“Labor Day” is traditionally the official opening of US election campaigns. In this presidential election year, it is useful to compare the state of affairs of the two main parties of big business – the Republicans and the Democrats – with the state of affairs of the labor movement and its leadership.
Gerald Seib, chief Washington correspondent for the Wall St. Journal, has pointed out regarding the two main capitalist parties: “A realignment of the two major political parties is under way…. A great sorting out has begun.” This shift indicates a shake-up in the strategy of rule of Corporate America – the US capitalist class – as a whole. Its previous “rule from the center” was based on a widespread (although never unanimous) view that US capitalism was secure, stable and able to rule the world. From the rise of the Islamic State abroad to the rise of student debt and the stagnation (or worse) of wages at home, that perception is crumbling, creating a mounting crisis within the two main parties of big business. This will inevitably mean major political changes as a whole.
And the US labor movement?
Having evolved in the time of anti-communism and the post WW II economic boom, when class relations were somewhat softened, the US labor leadership clings desperately to the memory of this gone-forever world, and the more sharply workers – most especially union members – are attacked, the more desperate and futile are their efforts. What is happening in the building trades is an example – but only an example; it is definitely not unique:
Building Trades Unions
Despite a massive construction boom, the building trades unions continue to be unable to stem the union busting tide in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2009 – when construction was in a slump – to 2015, nearly 500,000 more construction jobs were added. Yet the total number of union workers on the job actually declined from 1.130 million members to 1.049 million, a decrease from 16.7% to 14.8% of the overall construction work force who are union members. This decline confirms what Robert Gasperow of Construction Labor Research predicted back in 1999: “Holding their own in market share is the best they can hope for,” he said…. “Unionized employment will keep climbing during the next decade but will be just barely equal to the rate of growth in non-union sector,” (as quoted here.) In fact, his prediction was overly optimistic; things have actually gotten worse!
This is partly due to the ridiculous “organizing” strategy of the building trades leadership, where they actually even bother to try. The Carpenters Union is one of the most aggressive in this field, but their method is to send “organizers” to watch the non-union jobs and pick out the carpenters who seem to be the best trained and approach them and offer them a union job. Sometimes they actually take a union contractor along with them to let that contractor decide who he or she wants to hire. This is known as “stripping”, and it might cause some temporary problems for one or another non-union contractor but overall it cannot stem the union-busting tide, as the statistics show.
Partly because this approach is failing, the building trades leadership is responding by trying to cannibalize on the each other. Several of the different trades have established “helper” categories (instead of the traditional apprentice or journey person), at wages little above $15/hour. This means cutting into the work of the Laborers, whose leadership is doing the same by setting up trade schools to teach their members some of the skills of the other trades.
From New York City to San Francisco to Seattle, union carpenters are reporting that major non-union commercial jobs are springing up in a way never seen in many decades. And if this has been a failure during boom times like the present, what will happen when the next slump inevitably hits? Then, union members will be dropping out like flies.
A major factor that binds building trades workers to their union is the investment in work hours they have made towards their pensions. But that same pension is a major problem for the contractors. Partly due to changes in the law in 2014, we have seen a dramatic increase in the “unfunded liability” of “multi-employer” pension plans such as those of the building trades. (The “unfunded liability” means what the experts figure the plan will have to pay out in pensions in coming years vs. what is funded or figures to be coming in based on current rates.) This means that the signatory contractors are potentially on the hook for many millions of dollars, which gives them an even greater incentive to get out of their union contracts.
And the union leadership? It has responded by moving to drop the pension plans! Already the Carpenters Union leadership in Alaska has done so and there is a move afoot to do the same in the Pacific Northwest region. (Of course, there is no such move for the fat International pension that goes to all full time union officials.) As the pension plans shrivel and die for the rank and file carpenter (but not the pension for full time officials), there will be one less incentive for these workers to stick with the union, especially when the current boom ends.
Meanwhile, the leadership furthers the myth that the union workers are on the same “team” as the union contractors, as opposed to the “team” of the non-union contractors and workers. As Bob Alvarado, executive secretary treasurer of the Northern California Regional Council of Carpenters wrote in the July issue of their journal, “training… (is) what sets us apart from every nonunion company and construction worker we compete with.” In other words, all we are is small business people selling our goods (our labor power), and we have to give a better deal to our buyers (the unionized contractors) than do the non-union workers. We are on the same team as the (unionized) employers.
From the Keystone Pipeline in the Mid-West, to the building of a methane processing plant in Tacoma to the building of a coal storage and shipping facility in Oakland, the building trades union leadership supports any construction anywhere, so long as it will bring in dues money.
This is nothing new. Many years ago, this writer told his union business agent, “if they were going to build a jail to put all union members in, you guys (the carpenter union business agents) would be in favor of it, as long as it was built union.” The business agent thought for a few seconds and then denied it. But the key was that he had to think for a few seconds first!
