Week In Review February 26

 Week In Review  Comments Off on Week In Review February 26
Feb 262017

  by Bill Onasch

A Clean Win For Janitors

Photo of retail janitors

It took six years of strikes and demonstrations but the tenacity of 600 Twin Cities janitors, nearly all people of color, many of them immigrants, has secured a first union contract. It was a tripartite struggle. These members of SEIU Local 26 actually clean Big Box retail stores like Target, Best Buy and Macy’s. But their paychecks come from janitorial service companies contracted by these high profile merchants. The pressure on these retailers, who didn’t like being associated with the ruthless exploitation by their contractors, is what finally won an agreement that lays a foundation for even better future gains. This concludes the Good News section of this WIR.

Fake News

I received a gushing e-mail from Jobs with Justice repeating hype they had been told about a “breakthrough settlement” ending a 105-day strike at the Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant in Waterford, New York. I am always eager to find some upbeat labor stories so I did some digging. I found a comprehensive description of the deal, brokered by Democrat (and Working Families Party) Governor Cuomo, in the Albany Times-Union, a paper often giving fair coverage to unions.

That paper’s honest reporting made clear that the breakthrough benefited only the hedge fund vulture owners determined to make Momentive more attractive for a “flip” to another buyer. The final deal was even more onerous than what the workers in two IUE-CWA Locals had overwhelmingly rejected when they went on strike in November.

Retiree health insurance was eliminated and active worker benefits greatly reduced. A week of vacation time was lost. The signing bonus in lieu of a wage increase was further slashed from the pre-strike offer of 3,000 dollars to 1,000. And the agreement did not guarantee reinstatement of 27 workers fired for “strike misconduct.”

I would never second-guess workers, most with families to support, who after going without pay for more than three months reluctantly decide to go back to work with their union intact to fight again another day. Even then the vote in the main Local of production workers was no slam dunk–317-211 to accept the Governor’s deal.

I don’t know enough about the union’s strategy and tactics to rush to judgment of a “sell-out.” Sometimes the relationship of class forces confounds even ably-led unions. There is no dishonor in losing a bravely fought battle. The Hormel P-9 workers, the Detroit newspaper strikers, and the Staley Road Warriors, vanquished during the Eighties and Nineties, remain heroes in my book. But those who try to spin a devastating defeat in to a breakthrough victory deserve nothing but contempt.

The Decline of the Strike

In the February 2 WIR I looked at the annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed another decline in union membership and density numbers. This month I’ll deal with the BLS report on strikes.

While there was actually a slight uptick in the number of strikes, strikers, and strike durations last year over 2015 numbers it is unlikely this indicates a reversal of the decades long decline in these stats. The big CWA-IBEW strike against Verizon is what swelled the 2016 figures.

However, there are some caveats to keep in mind in analyzing the downward trend. The BLS only counts strikes or lockouts of 1,000 or more workers. The Momentive strike that began last year, and the Twin Cities janitors are examples of those too small to be counted. Nor are short strikes by workers without a certified union—such as thousands of fast-food and airport service workers fighting for 15 and a Union—tallied.

A thousand was a more reasonable cut-off when these reports began in 1947. But private sector workplaces have been greatly reduced in size by technology and outsourcing. National contracts that once covered tens, even hundreds of thousands of workers are today rare and the few remaining have shrunk drastically.

But these factors, that also contributed to union membership loss, don’t fully account for the much steeper decline in strikes that have plummeted over the last few decades. From 1967-76 there were 3,321 major strikes. For 1987-96 that number was down to 404. In the just concluded 2007-16 there were only 143.

The WIR format is inadequate for an in depth analysis of the factors leading to this paucity of strikes—the traditional “ultimate” workers’ weapon in the class struggle in the workplace. But above all, it certainly involves a dominant trend of the mainstream union bureaucracy abandoning adversarial unionism to seek “partnership” with the boss.

This leads to peaceful surrender of hard won past achievements in wages and conditions—especially through odious tiered wages and benefits affecting only new hires, undermining solidarity. The class collaborationist wing of the bureaucracy that abhors strikes also poisons organizing efforts–dramatically illustrated once more this month.

