Labor Day 2018 finds US workers – young and old, of all races and ethnic groups, full and part time – getting caught in the squeeze. According to official statistics, real wages have gone from about $21/hour in 2009 to $22.65 in 2018. This negligible increase is despite a massive decline in unemployment.
Real Cost of Living
But the official statistics lie! The reality is much worse! Under President Bill Clinton, they
changed the way inflation was figured to underestimate it by about half. The real cost of living, figured the old and more accurate way, was about 4%/year. (See http://www.shadowstats.com for the full explanation and the statistics.) Compounded annually, that means about a 54% increase in prices since 2009 (vs. the official statistic of 16.7% increase). That’s in line with some known price increases: For example, average house prices increased by about 35% during those years and rents increased by about 23%. In the SF Bay area, housing prices increased by 14.7% in just the last year alone! And in Oakland, from 2012 to 2018 rents increased by an average of 51%.
Meanwhile from 2013 to the present, health insurance premiums increased by about 50%
And pay? It increased overall by 18.5% on average.
Workers responded to this squeeze – coupled with the relatively full employment – by becoming more militant on the job. Teachers, for example, struck in six states, five of which were “right-to-work” (for less) states.
Building Trades: Seattle
Nowhere, though, has there been more militancy than among construction workers. That’s especially true in the Seattle area. Construction workers there are feeling the power of having full employment. There are more construction cranes (65) in Seattle (plus an additional 14 in nearby Bellevue) than anywhere else in the country. Union carpenters and union operating engineers both twice voted down tentative contract agreements that their leaderships were pushing. In the case of the carpenters, the leadership managed to push through a third agreement, but the Operating Engineers Local 302 leaders got the message and have taken the membership out on strike.
Building Trades: New York City
Meanwhile, across the country, in New York City, building trades workers have been rallying against “Related Companies”, which is building the largest construction project in the country – Hudson yards, in Manhattan’s west side. One of the traditional strongholds of the building trades, New York City has seen a major increase in non-union construction in the surrounding boroughs of the city. According to the NY Times, union construction in the other boroughs only amounts to 39% of all construction. Even in Manhattan, it’s down to 65% now. This reflects the national trend going back for decades. Forbes Magazine estimated that in 1968, slightly under 80% of the construction dollar was spent union. Just 11 years later, it was down to 40%.
“Competing” with the non union
The building trades leaders have responded to this in two ways:
First, they swallowed whole the claim of “their” contractors that they had to help them compete with the non-union contractors. In reality, this means union construction workers competing with non-union workers for who can work cheapest and make the greatest profits for their employers. But union workers are about 20% more expensive than non-union workers. That’s good! It’s the whole purpose of having a union – to squeeze more from the employer! The more we cut pay, the more the non-union will also cut pay, meaning the never-ending “race to the bottom”. The average weekly pay of a union construction worker is $1,099 vs. $743 for her or his non-union counterpart. Is that really where we want to go? The answer to this is not to compete with the non-union worker, but to aggressively organize them, instead of trying to convince the non-union contractors that they can make more money by signing a union contract.
All this does is encourage the contractors to demand more. As Terry Moore, business manager and financial secretary of Lathers Local 46 in New York said, “I’ve done everything I could to work with them (the contractors). But the next job starts and it wasn’t enough. They want more.”
Project Labor Agreements
One tactic the building trades have adopted is to try to get “project labor agreements” (PLA’s) signed. This is an agreement by the general contractor that all sub contractors on the job will be union. In exchange, concessions are made as far as work rules, overtime pay and other issues. This writer worked on a major PLA job years ago. Despite the agreement, the general still tried to sneak non-union contractors onto the job.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the PLA’s is that they always include a clause guaranteeing that any trade that goes on strike for a new contract will continue working on the PLA job. So you have in the Operating Engineers strike in Seattle, that these same engineers on most highway jobs and on the light rail job are still working because they are PLA jobs. This means that if a contractor has five jobs going, for example, and two of them are PLA jobs (which often tend to the the largest ones), that you can’t really hurt him. The power of the strike has been weakened.
It’s not working!
That this approach cannot work is proven by the statistics. Even in this huge building boom of the
last two years, the percent of construction workers increased a tiny one tenth of a percent, to just 14% overall.
