Support the Workers’ / Students’ Strike on May Day

CosechaUn Dia Sin Inmigrantes

Cosecha and DSA.

Cosecha, Immigrant Rights Organizations, Workers Centers and several unions have launched  a  national strike billed as a “day without immigrants” to demonstrate that the country depends on the labor of immigrants and working class.  Thousands of students and workers have already pledged to strike in what organizers expect to be the largest national strike since the Megamarches of 2006.

Join with DSA and this growing movement to strike on May 1. Don’t be left behind. Organizers from Moviemento Cosecha have said that more than 400,000 workers have committed to strike. See story here http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/20071/the_upcoming_may_day_strike_could_be_the_biggest_in_over_a_decade

As the strike day approaches the presidents of the Almagamated Transit Union, the Communications Workers of America, the Nation Nurses United, and the United Electrical Workers  have urged their members to participate in the strikes, boycotts and protests in an outreach piece organized by Labor for Our Revolution.

We encourage DSA chapters, students and unions to join in the massive strikes, boycotts, and other actions beginning on May 1. The movement will continue after May 1.  Information on the post May 1 events is at www.lahuelga.com

Do you have a right to strike?  Can workers strike for political issues ?

What actions can workers at risk of retaliation take to protect themselves?

In the lead up to the March Day Without Immigrants, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) suggested that their members who wanted to participate should take these  precautions to mitigate their risks:

1  Tell your employer, in writing, your reason for striking

2  Make sure the reason is directly related to your workplace

Inform your employer that you will be back at work on your first workday after the strike.

  1. Send the message as a text and keep a copy of the text as evidence.

If you are a member of a union, discuss your strike plans first with your union representative. See a detailed description of your right to strike and how to protect yourself here. https://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/immigrants-strike-by-the-thousands/ Continue reading

Labor Statement on Support for “A Day Without Immigrants”

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Labor for Our Revolution statement in Support of “A Day Without Immigrants”  

Millions of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who lead hard working and productive lives, are also union members.

Donald Trump launched his political campaign in 2015 with a racist attack on Mexican immigrants, painting them as rapists and murderers. He made attacks on our Muslim sisters and brothers his political trademark — even going so far as to propose a religious test for immigration. This kind of race baiting and immigrant bashing has a long history in our country – a consistent attempt by business elites to divide working class people in order to advance their pro-corporate agenda.

As leaders of the unions who supported Bernie Sanders for president, we refuse to go down that road of hatred, resentment and divisiveness. We will march and stand with our sister and brother immigrant workers against the terror tactics of the Trump administration.

We are a nation of immigrants. Every generation and every race and ethnic group has seen attempts to divide the working class based on race and ethnic origin. Together we say NO to the politics of division! We call on Trump and his supporters to end the attacks on immigrant workers!

On May 1, 2017 millions of immigrant workers will engage in public resistance to the Trump administration. In some places that resistance will include labor strikes and boycotts. Millions will march in cities and towns all across the country. We pledge to support these protests and will urge our organizations’ leaders and members to participate in whatever way we can.

Workers, united, will never be defeated!

In Solidarity,

Larry Hanley, President, Amalgamated Transit Union

Chris Shelton, President, Communications Workers of America

RoseAnn DeMoro, Executive Director, National Nurses United

Peter Knowlton, General President, United Electrical Workers

Note. A DSA statement on Cosecha and the Dia Sin Inmigrantes will follow.

For more information, contact Labor for Our Revolution coordinator Rand Wilson laborforourrevolution@gmail.com or (617) 949-9720

400,000 Workers Plan to Strike May 1

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A Day Without Immigrants” May Day Strike Announced

Over 400,000 Workers Commit to Strike in Press Conference with Immigrant Rights Organizations and Unions

Washington, DC – Immigrant Rights Organizations, Workers Centers and Unions launch a national strike billed as a “day without immigrants” to demonstrate that the country depends on the labor of immigrants and working class people of color. Hundreds of thousands of workers have already pledged to strike in what organizers expect to be the largest national strike since the Megamarches of 2006.