The IAM’s Debacle In North Charleston

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers drive to organize Boeing’s runaway plant in North Charleston, South Carolina was a dismal failure. The NLRB vote was 2,097-731. The IAM total showed they lost the support of more than 700 workers who had signed union authorization cards that led to the election.

Those in the kept media proclaimed this drubbing as reaffirmation of their hope that unions can’t grow in the South. That assertion is bogus—there have been more than a few successful organizing efforts south of the Mason-Dixon line during the past few years.

Most early pro-labor commentators speculated that the Machinist organizers had gone off half-cocked and didn’t do the necessary home visits and community outreach. That the election was premature is palpable–but that decision was made several pay grades above the organizers on the scene. All indications show the field organizers used all the best practices. In addition to plant gate leaflets they did their home visits, community meetings, and even bought some television advertising. They were assisted by the small but militant local labor movement—especially the predominantly African-American Longshore and ATU transit Locals.

Of course, as could be expected, the company, and the area Chamber of Commerce, spent a lot more money warning unions would block economic growth. Boeing used their “captive audience” meetings with workers to not only slander the union that is their “partner” in Seattle and other places, but also exposing some inconvenient truths.

They not only revealed the rotten sell-out deals like the International leaders had imposed at Harley-Davidson but also at Boeing in Seattle. There the top bureaucracy ganged up with Boeing and state politicians against the Local union to force a contract reopener with enormous give-backs. At the end of the day, too many in South Carolina concluded they didn’t need a union to negotiate cuts in wages and benefits.

‘Worse Than Wisconsin’

My wife Mary and I have been privileged to closely follow the progress of two sisters since they were toddlers. We’ve come to be almost as proud of them as their mother—who is a dear friend. The eldest is graduating this Spring from St Olaf and has accepted an offer of Research Assistant at the University of Iowa while pursuing her Master’s.

Mary was amazed at the generosity of the Hawkeye offer compared to a RA she had at the University of Illinois in the late Seventies. It includes a middle-class wage as well as tuition and other perks. It turns out this much sweeter deal was negotiated by a remarkable union to which I once paid dues—the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE).

When I was in UE, I was told our jurisdiction included all those whose work involved using electricity. As their legacy industrial base has shrunk due to plant closings UE has increasingly organized public sector workers. In Iowa this includes state highway crews, and some municipal employees as well as grad students. They are a respected 6,000 member component of a state labor movement that has been bargaining for 184,000 public workers.

You may be wondering why I earlier said I had no more good news. There is in fact terrible news that not just sweet deals for grad students but all contracts for those184,000 public union workers are facing a virtual death sentence that doesn’t even include a choice of a last meal. The top officers of UE described in Labor Notes a new public employee labor law, fast tracked through the legislature and signed by the Governor, as “a new union-busting bill worse than Wisconsin.”

They explain,

“This legislation is designed to render collective bargaining meaningless by making it illegal to negotiate most of the subjects now covered by contracts, and to cripple unions financially by eliminating the dues checkoff process which union members voluntarily pay to support their union’s activities….

“Every union representing public employees will have to win a recertification vote one year before the expiration of each contract. To retain the union, the majority of employees in any bargaining unit—not just a majority of those voting—must vote to retain the union. That’s a standard that neither the governor nor a single member of the legislature could meet in their own elections. Furthermore, the union must pay the state in advance for the costs of conducting elections, which is yet another attack on union finances.”

Most readers will remember when the Wisconsin prototype of this even meaner new one was still being debated by the legislature in Madison protesters occupied the state Capitol for weeks and were supported by mass marches numbering in the tens of thousands—effectively blocking legislative business. Some national union leaders and Democrat “friends” convinced the occupiers and demonstrators to stand down and instead burn up their energy in a recall campaign—run by the same Democrats that had just lost an election—which turned out to be a total flop. Public sector unions in Wisconsin subsequently lost more than forty percent of their membership.

While there were some demonstrations in Des Moines there has been nothing on the scale of Madison in 2011. AFSCME is threatening to sue—and good luck with that. In both states labor’s Achilles Heel was exposed—we have no party of our own to defend us. The UE was one of the international unions that launched the now deceased Labor Party in 1996. It’s high time for a fresh start down that road again.

That’s all for this week.

