A couple of months ago, right around the July 4th holiday, I had a long conversation with this guy, Jim R. Jim is the newly elected president of the local union covering workers at the Oregon Department of Transportation (about 1700 members), part of the Service Employees International Union, 503 (SEIU), which covers most State of Oregon workers.
Being newly elected, John had been passing messages to me that he’d really appreciate a chance to talk with me about some of the problems he was facing as the new president. I wasn’t the union organizer assigned to the Transportation Department. Hell, I wasn’t even on the staff of SEIU anymore, having taken a break out of sheer frustration with the union. But Jim and I knew each other, we’d worked together for at least four years, and finding the time to sit down and talk with Jim wasn’t hard.
We did meet. Jim and I talked for four hours, in his big tent packed with 1000 square meters of fireworks, which Jim sells every Fourth of July as a sort of side job. So Jim, me, and about 300 kilograms of gunpowder, had a chat about the union. Most of the problems were pretty technical, “what can I do with this grievance?” “How can I handle that guy being fired?” But then we got to the big stuff….. the really important stuff.
So Jim says, “there’s a lot of talk by the members about getting a new union”. “Yeah”, I say, “I know, I got a call from this person, and then I heard from her, then I talked to him, and I know they’re (chunks of the membership) not happy”. Jim says, “I’m thinking we need to get a better union, one that pays attention to the members”.
I say, “Hey, I know, the incessant political campaigns the leadership (of SEIU) is engaging in. They really don’t know the difference between a union and a political party, and it’s hurting”. So Jim says, “So how do we get a better union?”
“Well, I don’t think there is a better union out there”, I say. “I know lots of our guys (highway maintenance workers) like the Teamsters. But, you know, Rosalie and I had to teach the Teamsters members how to do basic picketing up at the Smucker’s strike last year. They didn’t have a clue. We taught them, not the Teamsters”.
I then explained to Jim all the legalities of getting rid of one union, and bringing another in. “First Jim”, I say, “ you’ve got to get one third of the members to sign a petition saying they want to get rid of, and change to another union”. “And, by the way”, I say, adding more misery, “that’s not one third of your 1700 members, that’s one third of your members, plus the members at the Departments X, Y and Z, and A, B, and C, as well. So, you’re talking about getting signatures from one third of 18,000 members, not 1700 members”. Jim’s face is getting pretty long at this point.
“You know”, I said, “it would be a lot easier to take control of the union and make it your own, then it is to get a new union. And you’d have a stronger union too, because it is now your union”.
At this point I knew I had lost Jim. Jim was willing to lead a collective
“shopping expedition” to hire a “better” union (how American! to go shopping).
But, to lead an insurgent charge? To take a problem; to think; to find a
solution; and to make it a reality? This was asking too much!
“Well, we’ve got to plant the WMDs first”, I say. “Really though,
they (the WMDs) are not there, they never were there”, I said. “This whole
war has been orchestrated and launched in a way that would have made the
Nazis proud. It’s all built on a solid foundation of lies and playing on
fears”, I said to Jim again.
“Jim”, I said with some outrage. “The guys who started this war did it to maintain a cheap, steady oil supply for their corporate profits”. I added, “the guys who started this war are the same damned bastards that are cutting your pension benefits, who think you are overpaid, and who want to privatize your jobs. I mean, Jeez man!”
But, again, I had lost Jim.
I don’t want to give anybody the impression that John is an idiot,
or a strikingly “duped” worker. Quite the contrary, Jim has committed himself
to helping his fellow union members, and has kept his commitment more than
many others. In many ways, Jim represents some of the best elements of the
American working class. He has stood by many members in trouble with their
boss, has spent months at the bargaining table negotiating with employers,
and is always at the important union meetings.
My old union, SEIU, and indeed 99% of the unions affiliated with
the AFL-CIO are deeply committed to the Kerry campaign for President. I know
SEIU has put at least $30 million into the Kerry campaign. I know too that
the Democratic Party is deeply relying on the unions to get the vote out
So, a couple of days ago, big news hit the US media about health care.
Most health care comes to workers in the form of employer provided
health insurance. Seems that the cost of health insurance is expected
to rise 11% to 18% next year. Employers will holler that they can’t
pay the increases. Millions more workers will fall off the rolls of
those with health care. The political responses? Bush is screaming
that Kerry will “socialize” healthcare; Kerry is ignoring the problem
and talking about gun control.
The war in Iraq? Well, I remember a contentious Executive Board meeting about a resolution opposing the Iraq adventure. 30 to 40 people in a room, with nobody on the union’s leadership supporting this War. Everybody in their own “heart of hearts” knowing this war sucked and was criminal, but no resolution was passed. Nobody wanted to stand on his or her principles.
The bottom line is, our American unions don’t lead workers. We have no language of “class”, “exploitation”, “capitalism”, or any alternative (“socialism” generally being referred to in private conversation as, “the S word”). We certainly don’t have a program, and we don’t have an analysis to even begin studying a program. So, to my mind, it’s no wonder that good workers, like Jim R, so readily buy into a fascist line. What else is there?
My comrades (“We few, we happy few….”) and I are not “defeatists”.
Once again, I’ll make my 1500 phone calls and spend my Saturdays knocking
on peoples’ doors, and my comrades will too. But I have no illusions. Bush
will win, and he will win because our Democrats, at bottom, are completely
and totally bourgeoisie (not even a shred of social democracy here), and
more importantly, our unions, don’t have the principles or “guts” to have
an honest conversation with our class about what’s really wrong.