Speakers at the press conference included Erika Andiola as well as representatives of Movimiento Cosecha, the SEIU United Service Workers West, and the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

“May 1st is the first step in a series of strikes and boycotts that will change the conversation on immigration in the United States,” said Maria Fernanda Cabello, a spokesperson from Movimiento Cosecha. “We believe that when the country recognizes it depends on immigrant labor to function, we will win permanent protection from deportation for the 11 million undocumented immigrants; the right to travel freely to visit our loved ones abroad, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. After years of broken promises, raids, driving in fear of being pulled over, not being able to bury our loved ones, Trump is just the final straw. As we saw during the spontaneous strikes on February 16th, our people are ready.”

Tens of thousands of members of the SEIU United Service Workers West have pledged to strike on May 1st, to demand an end to the criminalization of black and brown communities, an end to raids and deportations, and an end to worker exploitation. “The policies of the Trump administration are motivated by cruelty. They villainize black and brown people and call us rapists and violent criminals. They break apart immigrant families and separate parents from their children, and for no reason,” said Denise Solis, first vice-president of the SEIU USWW. “We are shutting it down on May 1st to stand up to these policies and show that most Americans don’t support cruelty and racism.” High School and College students, as part of the Sanctuary Campus movement, will also be joining the May 1st Day Without Immigrants Strike with mass walkouts.

“I’m a cafeteria worker at one of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, Intel, and my coworkers and I organized and won significant raises and healthcare. Now, we’re coming together with hundreds more cafeteria workers on May Day to stand united,” said Cristina Moreno, member of UNITE HERE Tech Cafeteria Workers and cashier at Intel, 20 years of service in tech cafeterias. “Immigrants like us are the backbone of the Valley’s tech industry, and we won’t tolerate Trump and his racist policies.”

Continue reading

Bangladesh: elements of a successful global worker solidarity campaign

kathmanduIndustriALL

A behind the scenes look at a successful campaign. Bringing about social change is difficult, and clicktivism – signing an online petition – is not enough. So how do you campaign and win?

The issue

Textile and garment workers in Bangladesh are joining unions and fighting for better conditions. In December 2016, thousands went on strike for a higher minimum wage. 1,600 workers were fired, 35 trade unionists were arrested, others went into hiding, and trade union offices were closed.

IndustriALL and our sister global union UNI launched a campaign to end the crackdown. Yesterday, we had confirmation that we had been successful: the last trade unionist was released from prison, and our union affiliates in Bangladesh have been recognized as negotiating partners by the government and the employers’ association, the BGMEA.

How did we do it?

1. We had a backstory

We spent years raising awareness of conditions in Bangladesh, and building relationships with people working to improve things. We could quickly launch the campaign with a simple message.

2. Mobilized our base

We contacted our affiliated unions across the world and asked them to send letters of protest to the Bangladeshi government. We coordinated a day of action that saw union-organized protests outside Bangladeshi embassies in Berlin, Geneva, London, Brussels, The Hague, Washington D.C., New York, Ottawa, Kathmandu, and Seoul.

3. LabourStart campaign

We launched a campaign on LabourStart, the online petition site for the labour movement. More than 10,000 trade unionists around the world sent messages of protest to the Bangladeshi government.

4. Activated our network

We have built strong relationships with partner NGOs. We contacted organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Revolution, who supported our campaign and shared it with their networks.

5. Gave people something to do

We engaged people by using social media to tell the story of the workers who make our clothes. We used easily shareable content with lots of images.

We produced a simple poster demanding the release of the trade unionists, and made it available to download. We asked people to take selfies of themselves holding the poster, and share it on social media with our campaign hashtag #EveryDayCounts. Hundreds of people posted images, which helped spread the message further.

6. Used positive alternatives

Our opponents characterized trade union protests as criminal and violent. We countered this with a positive alternative: two of our affiliates signed collective agreements with Bangladeshi garment employers during the period of the crackdown, showing that positive industrial relations are possible.