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A WIR Extra On Immigration

 Immigration  Comments Off on A WIR Extra On Immigration
Feb 242017

  by Bill Onasch

Once again, the immigration issue is becoming a crisis in the USA. The xenophobic campaign promises of the winner of the Electoral College vote are beginning to be implemented through executive orders to hire thousands of more Border Patrol and ICE agents and finalize plans for a Wall along the Mexican border.

Local LEOs are encouraged to pitch in–and recently a woman without papers reporting domestic violence to her local police was arrested and designated for deportation.

A couple of nights ago an armed xenophobe confronted two Garmin engineers from India watching a basketball game in a sports bar in suburban Kansas City. He told them “get the hell out of my country.” When a Marine veteran tried to intervene to defuse the situation the bigot shot all three, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla.

As class conscious workers prepare a response to these official and vigilante attacks I think it is helpful to know something about the history of immigration in this country. I’m reprinting an article I wrote on Labor Day, 2006, as a modest contribution to this understanding so that we can more effectively defend our class sisters and brothers against our mutual home grown class enemy. This will be a frequent topic in future Weeks In Review.


Immigration has always been an issue for the American working class. Since human beings didn’t evolve in this hemisphere just about everybody in the United States either came here from some other land, or are descended from those coming from elsewhere. Most immigrants came to these shores voluntarily but many in the early days were forcibly transported as slaves or indentured servants.

Immigration History
From 1830 to 1920 immigration was usually relatively easy for those with “white” skins from Europe, who could afford and survive the journey. A substantial part of the population of Quebec, who became known as French-Canadians, also relocated in the U.S. There were generally no quotas, no green cards, not even any push to learn English. They were needed for an unprecedented agricultural and industrial expansion that ultimately turned a disparate collection of British colonies along the Atlantic coast into a superpower spanning “sea to shining sea.” (Along with immigration some were absorbed through purchase or conquest of territory once governed by others—but that’s another story.)

Of course, there were some rejections for racist reasons, such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, beginning in 1882. There were frictions, especially during economic downturns, as successive waves of native born children of immigrants produced some who thought immigration had gone far enough. Before the great white “Melting Pot” of assimilation could stabilize at a simmer various ethnic groups from Europe experienced some degree of bigotry and discrimination—an affliction still not completely cured.

While most during this period were what would now be called “economic” immigrants many had been active in trade union and socialist struggles in their countries of origin and were fleeing repression. Among them, such as my grandfather, were “draft dodgers”—grandpa was not anxious to kill or be killed for the Kaiser. Many brought valuable lessons with them for the American workers’ movements. The authorities kept a wary eye on such trouble makers and from time to time there were mass roundups and deportations—such as the infamous Palmer Raids.

Most of the European immigrants were at least nominal Christians but about two million Jews also arrived in the U.S. before 1920. But later, when German Jews desperately needed refuge after the rise of Hitler, they found the American door slammed shut and bolted. Perhaps the most notable example of this hypocrisy was the S.S. St Louis incident in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war in Europe.

Hitler allowed this luxury liner to sail from Hamburg with nearly a thousand Jews on board. They were to be taken to Cuba as a staging area for eventual relocation in the United States. But the Cuban government, probably at the suggestion of the U.S. State Department, reneged and refused them entry. The captain tried to take them to Florida but orders came from the White House not to accept them and a Coast Guard cutter actually fired a warning shot across their bow. Canada also rejected their plea and the ship eventually had to return with its passengers to Germany. At least 250 aboard are known to have later perished in the Holocaust.

This incident illustrates how even the most liberal administration in American history was affected by views on race and nationality not far different from those expressed by the Nazis. Not only the openly racist Dixie-Crats but such idols of the day as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh showed sympathy for the Hitler regime. Many were none too subtle in expressing anti-Semitism and some also contempt for the Catholics of Italian and east European descent.

Much of the political Establishment from the beginning of the Twentieth Century was influenced by such home grown pseudo-scientific racial superiority views as those initially popularized by Madison Grant in his book, The Passing of the Great Race. Grant believed in the superiority of the “Nordic” race and advocated policies of eugenics to keep down the inferior races. Hitler once wrote him to say “the book is my Bible.” It also became a guide for early immigration “reform” in this country—and there’s no doubt race and politics still plays a major role in the immigration debate.