Corporate Propaganda and Union Consciousness
Unable to think independently from or in opposition to the employers as far as organizing, the economy, or even as far as the relation of the union to the employers and society in general, the building trades union leadership has resorted to actually bringing on board a union-busting lawyer and “motivational speaker” to provide the main motivation and strategy to their minions – the second line leadership. In conference after conference, convention after convention, from the Carpenters to the Electricians to the Boilermakers, the union busting lawyer Mark Breslin is paid to lay down the line.
Here is what the Boilermakers have to say about Breslin: “His (Mark Breslin’s) book is an everyday guide…. The essential theme running through the book is that for union construction to survive and recapture lost market share, individual union members must step forward and prove everyday they are the most skilled, most reliable, and hardest working employees available. They must demonstrate that their level of excellence justifies higher compensation than their nonunion counterparts. And they must become walking billboards for union excellence both on the job site and in the community.
“In short, to survive in the 21st century construction industry, individual union workers must change, adapt, and be the “fittest” of all workers.”
In other words, the union leadership is putting out the most anti-union propaganda imaginable!
Wider Labor Movement
The building trades union leadership is not any different from the rest. A grocery clerk at Lucky’s, for example, recently complained to this writer about how she’d had a conflict with her manager and how the union representative came down to the store, spent an hour or more talking with the manager and then told the clerk that the manager was right. The union rep never even bothered talking with the member before making a decision! And the UFCW is forcing down the throats of its membership one rotten contract after another, complete with wages that are below $10/hour and falling. Meanwhile, they are bringing the same types of speakers to “motivate” the members. Sarah Morken, UFCW shop
steward in Tacoma, for example, reports that at a recent area-wide annual shop steward conference the leadership brought in as a motivational speaker a restaurant owner named “Chef Jeff” to provide the same message as Mark Breslin provides the building trades. And not so long ago, UFCW Local 8 leadership honored as the Western States Council’s “Union Person of the Year” Bob Piccinini, chairman and majority stockholder of Save Mart Stores. Yes, an employer was honored as the union person of the year! Nor are things any different in the SEIU, where the International president acted to ensure that a local union president who protected an employer whose foreman tried to rape a female union member remain in office* and where one of the foremost “progressive” union reps, David Rolf, explains that “we always want to offer an olive branch… to employers of good conscience.”
Effect on Membership
It’s also why the great majority of union members feel alienated from their unions and aren’t even interested in attending union meetings. In some areas, many members don’t even know the name of their union! On a more practical basis, the above mentioned Lucky’s store clerk not only complained about her union representative, she also complained that her fellow workers wouldn’t stand up for her. And how could they be expected to, after all, when they’d been subjected to all the corporate propaganda as well as corporate-friendly contracts year in and year out — by their own union leadership?
The current situation cannot last forever. The union leadership largely bases its rule on the way that the employers – the capitalist class – has ruled over US society in general. But as the Gerald Seib quote above shows, this very method of rule is shifting, not by “choice” but because the tensions are starting to become unbearable. From the precarious (at best) situation of the younger generations to the wave of murders carried out by the police – many of which are racist in nature – the situation is getting worse and with it the consciousness and the mood is starting to change.
Meanwhile, as we have shown, the union leadership has, if anything, doubled down on their old way of controlling the unions. But this old way of control was based not only on the old way of rule by the employers; it was also based on the general mood and consciousness in society. This means that their way of control cannot last.
Active union members don’t have to wait until the changes are so intense that something bursts; they can and should help prepare the way by organizing opposition caucuses within their unions based around a program that includes:
- For unions that really fight for the members, both for good contracts and for membership rights and contract enforcement on a daily basis. This includes a fight for a drastic reduction of the standard work week with no loss in pay to compensate for the huge increases in productivity due to automation.
- All union officials on the average pay of the members they represent, directly elected by those members and subject to immediate recall. Union contracts voted on by the members at general membership meetings where the pros and cons of the contract can be discussed by the rank and file.
- Link the fight for better contracts with a crash organizing program.
- For a mass mobilization that returns to the methods of the 1930s – the work-place occupations, mass picket lines, and mass defiance of the police, the courts, etc.
- Link up with and mobilize the membership to support the struggles against racism, including police racism and brutality, against environmental destruction, gentrification, etc.
- Through these links, run local independent candidates for office who openly and explicitly oppose the Democratic and Republican Parties and what they stand for. This would be a first step towards breaking with the corporate-controlled Democratic Party and building a mass workers party in the US.
- Internationalism in deeds, not just words. Build direct links between workers across national borders in order to take joint action, including joint strikes. In today’s global economy, nothing less will do.
As elections 2016 approaches, and workers are offered the choice between a total corporate shill and a racist, xenophobic demagogue, this is the lesson we should drive home on Labor Day.