7. Used global framework agreements

We have spent years building relationships with major fashion brands that source from Bangladesh. We have signed global framework agreements with H&M, Inditex (ZARA), Tschibo and Mizuno. These agreements contain strong language that requires brands to take responsibility for their supply chain, and include a commitment to support collective bargaining.

Consumer activism means more and more people now care how their clothes were made: to stay competitive, brands need to show they care too. Major brands could not afford to be associated with a labour crackdown in Bangladesh. As a result, they announced they would not attend the crucial industry trade fair, the Dhaka Apparel Summit.

This was the last straw for the factory owners.

8. Established ourselves as partners

Unions make deals. We will need to work with the government and the employers’ federation in future to create a successful garment industry that provides quality jobs.

We created a situation where it would be costly for the government and employers to continue the crackdown, and made it clear we were in a position to escalate the campaign. Then we gave them a way out.

Union representatives on the ground, the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, negotiated an agreement that saw the arrested trade unionists released. Commitments were made to offer dismissed workers their jobs back, and we established the precedent of the IBC being recognized as a partner for negotiations.

Conclusion

The two most important factor in our success were:

Spending time to build relationships and trust beforehand, so that a lot of people could be mobilized quickly.

Tackling the problem from different angles. With the Bangladeshi government receiving emails, letters and embassy protests, and brands refusing to attend the apparel summit, they felt pressure from all sides.

The campaign relied on relationships and networks. We played to our strengths (our networks), and targeted the employers’ weak points (reputational damage and the threat of lost business).

Immigrants Strike by the Thousands

by Dan DiMaggio and Sonia Singh

Tens of thousands of immigrant workers struck across the country during “Day without Immigrants” actions, including 30,000 in Milwaukee. Photo: Susan Ruggles 

Arkansas poultry workers, Brooklyn warehouse workers and house cleaners, Twin Cities roofers, and thousands of students in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Charlotte, North Carolina. They were all among the tens of thousands who stayed home from work or school across the country during Thursday, February 16’s “Day without Immigrants.”

The action, largely spread over social media and informal networks in working-class immigrant communities, was a response to President Donald Trump’s promise to dramatically expand immigration enforcement and the wave of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement the prior week.

YOUR RIGHT TO STRIKE

In a Facebook post, Minnesota worker center CTUL suggested sample language for workers who planned to strike:

“My co-workers and I are going on strike to show that immigrant workers are a crucial part of the economy. We want our employers to declare that they will not discriminate against workers based on national origin or religion. We also want our employer to call the White House to oppose Donald Trump’s immigration policies. We are on a one-day strike on February 16, 2017 and we will come back to work the next day, on February 17, 2017.”

“Submit this message by letter, text, or email to your boss,” wrote CTUL. “Keep a copy and document any response you get from your boss. If you are a member of a union, contact your union rep first.”

Workers thinking about participating in similar strikes may also want to consult the NLRB’s Guideline Memorandum Concerning Unfair Labor Practice Charges Involving Political Advocacy, issued in the wake of the mass strike by immigrant workers on May 1, 2006.

For more on organizing collective actions even in non-union workplaces, see “How to Beat Retaliation, Even without a Union” from the January 2016 issue of Labor Notes.

“They’re calling us criminals and rapists,” said Jose Flemate, a member of Roofers Local 96 in St. Paul, Minnesota, who struck with his co-workers. “We’re not like that—we came to America looking for a better life, and we worked hard and built America.

“We want to make sure that people understand that this city would stop functioning if we weren’t there to build, or cook, or clean,” said Ligia Guallpa, an organizer with the Worker’s Justice Project in Brooklyn.

WORD SPREADS LIKE WILDFIRE

In most areas, strikes weren’t coordinated by any organization—and even veteran organizers were taken aback by the scope. “This is a definitely a time when the movement is ahead of organizing,” said Susan Kikuchi, an organizer with the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) in the Twin Cities.

