature had recently called a Special Session to offer Boeing $8 billion more dollars in tax breaks while demanding draconian cuts in wages and benefits. At the rally she spoke about the Boeing CEO threatening to leave Seattle. ‘The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don’t need the executives. The executives don’t do the work, the machinists do. We can retool the machines to produce mass transit like buses.”’
Of course, a lone council member can’t turn things around. Expropriation and conversion of Boeing facilities isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But it is a concept that makes sense, an approach that will be needed for even broader application than taking over abandoned plants. Much of our economy is dedicated to war and/or contributing to the climate change crisis. Our future depends on massive conversion of industries to peaceful, sustainable use. And we need to guarantee suitable jobs and living standards for all during this transition. While we shouldn’t expect that Sawant alone can save Boeing jobs she is to be commended for promoting an overdue public discussion that can have impact down the road.
Sawant’s group, Socialist Alternative, who also ran an impressive runner-up campaign for Minneapolis City Council, said in an election night statement,
“We urgently need a party of working people, connected to social movements, fighting unions, community organizations, Greens and socialists. As a concrete step to get there, we should form coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections. The unions who supported the Moore and Sawant campaigns and many others should run full slates of independent working-class candidates in the mid-term, state, and local elections.”
Such an ambitious project, if it can be pulled off, could be a step forward toward the mass working class party so sorely needed. The grandmother of all labor parties–in Britain–provided for affiliation of movements and groups such as those mentioned by Socialist Alternative, as well as branches in communities open to individuals who shared the party’s goals.
But what made it a Labor Party–and what generated its main power–was that its solid foundation rested on genuine mass organizations–the unions.
The party of the most prominent socialist in American history, Eugene V Debs, once had over 100,000 dues paying members, and elected a number of candidates to office. But even during that high point for American socialism Debs promoted the need for a still broader Labor Party. What he wanted was clear,
“…a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity.”
A lot has changed in technology and communication since the days of Debs. But class relations in the USA remain pretty much the same. The Labor Party question in my view is more relevant than ever.
We should salute the electoral victory of Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant as a rare win for our side. They deserve support in their coming efforts to advance working class interests in Seattle.
The heating up of the Northwest Front also provides a laboratory for testing ideas in action and a forum for discussing broader perspectives.