The union leadership is tailing the Democrats once again, this time on the issue of the minimum wage. In keeping with tradition, the Democrats are pushing the issue in the hopes of winning votes in elections later this year as well as in the 2016 presidential election. But they are making sure not to push the issue too far, so they’re keeping their call for slightly over $10 per hour by 2015. This amount is so miserly that even Wal Mart is reported to be considering supporting it! In fact, day laborers in Oakland are reported to be refusing to work for less that $15 per hour already.
So it is that the AFL-CIO leadership simply calls for this same increase. Around the nation, wherever the pressure is slightly greater, they are going for slightly larger increases and at a faster pace than Obama is advocating. The Democrats in Connecticut just pushed through a minimum wage increase to $10.10 immediately. Berkeley CA’s mayor is calling for an immediate city minimum wage of $10.55 and in Oakland a ballot initiative is being planned for a $12.25 minimum wage.
The greatest raise was the ballot initiative just passed last November at Sea Tac (basically the Seattle airport area) for a $15 per hour minimum wage. That initiative, however, had a huge flaw in it: It excluded workers working under a union contract that called for less than the $15 minimum. According to one worker at the airport, this means some 40% of the work force there. David Rolf, an officer in SEIU 775 explained the reasoning in an interview with Marie Choi aired on KPFA radio last November:
First, he claimed that most of the some 120 municipal minimum wage laws in the US “don’t supersede what is in the collective bargaining agreement.” (Here in the SF Bay area, that is not true, and the Oakland ballot initiative has no such exclusion either.) He went on to say: “If a group of workers votes that it is more important to put money into a retirement program (or sick pay, etc.) than onto wages, that’s their democratic right.”
Rolf and similar leaders are out of touch at best. All that is required is a little imagination. Think about a single mother of two, desperately struggling to make ends meet on, say, $12 per hour. Does anybody seriously think that that worker is happy with that wage? Rolf, who most assuredly is making more than $600 per week ($15 per hour for a 40 hour week), does not have to worry about this.
His explanation also misrepresents the actual situation. In contract after contract, the union leadership does everything it can to discourage the members from really organizing and fighting for more than what the employer is willing to grant. Ultimately, the leadership wears down the members, who feel that there is little prospect of winning anything better as long as the leadership is so conciliatory to management. The recent concessionary contract at Boeing is a perfect example.
“Olive Branch” to Employers
Rolf also commented, “We always want to offer an olive branch and a high road approach to employers of conscience who prefer to have direct and honest relations to unions that they are facing across the bargaining table so, yes, we hope that amongst the unions that are active at the airport that if workers choose to join those unions we want to facilitate and encourage productive, bilateral bargaining agreements.”
In other words, the union exemption is a payoff to those employers who are willing to sign a union contract, thereby allowing the leadership to extract dues money from those employees. At the same time, this exemption gives the unionized employers a leg up in their competition with the non-union employers, who will have to pay the full $15 per hour wage.
This is the team concept of the union leadership carried out in practice. Unable to even conceive of any alternative to capitalism, they feel themselves tied at the hip to the employers and their political representatives. Industrially, they seek to help “their” employers compete with those who are non-union. They advance the idea that the workers and their employer are on the same team, competing with other employers… and their workers. This means that the union workers have to compete with the non-union for who can make a greater profit for their boss. It’s worker against worker.
Politically, it’s no different, with the union leadership seeing no alternative to the bosses’ party – the Democrats. As we see with the minimum wage campaign, they demand what the Democrats are willing to grant. The problem is that, just as on the job, the Democrats have been willing to grant less and less, and so the union leaders have been casting about for a means of pressuring their “allies”.
Kshama Sawant and Pressuring the Democrats
Then along came an attractive upstart — Kshama Sawant — and she got the support of a sector of the union leadership. (The majority of delegates to the King County Labor Council voted to endorse her, for instance.) They saw Sawant as a means of pressuring the Democrats, not as a step towards breaking with them. In supporting her, they also implicitly supported her call for a $15 per hour minimum wage, or at least they couldn’t openly oppose it.
Committed to this figure, Sawant pressed ahead. Her popularity forced the mayor to include her on his “income inequality” committee. The problem of Sawant and Socialist Alternative, however, has been that they lacked clear perspectives and a clear strategy from the start.
“Working With” the City Councilors
Before she even took office, she said she was going to try to “work with” her fellow city council members. This meant giving the mayor’s committee a chance to come up with something acceptable. But what Sawant and Socialist Alternative were calling for ($15 per hour) was too much for the Democrats to accept and therefore also too much for the union leadership to really fight for. It seems that Sawant and Socialist Alternative did not realize this would be the case from Day One, and therefore did not plan for a ballot initiative until the last minute.