“It’s incredibly surprising to get a call saying, ‘We’re 120 workers and we’ve already told the employer we’re not going in on Thursday,’” said Jorge Mujica, an organizer with Chicago-area worker center ARISE.

After getting a number of similar calls from workers who said they’d already asked their boss for the day off and wanted to know where to meet, ARISE decided to coordinate an action. With less than two days’ notice, over 3,000 people showed up at Chicago’s Union Park.

Restaurant worker Jose (who preferred to not give his last name), a member of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, first heard about the Day without Immigrants on the news. Friends promoted the strike through social media. “People were saying, ‘Don’t go to work, don’t buy anything, don’t go to school.’”

Many of his friends and family members did not go to work. “Everybody was like, ‘We’ve had enough. We don’t really care if they fire us.’” It was the first time he had ever participated in a march or protest.

Flemate also decided to strike after seeing an announcement on social media.

“I said, ‘Look what happened with the Muslim community. They organized in a few hours [after the travel ban],’” he says. “That community got united and showed to the world and the media that they were defending their rights. So why don’t we get united and defend our rights too?”

He was able to convince three co-workers at his roofing company. “The guys said, ‘Yeah, we have bills to pay and we have families, but this is something very important to participate in.’”

Flemate met up with other workers and students in front of the Mexican consulate, then marched to downtown St. Paul, picking up more and more people along the way. He estimated there were 3,000-4,000 people at the state Capitol by 1 p.m.—even though no rally had been called.

In Portland, Oregon, local Latino radio stations announced the strike and encouraged listeners to participate. No one organization took the lead, but their were multiple rallies and many businesses closed down, said Romeo Sosa of the VOZ Workers Education Project, a Portland day laborer organization.

His organization is witnessing widespread fear and panic over rumors of immigration raids, which helped drive participation in the strike. VOZ has set up a raid hotline and is mobilizing rapid response teams.

Fernando Garcia of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center said that most of the organizing in his area was by word of mouth or took place online, mainly through Facebook. He estimated fifty Latino and immigrant businesses across the region, the poultry capital of the world, closed in support.

The center opened its doors for any striking workers to meet and strategize with other strikers. Around 11 a.m., folks started trickling in. Strikers talked about how to get more co-workers involved next time.

“Not everyone went on strike,” said Maria Araujo, who works in one of the local poultry plants. “So we need get more folks involved. As a mother, it’s very important to me to show my children who I choose not to send to school today the importance of standing up for ourselves.”

RIGHT TO ORGANIZE

Organizers scrambled to make sure workers knew their rights. “Having organized strikes in the past, we knew employers would retaliate,” said Kikuchi.

CTUL posted a Facebook image outlining steps workers could take to boost their protection against retaliation. These included communicating to their boss the reason for striking—via letter, text, or e-mail, placing a demand on management, and making clear that workers would return to work the day after the strike.

The Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project phone-banked members who organizers knew planned to strike, sharing similar information. “We had a lot of conversations with members about what ‘protected concerted activity’ was, and also that they needed to connect their strike to the conditions in their workplace,” said Guallpa. Under U.S. labor law, workers have the right to organize collectively to address workplace issues, including the right to strike without being fired.

“Tell your boss you’re striking not just because of political beliefs, but because of the conditions on your job,” said Guallpa. “Tell them your action is an action to improve wages, and to improve health and safety.”

The center even suggested that workers post on Facebook their intentions to strike over working conditions—so that if the employer retaliated, they would have proof.

MILWAUKEE SHUTS DOWN

A massive Day without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees on Monday, February 13 in Milwaukee, coordinated by the immigrant rights group Voces de La Frontera, was an inspiration for many around the country. Voces estimates 30,000 people marched downtown, with buses bringing in supporters from 25 cities across the state.

The strike was called in response to the fear that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a major Trump supporter, would begin deputizing county police to arrest undocumented immigrants.