Immigration Legislation
The first comprehensive restrictions on immigration were enacted after the First World War. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 limited the annual number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of the number of persons from that country living in the United States in 1910.Of that number just over half was allocated for “nordic” northern and western Europeans, and the remainder for eastern and southern Europeans—a 75 percent reduction from prior years. The Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 further tweaked these figures to two percent of the 1890 population. Indians, both from the subcontinent and East Indians, were prohibited entirely but there were no restrictions at that time on the number of Latin Americans.

These quotas remained basically in place until 1965. Then the Hart-Celler Act replaced national origin quotas with annual limits for the east and west hemispheres. As a result, for the first time quotas limited Latin American, including Mexican immigration.

Hart-Celler didn’t stop a steady stream of Mexican immigration; it mainly had the effect of creating a new large number of “illegal” immigrants—undocumented workers living under precarious conditions. Congress tried to fix this patently failed legal situation with the Simpson-Mazzoli Act in 1986. Passed with strong bipartisan support and signed by President Reagan, this bill: mandated employers to verify legal status of their workers; offered an 18-month “amnesty” to those undocumented workers otherwise eligible for citizenship who had continuously resided in the U.S. since 1982— leading to 2.7 million being “legalized; ”toughened border controls; and spurred quicker deportations of those not qualifying for amnesty.

But Simpson-Mazzoli didn’t fix “illegal” immigration once and for all. Quite the contrary, after the 1994 implementation of NAFTA started devastating the Mexican economy, and similar Globalization measures spread disruption throughout much of Latin America, great new waves of immigrants came from or through Mexico.

Congress decided to get tougher with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, this time signed by a Democrat President. Among its provisions: a one-year filing deadline for political asylum applications; a permanent bar to permanent residence for those who falsely claimed to be U.S. citizens; expansion of the categories of criminal activity for which both documented and undocumented immigrants can be deported, such as shoplifting. Those facing a deportation order can be held for up to two years without a hearing and must pay for their own legal counsel.

Since the establishment of Homeland Security, enforcement of this current law of the land has been even more draconian. For example, last year an 83-year-old Frenchman—guilty of a long-forgotten minor offense—was put on a plane back to Paris after living in the U.S. for 52 years. He had been held for seven months and was deported even though he had nowhere in France to go. As a result of the deportation, he lost all his US Social Security benefits.

But while this mean spirited law has created many more victims it has failed to keep pace with unauthorized immigration. It’s estimated that there are twelve million undocumented workers in the U.S. today and many more potential migrants where they came from. Advocates of even tougher measures now being debated by congress—and promoted by reactionaries appealing to fear and prejudice—fail to grasp why past efforts fell far short of their goal.

The Two Faces Of the Ruling Class
Nearly all sides in immigration debates agree that immigrants come here for jobs. There’s not much of a welfare state left for citizens much less for those targeted for deportation. Only employers can offer jobs and important sectors of the employer class have found immigrants to be hard working producers of profits.

Many sympathetic to the plight of immigrants say they are only taking jobs Americans won’t do. Up through the 1970s that was largely true. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, were at one time concentrated almost solely in farm labor and other low wage, unpleasant, usually casual menial jobs that most citizens didn’t have to consider as career paths. That’s no longer the case. Here’s one example cited in a letter to the editor in the UAW magazine, Solidarity,

“The janitors in our facility used to be UAW members. Since our latest local agreement was approved, the janitors are supplied by an outside contractor. Most of them are nice Hispanic women who don’t speak English.

“Whether they’re in the United States legally is irrelevant. There were plenty of Americans (many of them unemployed autoworkers) who would have taken those positions when they were UAW.

“When a good-paying job is farmed out to the lowest bidder who cuts the pay and benefits, it becomes ‘a job Americans won’t do.’

“Before we blame illegal immigrants for filling the demand for low-wage jobs, let’s fight to preserve UAW jobs in our own locals.

Tim Bigham
UAW Local 1284
Chelsea, Mich.”