Building Trades Unity?
Instead of shifting to really organizing the non-union workers rather than sweet talking the contractors, the building trades are increasingly trying to cannibalize off of each other and cut their own private deals with the contractors. So we see in the Seattle Local 302 strike that laborers are often operating the elevators, scabbing on the operating engineers, and carpenters in some jobs are working behind the picket lines. And in New York, the District Council of Carpenters undercut the rest of the trades and signed their own deal with Related Companies for the most recent stage of the Hudson Yards project.
In the case of the Carpenters Union, instead of organizing a fight against the contractors, the union leadership has been organizing to suppress those members who want to rebuild the fighting traditions of the past. From Oakland, CA to Seattle, and also on the East Coast, the International has expelled members who step out of line.
Members fight back
Despite all of this, the members want to fight. Hundreds of rank and file carpenters have joined their sister and brother building trades workers to protest at the Hudson yards site. That is also the lesson from the fact that rank and file carpenters and rank and file operating engineers voted down respective contract proposals twice each.
Labor over all trend
The increased on-the-job militancy in construction is
part of an overall trend. Teachers struck in six different states, five of which were even “right to work” (for less) states. Now, there are reports that UPS may be going on strike. As long as unemployment remains relatively low, this is likely to continue. If so, it will tend to increase the rank and file participation in the unions. The rank and file of the rest of the unions will then be confronted with the same philosophy as that of the building trades leaders – keep the employers happy; help boost their profits (or “efficiency” in the case of public employees). Bow down before the “free” market god.
Build opposition caucuses
This means that rank and file members will have to start organizing opposition caucuses to change their unions, to make them the real, fighting organizations that they were meant to be in the first place. But they will be doing this on new grounds – the grounds of a president who is trying to drive towards a massive increase in racism and division, towards increased repression and one-man rule. The rank and file struggle will have to take up both this and the wage issues.
- Reject the idea that we have to compete with other workers for who will work cheapest.
- Unite the different contract struggles into a campaign for an immediate $5/hour raise for all plus full health care 100% paid by the employers plus a pension plan, a 30 hour work week at the present weekly pay and fully paid four week vacation for all – union and non-union alike.
- Use this for a mass organizing campaign among all workers, including part time and those who are supposed to be self-employed like Uber and Lyft workers.
- Return to the methods of the 1930s – mass picket lines, work place occupations, and general strikes.
Fight “Trumpism”; shut down the economy!
Any such campaign will be operating in the situation of the greatest political crisis US capitalism has faced in over 70 years. It cannot escape “Trumpism”. Sooner or later, a new open crisis and renewed turmoil will break out again. Sooner or later, hundreds of thousands will be out in the streets again, protesting Trump’s latest outrage. This could be due to massive voter suppression this November, or due to a US attack on Iran, or something else.
Union activists and any opposition union caucuses will have to join them. Union activists will be in the leading position to call for not only protesting in the streets, but shutting down the jobs – for a mass job walkout, in other words a general strike.
Working class independence
Such a call will be opposed by the entire liberal wing of any protest movement, as it will be by all those connected in any way with any wing of the Democratic Party. That includes the so-called “progressive” wing.
At the same time, as a new movement develops, there will be a tendency for it to come together, to build some sort of coalition to coordinate and build the movement. Workers, especially union activists, should be in the lead of this.
But what is any such coalition in the making that fights in the streets, the communities, work places and in the unions themselves? What would such a coalition be that starts to link up and to organize all the most oppressed and the most clear and conscious workers to fight for their own interests? It would be the beginning of a new mass working class party.
Not partners on the job or in society in general!
It might start out coordinating and building these battles, but ultimately such a working class party-in-the-making will have to decide whether to run its own candidates for office (maybe first at the local level) or whether to support the candidates of the employer-controlled Democratic Party. In the unions, we have seen what it means for the leadership to try to bridge the gap between the workers and the employers – to try to be “partners” with the employers. In politics, it’s the same. We cannot fight for ourselves while also joining hands with any of the representatives of the two employers’ parties – the Republicans or the Democrats.
That’s why on Labor Day, 2018, our call should be for an all out fight for a better life, for working class independence and for socialism!
Update: Check out this video of Labor Day in Oakland – the SEIU protest at Kaiser.