After November’s election, Voces immediately started taking the temperature of the community via mass meetings. “We were asking people, ‘Would you be willing to organize more sustained actions for multiple days or multiple times?,’” says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the organization’s executive director. “The response we got was overwhelmingly yes, and that people were even willing to go further than one day.”

The strike was the sixth organized by Voces since 2006. Its success owes in part to the network of churches and supportive small businesses that grew out of another Day without Latinos last year to protest a state bill outlawing sanctuary cities.

Voces is now calling for escalating actions leading up to a national Day without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees on Monday, May 1 to demand Trump rescind all of his executive orders on immigration. In the meantime, the organization is building its rapid response network, recruiting churches to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, holding know your rights trainings, and engaging local law enforcement to limit cooperation with ICE. For more info, visit vdlf.org.

Still, over 100 workers around the country were fired for participating in the strike. These include 30 bricklayers in Commerce City, Colorado, 21 workers at a boat building company in Lexington, South Carolina, and 12 line cooks at a restaurant in Catoosa, Oklahoma.

In many instances, however, worker centers and immigrant organizations have been able to bring enough community pressure to get employers to back off retaliation.

That was the case at Chicago grocery chain Pete’s Market. On February 15, a worker posted a picture of a letter workers had received from management there, threatening that anyone who didn’t show up to work the next day would be suspended for a week.

ARISE responded right away with a letter advising Pete’s Market that the workers’ action was protected under labor law. Meanwhile the original post circulated quickly on social media, along with a call for a boycott. Two and half hours later, the company put out a statement that it would be closing six stores for the day, so that workers could participate in the day of action.

Overall, it seems the amount of retaliation around the country was low. Kikuchi said the retaliation was less than what she expected.

CTUL backed workers facing reprisal in eight workplaces, following its usual playbook. After determining how many workers are affected, organizers help workers make a plan, which usually involves calling the boss right away. “A lot of employers haven’t dealt with strikes,” said Kikuchi. “We tell them this strike is legal and protected and the community is watching.”

Often, that causes employers to back down. If not, CTUL organizes a group of allies to accompany workers back to work on their first shift after a strike. CTUL has helped workers resolve five of the eight cases this way so far. Three are still pending.

Although CTUL and other worker centers do everything they can to make sure workers will have legal recourse, ultimately, “it’s community support that’s protecting workers and letting them go back to work, not the law,” said Kikuchi.

It’s important to let workers know that organizations have their backs if they do suffer retaliation, said Neumann-Ortiz of Voces, even if they are unable to get their jobs back. “We’ve worked with people to find new work, or to pay medical bills, or to make rent payments. Workers feel like it’s important to tell that story.” Still, she says, the amount of retaliation has been relatively small in the six Day without Immigrants actions the organization has pulled off since 2006.

AWAKENING A GIANT

As the day unfolded, businesses around the country shut their doors and classrooms stood half-empty. In Grand Rapids, Michigan—hometown of new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—so many students stayed home that the school day will not count.

Isabel Castillo, a Worker’s Justice Center member and housecleaner, kept her son home from school. When she brought him back the next day, “people were very emotional. We felt like human beings,” she said. “We lost a day of work, but we took a big step forward.”

Several organizations have issued a call for a national Day without Immigrants on May 1. These include Voces in Milwaukee, SEIU-United Service Workers West and the Women’s March in California, the national Cosecha network and Democratic Socialists of America.

“We believe strongly that the strategy of a communitywide general strike must be an important tool,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “I think immigrant workers have an inherent understanding of their power in the workplace. They know the economic value they produce.”

“The giant is waking up again,” said Mujica. “It feels like 2006. The community is ready to do something, the community is ready to act.”

[Some quotes in this article have been translated from Spanish.]

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #456, March 2017.  It is reposted on Talking Union with the permission of the authors.