The brother in Chelsea is quite perceptive. Outsourcing, along with offshoring, have been much bigger factors in the decline of UAW membership than either “foreign” competition or automation. Most of the labor formerly performed by UAW workers is now done in Big Three plants in Mexico, or by spin offs and subcontractors in the USA employing large numbers of low paid immigrant workers.

When meat packing was largely concentrated in big urban areas such as Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, and South St Paul, this unpleasant, but well paid work was eagerly sought by native born whites and African-Americans. Since the 1970s industry restructuring, mainly to get away from established union bastions, scattered this work in much smaller plants in small towns and rural areas. Immigrants have become a substantial and growing component of this workforce.

Decisive forces in the ruling class favor present immigration levels for several related reasons:

●The immigrant workers themselves are a productive source of cheap labor.

●This big component of cheap labor tends to hold down all labor costs.

●Resentment and prejudice toward immigrants are used to deflect discontent among the larger working class away from the bosses, into self-destructive divisions among workers.

●Immigration is an important safety valve for Mexico where Globalization policies of multinational corporations—above all those based in the USA—have displaced many millions of workers and peasants. Instead of continuing to swell the slums of Mexico City—now the world’s biggest urban area—it’s much better from their goal of stabilization of Mexican society to have millions of Mexicans working north of the border and sending substantial amounts of money back home.

However, while most bosses like immigration pretty much the way it is they are not willing to grant the same rights of movement across borders for workers that they claim for the free movement of capital. They favor restrictions, even harsher ones—to be enforced selectively. They like the threat of deportation to be available if immigrant workers start to organize themselves through unions, worker centers, and community action. And, they are determined to reserve the right to cut off immigration completely if their labor market needs should change.

Our Class Interests
Just because the bosses favor immigration doesn’t mean that the rest of the working class should line up behind the Minutemen and other reactionary forces advocating mass deportations and a militarized border. Leaving aside for the moment principles of justice and solidarity, such an approach will be no more effective than the futile efforts of nineteenth century workers to protect their manual labor jobs by smashing machines.

Solidarity became a principle not because it was some abstract timeless value, not handed down on some stone tablet from on high, but rather because history has taught us that class unity in action is the only effective way to defend both our day to day and long term interests in struggle with our employers.

Instead of a source of division we should be proud of being the most diverse working class in world history. In a country built on immigration it is essential that we recognize our common identity and heritage as workers. In a global economy we have to extend that recognition beyond borders. We have much more in common with working people in Mexico, China, South Africa, and every other nation than we will ever have with the bosses waving the Star Spangled Banner.

We Can Learn From the Immigrant Movement
Like our grandparents before us, American workers can benefit from the varied experiences brought to the table by immigrant workers—whether they be from Mexico and Central America, or from China, Korea, south Asia, Palestine, Ireland, or any of the many other countries of origin. Not only do they have some fresh strategy and tactics for us to consider—just as important they don’t have to “unlearn” as much as those of us fed a lifetime of malarkey by the bosses, mass media and class collaborationist union bureaucrats.

This different perspective was dramatically exhibited last spring when these most vulnerable workers in our society marched in the biggest political demonstrations in U.S. history. More than that, many also participated in work stoppages on May Day—the traditional Labor Day in many of their homelands. While precise statistics are not available it is clear that more shifts of work were denied bosses on this single day than all of the official union strikes of the previous year.

Immigrant workers have been less intimidated by American labor law. Instead of concentrating on NLRB elections they have developed alternative forms of collective bargaining through innovations such as community worker centers and hiring halls for day labor.

A Critical Juncture
Far from fearing and resenting immigrant workers the rest of us would do well to try to emulate their spirit and readiness to take bold actions. Instead of competing with them for cheaper wages we should unite with them to improve the conditions of our whole class.

Both the immigrant rights and trade union movements have historic challenges on their agendas. Can the immigrant workers, building on the inspiring examples of last spring, craft an ongoing, democratic, structured movement that can both represent their independent issues and start building unity in action with the citizen component of the working class? Can the trade union movement break with the disastrous strategy of partnership with the bosses and servile support of the bosses’ parties and reach out to immigrant workers as part of an overall return to the principles of class solidarity, class struggle?

If these questions are resolved in the affirmative there is no power on earth that can hold us down. The cost of failure in these efforts is unacceptable.

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