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

fist

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.

Dining Hall Workers at Harvard Win Strike

by Paul Garver

huds-march

Harvard University Dining Hall workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26, will return to work in two days following the successful resolution of a 3-week-long strike.and an expected member ratification vote.

The new contract will include a guaranteed annual salary of $35,000 and no increase in health insurance payments.

The workers enjoyed considerable support from Harvard students, from the local community and from other labor unions.   More than a thousand rallied and marched in support on 22nd October.   As a participant, I found the lively and racially diverse support march from Cambridge Common to the Cambridge City Hall to be a most spirited and upbeat labor demonstration.

Members of other UNITE HERE locals from as far away as Philadelphia and Atlantic City took part, as did Boston-area SEIU locals.   Young Democratic Socialist (YDS) members like Tom Dinardo from Philadelphia accompanied UNITE HERE delegations.

Spencer Brown,  a member of the Young Democratic Socialists at Wesleyan University, stated that he was also there to support food service workers organizing at Connecticut universities.

The Harvard-based Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) played a leading role in strike support, organizing large-scale student walkouts from classes and a 250 student occupation of the lobby of the Harvard administration building where contract negotiations were in their final phase.

As a long-term labor organizer, with whom the concept of an alliance between students and campus workers was first discussed during the Harvard strike of 1969, I observe that the strength and depth of alliances between students, even at elite universities, with campus workers of many types (even contingent faculty members!), is becoming more natural and organic as many students expect to be also subjected to precarious employment.

And the dining hall workers have are crediting the success of their struggle in part to the support they received from students, community members and other labor unions. But, of course, the workers themselves, their families, and their UNITE HERE local remain the bedrock.

Pennsylvania Faculty on Strike

The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union that represents 5500 faculty and coaches at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities took to the picket lines this morning, Oct. 19.

APSCUF President Kenneth Mash wrote to reporters, “At 11:35 p.m., we made a last attempt to negotiate through back channels. We waited until 5 a.m. We are headed to the picket lines, but even on the picket lines, our phones will be on, should the State System decide it doesn’t want to abandon its students.”

He added, “They’ll know where to find me at 5:30 a.m. I’ll be outside the chancellor’s office at the Dixon Center on the picket line.” Continue reading

Chicago Teachers’ Strike – Averted

Late Monday evening, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) tweeted that only one thing could avert the citywide strike—its second in four years—scheduled for the next day: “We’re asking for $500/student for resources. Until the mayor decides to provide from TIFs, negotiations continue.”

A few minutes before midnight, CTU President Karen Lewis announced at a press conference that a tentative agreement had been reached and the strike was off. Asked by a reporter whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel had indeed agreed to release tax increment financing, or TIF, funds to the schools, Lewis said with a smile, “Well, it’s not in the contract, but there are rumors…”

It seemed that indeed, the mayor had “decided to provide from TIFs.” Later, a mayoral spokesperson confirmed to WBEZ that Emanuel was releasing $88 million in TIF money to schools, far less than would be needed to fund the CTU’s demand of an additional $500 per pupil.

What are TIFs, and how did this obscure and shadowy public financing tool become central to the battle over the future of Chicago public schools?

Reposted from Working In These Times

http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19535/what_a_tif_is_and_how_it_averted_the_chicago_teachers_strike

Dining Hall Workers Strike at Harvard

by Brandon J. Dixon and Hannah Natanson

harvardstrike

Hundreds of Harvard’s dining service workers began picketing early Wednesday morning, commencing a historic strike precipitated by months of tense—and thus far fruitless—negotiations with the University.

The workers’ strike marks the first time they have walked off the job during the academic year, according to Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, the Boston-based labor union that represents HUDS. The strike is the first walk out Harvard has seen since 1983, according to Lang.

HUDS workers picketed outside of dining halls and stationed four RVs in the Harvard area as “mobile strike centers.” At 9 a.m., roughly 600 workers rallied in the Science Center Plaza, according to Local 26 spokesperson Tiffany Ten Eyck, eventually marching to Massachusetts Hall, where University President Drew G. Faust’s office is located.

According to Lang, around 500 dining service employees checked into picket lines across the campus as of about 8 a.m. using strike identification cards. There are about 750 total HUDS workers.

Lang and Ten Eyck also confirmed that as of about 8 a.m. they were not aware of any dining services workers that had reported for work.

Local 26 negotiator Michael Kramer gave opening remarks at the rally, calling for an increase in HUDS employees’ wages. “At this, the richest university in the world, no worker that is here and that is ready work should be making less than $35,000 a year,” he said.

Anabela A. Pappas, a HUDS worker stationed in Pforzheimer and Cabot Houses, followed Kramer. She said that HUDS employees would rather be “in the dining hall feeding the students” than outside rallying, and that Harvard had forced workers into striking.

“All the money they have, and they still want to squeeze every bit out of us,” she said. “You greedy people. This is what you caused, not us. We didn’t want to be here.”

Over the course of the months-long bargaining—which began mid-June—Harvard and union negotiators have faced a stalemate over wages and health benefits.

Continue reading

No Justice, No Peeps!

from David Durkee

  • peepsonstrike_jwj
  • Four hundred union workers who make iconic candies and treats in Bethlehem, Pa., are taking a brave stand to earn a fair return on their work. For decades, Local 6 members have dedicated their working lives producing Peeps, Teenee Beanee jelly beans, Hot Tamales, and Mike and Ike candies. And despite $230 million in sales and soaring profits, Just Born Inc. wants to eliminate the workers’ pension plan and increase workers’ share of health care costs, while offering substandard market wage increases .

    The striking employees of Just Born are drawing a line in the sand over corporate greed. Will you join them? Add your name to this Jobs with Justice petition to say you’ll stand with Local 6 workers for as long as it takes.

    No one wants to go on strike. It puts an immense amount of financial stress on working families. The folks who bring us Peeps want to be back at work, bringing their skills and dedication to their jobs. But Just Born isn’t playing fair—and is refusing to listen to employee proposals that would save the company money. To help pressure Just Born to negotiate a fair contract, unite with Local 6 workers on strike in their mission to defend good jobs for their families and those that follow.

    Make sure Just Born knows the public stands with the brave union members on strike in Bethlehem. Tell Just Born: No justice, no Peeps – Negotiate fairly NOW!

    Thank you so much for your support!

    In Solidarity,

     

    David B. Durkee

    International President, BCTGM International Union