Labor Strategy in the Age of Trump

by Rand Wilson

King’s strategic advice to striking Memphis sanitation workers is still useful for workers todaymlk-imag

Photo: UFCW (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Adapted from remarks by Rand Wilson on January 16 at the Capital District Area Labor Federation’s 20th Annual MLK Labor Celebration in Albany, New York. In the nearby town of Waterford, 700 workers are on strike at Momentive Performance Materials, while in Green Island, dozens have been locked out at a Honeywell aerospace plant for more than nine months. This article is reposted from Labor Notes.

Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr.’s thinking about poverty evolved from racial equality to more of a class perspective. He proposed a Poor People’s Campaign to challenge the government to end poverty and a broad coalition to support it.

But building a coalition to back his program for economic justice proved more difficult than he imagined. It made his funders and even his closest advisors nervous. A proposed national march on Washington had to be postponed, and King was growing frustrated.

Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, had been trying to get organized and win recognition from the city for years without success. After two workers were crushed to death in one of the garbage trucks, a majority of workers struck on February 12, 1968, for union recognition and a contract.

The strike had been going on for over a month with growing frustration. Incidents of violence were increasing, mostly provoked by the racist and brutal Memphis police.

King recognized that the strike provided an opportunity to demonstrate how the civil rights and economic justice movements could come together at the local level. He proposed bringing the Poor People’s Campaign to Memphis.

Expand the Strike

King first went to meet with the strikers in Memphis on March 18. He spoke to 1,500 workers and supporters. King was well received, and the crowd’s mood was militant and eager for action.

King said, “If America doesn’t use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell.” And he went on to describe how their strike was part of new direction for the civil rights movement:

Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. It isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?

As the crowd cheered, King saw an opportunity to grow the movement by expanding the strike. He called for a general strike in the city of Memphis! Plans were made and a strike date was set. The tactical escalation was highly controversial.

Unfortunately, due to a freak snowstorm, the strike was called off. Amid growing threats to his life, King hurriedly left Memphis. However, he was not to be deterred and vowed to return.

King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, to support the strike again. At a rally with strikers and area clergy he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech—one of his most famous, and fatefully his last. This is the speech where King predicted his own assassination. (Hear it HERE.)

However, the main subject of the speech was winning the sanitation strike. King advised they should use the power of the boycott, urging that the movement should “always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal”:

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.

Making Our Pain Their Pain

When workers go on strike, it almost immediately involves personal sacrifice. As the weeks and months go by, that sacrifice becomes real pain inflicted on the strikers and their families. King’s quote from his last speech is particularly relevant to most every strike situation:

Up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.

King knew the importance of keeping spirits up and sticking together. He said, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”

’Dangerous Unselfishness’

To the clergy and other civil rights supporters, King delivered a powerful message of solidarity: “And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

Near the end of the speech, King used the “Good Samaritan” parable from the Bible to implore everyone to make even greater sacrifices to help the workers win. He concluded with words that have an uncanny relevance to our time:

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness… Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.

King’s strategic advice to the striking Memphis sanitation workers is still useful for workers seeking to improve their lives with direct action today:

  • Once on strike, expand the struggle beyond the immediate company to its corporate allies and suppliers.
  • Use boycotts and economic action to involve supporters.
  • Transform the pain inflicted on strikers to pain inflicted on executives, board members, and investors.
  • Be prepared to stay in the struggle one day longer with “dangerous unselfishness.”
  • And perhaps most importantly, place the struggle in a larger context that challenges elected officials and government at every level to make America a better nation!

We Need a Rank-and-File Labor Insurgency from Below

by Dan La Botz

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In the DSA’s “Talking Union” Carl Goldman and Kurt Stand argue against the National Political Committee (NPC) statement that calls for “the absolute necessity of a bottom-up left insurgency within the house of labor.” They argue that “Socialists must try to work with all levels of the union movement.” And they insist that the DSA statement “ignores… and disparages the work of unionists at every level of the labor movement who have been keeping the union movement alive.”

I argue here that their position would lead DSA union members and the organization as a whole to simply follow the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party down a road leading to the virtual disappearance of unions in America.

