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.

A New Teacher Union Movement is Rising

Bob Peterson
Common Dreams

Teacher unions must unite with parents, students and the community to improve our schools—to demand social justice and democracy so that we have strong public schools, healthy communities, and a vibrant democracy.

Chicago Teachers Union rally in Daley Plaza in 2012. The nation’s public schools, writes Peterson, “must become greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization.”, pbarcas / cc / flickr,

A revitalized teacher union movement is bubbling up in the midst of relentless attacks on public schools and the teaching profession. Over the next several years this new movement may well be the most important force to defend and improve public schools, and in so doing, defend our communities and our democracy.
The most recent indication of this fresh upsurge was the union election in Los Angeles. Union Power, an activist caucus, won leadership of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the second-largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by president-elect Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher–community alliances.

In two other cities –Portland, OR, and St. Paul, MN – successful contract struggles also reflect a revitalized teacher union movement. In both cities the unions put forth a vision of “the schools our children deserve” patterned after a document by the Chicago Teachers Union. They worked closely with parents, students, and community members to win contract demands that were of concern to all groups. The joint educator-community mobilizations were key factors in forcing the local school districts to settle the contracts before a strike.
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Chicago teachers join Elwood IL warehouse workers to confront Walmart

by Bob Simpson

Walmart protest in Chicago IL

The chants rang out across Vincennes Ave in the Chatham neighborhood of South Side Chicago:

“1-2-3-4 No one should be working poor!
5-6-7-8 Come on Walmart, play it straight!

We’re working families
Under attack
What do we do?
Stand up! Fight back!

There ain’t no power,
Like the power of the people,
Cuz the power of the people won’t stop!”

Striking teachers from the Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) had joined Warehouse Workers for Justice(WWJ) at a rally aimed at Walmart to protest its employee abuses and the dumping of millions of dollars into school privatization efforts. It was the afternoon of Tuesday September 18, only a few hours before the CTU House of Delegates ended the teachers strike. I had come to the rally with a CTU retiree.

Inspired by the labor-community alliance that the CTU had built in its strike and by a strike of Walmart warehouse workers in California, the Illinois warehouse workers led by WWJ went on strike against Roadlink Workforce Solutions. Roadlink is a subcontractor at the vast Walmart distribution center located in Elwood IL near Joliet, south of Chicago. The Joliet region is now a major distribution point in the big box store supply chain. WWJ is a project of the United Electrical Workers (UE), the legendary progressive union which can trace it’s history back to the factory occupations of the Great Depression.

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The Top Takeaway From the Teachers’ Strike: We Need Collaboration to Fix Public Schools

by Amy B. Dean

Amy B. Dean

“We are striking to improve the conditions in the schools. Right now the children are getting a raw deal.”

That statement came from a striking member of the Chicago Teachers’ Union… in 1969. It still resonates in September 2012, when the CTU’s members have again walked a picket line. Although it has often been obscured in the news headlines and in the rhetoric of city officials, the real message of the strike of the past two weeks is simple: We’re for good schools; we’re for kids; and, yes, we’re for teachers too.

There’s no shame in teachers standing up for their self-interest. When one is devoted to working for the common good over the long haul, taking care of oneself is a necessary part of being a good steward. People who go into the teaching profession don’t do it to get rich. They do it with the goal of inspiring and educating the next generation.

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The new Chicago school budget strangles public education

by Bob Simpson

When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” —Garrison Keeler

The 2013 Chicago Public Schools(CPS) budget received a resounding thumbs down at a community forum held at Malcolm X College on the West Side the evening of July 11. Over 200 people filled the auditorium to listen to an explanation of the budget from Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley and then ask questions and make their own recommendations. The reaction of those who spoke from the audience was overwhelmingly negative. Cawley was loudly booed several times. Similar meetings were held at Kennedy-King and Daley colleges on the South Side. No meetings were held on the city’s North Side.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) described it as a “fantasy budget at best.”
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The Chicago Public Schools: Another World is Possible

by Bob Simpson

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.” ― Jean Piaget

Chicago public school teachers are taking a collective deep breath and preparing for what may become their greatest challenge of all, saving public education in the city. While the corporate-owned Chicago media has focused on pay issues, the length of school days and the strike authorization vote, the media consistently ignores how public education is under relentless attack by corporate “reformers” who use their wealth and power to starve public education of funds, silence its advocates, sabotage its improvement and pursue privatization of schools.

One only has to enter the realm of Chicago corporate school reform to see what a grim and cheerless world it can be. Rows of mainly working class children are crowded into cramped classrooms doing hours of repetitive drills to prepare them for hours more of hi-stakes standardized testing.

Many of the children are deprived of art, music, and physical education. They can be housed in poorly maintained deteriorating buildings with falling plaster, balky heating systems, broken windows and leaky roofs. Their teachers, many of them excellent veteran educators, try to hide their anxiety as they worry about being replaced by cheaper inexperienced nonunion labor.

The parents will organize sit-ins and Occupy-style encampments, their faces anxious about the possibility of arrest as they press for building repairs, libraries, creative activities for their kids and the assurance that their neighborhood school will still be there in the  fall.

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Chicago teachers vote overwhelmingly to strike. Here’s why they’re right to ask for a big raise

by Laura Clawson

(Mark E. Andersen)

Chicago teachers have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand for a contract extending their work hours by, in theory, 10 percent, but in reality significantly more, while giving them a 2 percent raise. The threshold for a strike authorization was that 75 percent of all teachers, not just of those voting on the issue, had to support striking. This was a policy explicitly put in place by Emanuel, the state legislature, and corporate education policy group Stand for Children to make a strike impossible. But nearly 90 percent of Chicago teachers voted yes, shattering what was supposed to be an impossible goal.

Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, responded to the 90 percent vote by trying to question the democracy of the process, saying, “The Chicago Teachers Union leadership pushed their members to authorize a strike before giving them the opportunity to consider the independent fact finder’s compromise report due in July.” That might hold water as a response to a close vote. In response to a 90 percent vote out of all teachers, not just those voting? Ha ha ha ha ha.

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