The hundreds of New York City carpenters – mainly younger apprentices – who protested against a wage cutting contract proved it.
The teachers in West Virginia who stayed on strike after their own leadership tried to send them back proved it.
The Seattle carpenters who voted down a poor contract twice proved it.
The 44% of Oakland teachers who voted against a similar poor contract – after
striking for a week – proved it.
They, and many more, have proven that the time is now to start to organize to make our unions the fighting organizations that so many in the past sacrificed so much to build. The union bureaucrats are united and organized to “keep the peace” between us and the employers. They believe they have to keep the employers happy. This always ends up meaning that we keep going back and back and back some more.
Their strategy has been a disastrous failure. From the continue growth of non-union construction to the failed organizing campaigns of the United Auto Workers in Mississippi and Tennessee to to the continued privatization of public works, their strategy has failed. It’s failed to stop the union busting and it’s failed to keep our wages up. Yet the leadership clings to it like a drowning person clings to a stick. They are united and working together. We, the rank and file, must do the same. We have to build rank and file committees – opposition caucuses – to make the unions the fighting organizations they were meant to be. Here’s some ideas on how:
The core of the problem: Reject the idea that workers and the employers are on the same side.
The only way the union leadership can keep the employers “happy” is by guaranteeing “labor peace” and a steady profit, meaning low wages and a cowed work force. That’s what Carpenters Union president Doug McCarron meant when he said “we’re serious about customer service.” He meant he’s serious about serving the contractors! Or listen to Bob King, then president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), speaking to the
Michigan Chamber of Commerce: “We need to join together…. The 21st century UAW seeks and expects a partnership with the employers based on mutual respect, trust and common goals. It embraces as our own the success of our employers…. I believe in working with management…. It is our mission to create the conditions that will enable our employers to compete and succeed.” That’s why Steve Burd, former CEO of Safeway stores, commented in 2011, when Safeway workers were on strike, “I believe most of the union leaders understand [our need to cut wages]. They’re just trying to come to the table and negotiate something that makes them look like they properly represented their employees.”
It’s still the same. We want to build the unions’ and make them stronger, but to do that we have to totally change the direction in which they are being lead.
Return to the methods of the 1930s.
The union leadership is the only force in society that believes in obeying the law. The corporations, who often propose
the laws, don’t obey them if it doesn’t suit them. The politicians, who write the laws, don’t. Nor do the cops, who enforce the laws. Only our union leadership bows down to the law like a religious worshipper at the altar. The unions were built by workers occupying the work places, by putting thousands of workers on the picket lines and by force of numbers preventing scabs from crossing, by open defiance of the union busting laws and court orders. That’s how they’ll be rebuilt.
For unions that support the wider struggle.
Although the unions are the only mass working class organizations in the US, less than 10% of all workers are union members. But there is a wider struggle going on – against racist attacks, against keeping kids locked up in cages on the border, for women’s rights and for the rights of LGBTQ people. And also to protect the environment. Yet, in the main the unions
have been MIA, missing in action. Why haven’t they turned out to support all the protests against the police killings, mainly black people? The answer lies in the comment that one United Auto Worker in Ferguson said to this writer: “My union leader told me that this isn’t our battle.” After all the history of police attacks on union workers, this isn’t the unions’ battle? The unions should be directly involved in and supporting these struggles.
The unions also cannot support any project, no matter how destructive to the environment or the community just because it means “jobs”. They should fight for a clean environment, an end to global warming, against gentrification… and for jobs.
For labor political independence.
Just as our leaders keep us tied to the employers, they keep us tied to the employers’ politicians, mainly the Democrats. We have to have a strategy to build an alternative – a working class political party. Some serious union fighters believe that we should support the Democrats for now. Others (Oaklandsocialist included) don’t believe the unions can start down the road towards political independence while supporting any Democrats. That’s a question that can be debated out as we go along.
But one thing has to be clear: You can’t be a good union member and support Trump. Trump has openly encouraged outright racism and chauvinism. Some union members support him because they are sick of the Democrats. Oaklandsocialist is too, but supporting Trump means accepting his bigotry. It means accepting locking kids up in cages, supporting denial of women’s rights, open invitation to the outright racist groups. It means using the government to force religion down people’s throats. Serious union supporters can disagree about supporting the Democrats, but there can be no disagreement about supporting this outright racist, chauvinist demagogue.
For international labor solidarity in deeds, not just words
Production of goods is international today. In major industries, it’s difficult if not impossible to really hurt a company but just shutting them down in just one country. If Ford workers, for example, go on strike in one country, they should be struck globally. Workers also need international political solidarity. Workers in the US should organize against US sanctions against countries like Venezuela and Iran while at the same time supporting the struggle of the workers and oppressed in those countries against their own governments. See this letter as an example. Build direct links between workers throughout the world.
The best union leaders have always been socialist. That includes the founder of the Carpenters Union, P.J. McGuire, Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and many others. That’s because they saw the role of the working class not only on the job, but in society as a whole. Today, for a number of reasons, socialism has a bad name among a layer of workers, mostly older workers. Others simply aren’t sure. At this time, it would be a mistake for an opposition caucus to be committed to socialism since it would exclude some good working class fighters. But it would be a bigger mistake to shut ourselves off from the socialist traditions of the US labor movement and from socialists within the present movement.
For union democracy.
For membership right to vote on all contracts. These votes should be at specially called meetings, where the members can see their power and can discuss the contract. For membership election of all union officials who represent them.
Mutual aid and learn from each other.
Right now, organizing within any union can be a lonely struggle. We need to support and learn from each other.That’s why oaklandsocialist is proposing the building of a coalition of cross-union opposition caucuses along the lines suggested here.
For the rank and file only.
The union leadership doesn’t appoint staffers – be they “organizers” or “business agents” or whatever – who will work to empower the members to fight to change the unions. No more than the corporate heads appoint people to empower workers. The appointed staffers are beholden to the same union leadership against whose policies we are struggling. The few – the very, very few – who seriously fight for the members find themselves out of a job in short order. If they quit or get fired, then they have proven they’re on our side. Not before.
For direct action.
Yes, we have to work inside the official channels. That means trying to use the local unions as an organizing center, running candidates in local elections, etc. But we can’t be confined to that only. The 1999 SF Bay Area carpenters wildcat strike showed that. So did the West Virginia teachers who stayed out on strike despite the call to end the strike by their leadership. The same with New York City carpenters who moved towards organizing a wildcat strike just recently. We have to use both approaches.
Organize, organize, organize!
Oaklandsocialist will be starting a Facebook page for this. (See oaklandsocialist on Facebook.) But all the articles in the world, and all the social media in the world aren’t enough. The idea is to use our blog and social media to actually start face-to-face conversations, starting with some online video conferences. Nor is that enough. Nothing replaces actual human, face-to-face contact. Hopefully, there will be enough interest for sisters and brothers in a common region to actually meet up to start down this road.
Oaklandsocialist wants to help. Please contact us if you are interested.
By John Reimann, administrator of oaklandsocialist.com, and former recording secretary and a 30 year member of Carpenters Local 713. During those years, he was closely involved in helping build a rank and file caucus called “Rank and file Carpenters for a Stronger Union”. It was this caucus that organized and led the 1999 SF Bay Area carpenters wildcat strike of some 2,000 carpenters. (See this history.)