The fundamental weakness of the Goldman-Stand perspective is that it lacks an analysis of the nature of the American labor unions and of the labor bureaucracy. The top union leadership constitutes a caste within the labor unions. Many of its top leaders make salaries reaching well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Take Gerald McEntee, recent past president of the American Federation of State Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for example. By the time of his retirement, he was making over one million dollars per year, a staggering amount that put him among the highest paid officials in the labor movement. In the Teamsters union one official makes over $400,000 per year; half a dozen make over $300,000; and 35 officials make over $200,000 per year. Compare this to the average Teamster wage of $48,000 per year.

In many cases, the top union officials are the 1% of the labor movement. (We’re not talking here, of course, about the officers of a small local unions or elected union stewards, but about the big shots in the unions.)

High-level union officials and workers also have very different work and social lives. Workers go to work doing manual or mental labor under the eye of the boss, often under pressure to work harder and faster, sometimes in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, often harassed, and subject to discipline and firing. Union officials, on the other hand, often become bosses themselves overseeing both union employees and the workers they are supposed to represent. Officials have expense accounts, automobiles, often enjoy their own health and pension plans with golden parachutes and other perks. These officials consequently do not have the same interests as the workers. This bureaucratic caste of union officials at the highest levels tends to seek stability in its relationships with corporations and government in order to protect its own position. The union officialdom, by and large, has not, as Goldman and Stand suggest, “kept the movement alive” over the last 40 years. Deeply conflict averse, it has presided over labor’s decline and if not challenged will see to its demise.

In our capitalist system, labor unions have the potential to work for employers to contain and control workers, but they also have the potential to mobilize workers and lead them in a struggle against the bosses. With ties to both the bosses and the workers, union officials generally vacillate between the two and act in the workers’ best interest when there is a powerful grassroots movement from below pushing them to do so. In the absence of meaningful pressure from below, union officials have largely failed to mobilize workers and have instead collaborated with employers in the closing of manufacturing plants in the United States. Union leaders have also accepted the introduction of automation, the creation of new forms of work organization that disempower workers, and the shifting of health care costs onto the workers’ shoulders.

Under the current union leadership as a whole we have had the lowest level of class struggle in America since the 1920s, with very few large or lengthy strikes. Why? Because for decades, when workers began to organize on the shop floor and threaten economic action, most union officials could be counted on to join with employers in invoking collective bargaining language that forbids strikes during the life of the contract.

Union officials of all stripes—conservative, liberal, or progressive—often come to the conclusion that because of their privileged position, with ties to both the bosses and the workers, as well as to the Democratic Party (sometimes the Republican Party) and to government agencies, that they know what’s best for working people. Compromise often seems the best course of action to them, because they have little faith in workers’ ability to fight the employer and fear a defeat. And they know that an actual mobilization of workers could lead to class struggle, which in turn could lead to the development of new leaders with new ideas who might aspire to their positions. Since they fear worker mobilization, the labor officialdom tends to look to the Democratic Party to solve their problems for them.

Don’t some unions take progressive positions on diversity issues? Yes. Most unions now recognize the need for allies among Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people — largely as a result of the changing demographics of the working class, but also because of the unions’ weakness. But union leaders most often want to use those alliances as political leverage in the Democratic Party in order to pass legislation so they can avoid direct conflicts with employers over wages, benefits, working conditions. Whether top union leaders liked Trump, Clinton, or Sanders, it was often for the same motive: they want someone else to get the unions out of this mess.

The real divide in the labor movement then is not between conservative, liberals, and progressives, but fundamentally between the bureaucracy and the rank-and-file. What this means is that rank-and-file workers must frequently fight their own union officials in order to take on the boss. That’s why we need rank-and-file movements, movements that often begin as a militant minority among workers in a particular workplace, union or industry.

But the rank-and file movement also needs a political vision, a notion of an alternative to the system we face today. This may not be an explicitly socialist vision, but we need to project a vision for a union, a workplace, and society where workers can exercise power and democratically set the agenda for the future.

