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.
* 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.