Predictably, the union leadership in the main has not supported the $15 Now campaign in any real way. On the other hand, Sawant and Socialist Alternative (who run the 15 Now campaign) have reportedly made some very serious concessions. They have already announced that they will accept a three year phase in of the minimum wage for “small” businesses. Now, it is reported that they pushed through a resolution in the 15 Now campaign that “small” business will be defined as any business with less than 250 employees. This is not a small business. It is also reported that they pushed through resolutions that (1)All non-profits be allowed the 3 year phase in for the minimum wage. This would reportedly even include “non-profit” hospitals! And (2) that Kshama Sawant and the leader of Socialist Alternative, Phil Locker, be empowered to allow the union exemption clause into the ballot initiative.
This was done with no open discussion in advance. When questioned about this a few days before this decision, a member of the Sawant staff simply refused to comment. And since then, as of this writing, there has been no official announcement of these decisions on the facebook pages of Kshama Sawant or the 15 Now campaign. The union exclusion clause (known as a “collective bargaining opt-out, or CBO) is especially serious. By adopting it, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now are accepting the team concept and the approach of “offering an olive branch to employers of good conscience.” It is exactly this entire strategy that has been so devastating to the entire union movement and the working class in general. This will inevitably have longer term consequences. How, for instance, can they then turn around and oppose the team concept when they have embraced its practical consequence?
Sawant and her party, Socialist Alternative, have ended up with the worst of both worlds. They have to rush at the last minute to decide what they want to do about a ballot initiative because they wanted to show themselves as having faith in the process or something of the sort as far as the mayor’s committee is concerned. The turnout for the March 15 march was 700 maximum, respectable but not overwhelming. It appears this is at least partly due to her and her staff having spent so much time and energy debating with the mayor’s committee instead of really focusing on campaigning in the communities and the work places. But on the other hand, the union leadership is still not fully supporting them.
How did Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant end up in this predicament?
The problem is that they started off with an orientation towards the union leadership more than towards the membership and non-union, low wage workers. What they should have done was start with an explanation that while they are fighting for 15 now, that that figure is not enough, that it is just a starting point. It also should have been linked to a campaign for an immediate raise of $5 per hour for all workers, union or not. Also, a demand like “jobs for all” and/or a publicly funded jobs creation program (at the $15 per hour minimum wage) should have been raised as well in order to get the unemployed involved in the campaign. Thus the needs of low wage workers would have been tied to those of the rest of the working class, including the unemployed. This would have alienated the union leadership, but considering the huge gulf that exists between them and their membership, socialists must make a choice which side to orient towards.
They could take their campaign into the grocery stores, hospitals, hotels, coffee bars – directly to low wage workers and all other workers. They could explain that the union leadership is refusing to support this initiative because they care more about “offering an olive branch” (as David Fold put it) to the employers and the Democrats than they do about organizing a fight for the members and for all workers.
Open Up 15 Now
If they did this, Socialist Alternative could really open up the 15 Now campaign and build its structures in such a way that all workers can get involved beyond just being foot soldiers, (rather than having the Socialist Alternative leadership control it). One simple step would be to move the 15 Now office out of the office of Socialist Alternative, where it is largely inaccessible, and into a store front in or near a poor community. That, in itself, would say a lot.
Would This Succeed?
There is no telling whether such a campaign would spark off enough enthusiasm to overcome the resistance of the employers, the Democrats and their representatives inside the unions – the union leadership. One experience of this writer can serve as an example: In 1999, the leadership of the Carpenters Union in Northern California signed a sweetheart contract with the contractors. This writer organized a protest against that contract, but when one carpenter called for a walk off, this writer and others who had been active thought the mood wasn’t there for that. When we found out that there was a mood, we helped lead the way for the San Francisco Bay Area carpenters wildcat strike of 1999 in which some 2,000 carpenters walked off the job.
Who knows what is seething beneath the surface in the Seattle working class? Who knows how they would respond to such a campaign? All we can say is that even if a mass response did not happen, at least a fighting example would have been set. Instead, what is being contemplated is a ballot initiative with the exact “more holes than Swiss cheese” as Sawant herself said in denouncing the mayor’s committee.
Win at all Costs vs. Building the Movement
Presently, the Sawant campaign is taking the approach that “we want to win; we are not purists” as one of Sawant’s staff said to this writer on March 15. What he meant was that he was in favor of making principled concessions (such as the ones mentioned above) in order to gain the support of the union leadership or a wing of it. This is being done at the expense of really struggling to build a real rank-and-file workers’ movement; it represents trying to rest on a layer of the union leadership rather than on the membership. And the present course doesn’t even guarantee a victorious ballot initiative this November! How, after all, can we expect the vast majority of workers in Seattle, who won’t be directly and immediately affected by this initiative, to campaign for it? After all, for the majority, this is not “15 now” but, rather “15 in three years from now.”
As with other serious socialists and working class fighters, this writer was extremely enthusiastic about Sawant’s election victory. As we see just a few miles north of Seattle, where Mike LaPointe is running for congress, there seems to be a trend of the movement turning towards electoral politics. Sawant and Socialist Alternative can and should play a role right at the very lead of this tendency. They can do that by taking some of the steps along the lines of those outlined above. We hope they do so.