Do we have an example? The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) shows us one model. A few years ago, a small group of rank-and-file teachers began to organize a caucus –the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) to take over a floundering union and give it a new direction. They organized a rank-and-file insurgency. They proposed to ally with grassroots groups in the community and to lead the union in struggle, in strikes against the employer.

This union could not and did not put an alliance with the Democratic Party at the center of its strategy. How could it? After all, who was the employer? It was Barack Obama’s former chief-of-Staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) who was carrying out the policies of Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These policies attack public education, teachers, and their unions, as well as parents and children. The union never attacked Obama, but it fought against Rahm and resisted Duncan’s policies in defense of teachers, students, and communities in a largely Black city. The struggle for students, teachers and public education culminated in the CTU strike of 2012, the first important victory (however modest and incomplete) for the American working class in decades.

The lesson? We need a grassroots labor insurgency.

Rank-and-file movements, when they win power or gain significant influence, often prove more successful in winning immediate reforms than old guard bureaucrats. Take the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which in the 1990s supported reformer Ron Carey for the Teamster presidency. When Carey won the presidency and some TDU activists became national union leaders, the union leadership and the rank and file cooperated to mobilize the members for a national strike against UPS in 1997. The strike was a model of rank-and-file leadership and activism—and it was a success.

Do we only support insurgents? No. We support unions when they are on strike. When it comes to improving workers’ lives we will engage in solidarity with union officials and workers whether they backed Trump, Hillary, or Bernie (or nobody at all). Though we recognize that union officials will often seek labor peace over working class struggle, we can join with union officials of all stripes and with rank-and-file workers in the fight for economic improvements and political reforms, but we must be constantly on guard against union leaderships that will want to channel labor and all social movements into the Democratic Party, a party of the banks and corporations that will never be our party.

We thus constantly face (and too often evade) the difficult question of how, while building rank-and-file movements, we can also build an independent political force representing working people, which must be the subject of another essay. What we should not do, however, is to naively believe that the labor union leadership — whether it was pro-Bernie, pro-Hillary, or pro-Trump — necessarily represents a progressive force. A few unions, like the CTU, have worked to combine a rank-and-file perspective with a progressive agenda, but most others do not. Our job as socialists is to organize and support militant minorities and rank-and-file movements in the unions, to bring to them our socialist analysis and to work with them to develop strategies for fighting their employers and capitalism as a whole.

Rank-and-file insurgencies represent the revitalization of the labor unions and a potential source of independent political power, but the logic of labor unionism makes it difficult for them to survive and prosper for very long. Employers put tremendous pressure on union reformers with the goal of discrediting them in the eyes of their members. They work to corrupt reformers with labor peace pay-offs. Or they try to crush them. The bosses will throw everything they have against a militant leader and against activist workers — denying them contract victories, refusing to let them win grievances, and, of course, firing and blacklisting them.

Then bosses may also turn to violence, as they have in the past when worker militants were sometimes beaten or killed. They will bring in the government in one form or another –- anti-strike laws, mediators and arbitration, political persecution, etc. – to break rank-and-file movements and restore business as usual.

Still, rank-and-file movements can win and hold power for a time, and they can make gains. But as we have learned since the 1980s, employers will try to take away whatever gains we make. Nothing about the union or the contract is permanent. But the struggle for union democracy, for a better life on the job, and for a higher standard of living trains generations of worker leaders and activists to keep the movement alive. We need to build such radical movements, even if they are only militant minorities, because they are the heart of the labor movement and the left and their experiences and commitment are the basis for a struggle for socialism.

Dan La Botz is the author of the first edition of The Troublemaker’s Handbook (Labor Notes), of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and César Chávez and La Causa, as well as several books on Mexico’s labor movement. He was a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He teaches in the Labor Studies Program of the Murphy Institute (CUNY). He is a DSA member in Brooklyn.

The editors of Talking Union encourage comments on and responses to this important debate on the role of socialists in the labor movement.