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Tired Of Losing!
By: Bobby A. Summers

There’s a reason workers and unions are losing in America; we don’t fight back!

Workers and unions have been losing all my life. I joined a union for the first time in about 1982. We were just starting to lose; big time! First, it was the UAW (United Auto Workers), as massive numbers of workers were being laid off in the American auto industry. We continued to lose, watching the rest of America’s heavy industry get shipped to cheaper workforces through the 80s. We watched and lost as whole industry-wide wage and benefit levels were trashed in an orgy of corporate realignments. We lost again when we willingly grasped the new logic of “concessionary bargaining”, as our wages and benefits were bargained against wholesale job eliminations.

But, institutionally speaking, our unions never lifted a finger. We never fought back. The leaders of our great American Labor Movement adapted to the new way of things without missing a step. Here is where the new slogan of the American Labor Movement was born, “It could have been worse”, as workers took cut after cut, and union presidents took new seats on a hand full of corporate Boards.

This lack of fight bothered me though. It made no sense to me. “Isn’t it precisely times like now”, I thought to myself, “when workers are getting hammered, that they and there unions are supposed to hammer back?” Silly me, how naive!

The truth of the matter is, American labor unions hate a fight! It might be well and good for French public sector workers to close the nation down for six weeks over pension cuts. It might be OK too for German workers to strike over sub-minimum pay raises and benefit cuts, or over a reduction in weekly work hours. Spanish and Italian workers are notorious strikers, chronically making a mess in the Italian and Spanish worlds of capital and commerce. Here, in America though, when workers are threatened, we merely bargain…. And we lobby.

The trend has gotten pretty clear in the last 25 years or so. Workers in an industry are threatened with job lose and pay cuts. Our union leaders instantly go behind closed doors; “bargaining” we are told. Eventually they will emerge, agreement in hand, and will optimistically announce to their members, “It’s the best deal we could have gotten!” And hopefully, the membership will agree, wiping the collective sweat off their foreheads with a healthy, “Well, it could have been worse!”.

Our unions lobby too. Slashes in overtime pay, high unemployment, new record levels in the pauperization of American workers. You can always count of a delegation of union presidents to testify to Congress, to meet with the President. In short, to lobby.

This antipathy to a fight goes pretty deep in American unions. In 1994, I was leading a strike at the Flint, Michigan American Red Cross. This was a small strike, maybe 70 nurses, phlebotomists, and mobile donation site truck drivers. Most of the workers were paid a pittance, most of them were part-time, and the issue was a sizeable wage increase.

So, here we were, maybe three weeks out on the picket line…. By the way, a fun, happy, and militant picket line, when up comes this woman who is the Community Services Representative from the Genesee County AFL-CIO Labor Council. She asks me how things are going? She wants to know if she can help, maybe with referrals to poverty agencies or public health offices.

“We’re doing pretty good”, I say. “Hey”, I tell her, “It’s July, its warm and sunny, the picket line is fun, morale is great, and we’re winning!” I tell her how easy the strike is. Our members are drawing $250 per week in strike pay. Given that many of our mostly women and poor workers made about $7.50 per hour for 25 hours a week, they were making money on the strike…. At minimum, breaking even.

The woman from the Genesee County AFL-CIO was horrified. “It’s a mess! Joe Blow from the Teamsters told me that workers just won’t settle; they make too much in strike pay. These guys need to accept reality! Do they think they can strike forever?”.

A few years later, I was listening to a president of a local union talking to a new union organizer; a young guy just out of the university. “No”, the union President said, “We don’t have a strike fund. If the members really want to go out (on strike) they can, but they really need to want to go out; there won’t be any strike pay”.

Another year or two later, there’s a strike at a Cooper Industries factory in upstate New York. Seemed that the corporate representatives showed up four days before the labor agreement was to expire. They didn’t show up to negotiate; they showed up to deliver the corporation’s ultimatum. The union’s negotiators accepted the ultimatum. The membership voted the ultimatum down, and this local affiliate of the UAW semi-consciously, backed its way into a strike. The strike lasted two days. International Union reps were not to be found. The local membership cannibalized the local leadership…. And the strike just sort of collapsed under its own dead weight.

So yeah, I know, some small highly subjective personal impressions from the author. But, consider this:

There has not been an industry wide strike in the auto industry since 1970. Autoworkers are probably the best-paid workers in America, but they pay a price with year after year of vacation-less 60 to 72 hour workweeks. Six or seven years ago, when a Flint, Michigan based local union struck over excessive work hours and not enough workers, the support from the rest of the union wasn’t there. The international union had pretty much accepted the 72-hour workweek as a necessary part of auto business culture; not to be challenged!

During the 1980s, America’s industrial base began its dismantling as corporations went overseas to break industry-wide labor agreements…. And incidentally, make bigger profits. Literally, millions of industrial workers were thrown on the national garbage heap. Folks were losing their homes, their cars, were selling the shirts off their backs. Did we fight back? Did we seize equipment and occupy factories to be closed? No. Did we strike key facilities; attempt to disrupt the corporate flight to cheaper wages? No. Did we demand that the government hold corporations accountable to some sort of wider social good? No. No, what we had were two “Solidarity Days” spread over a couple of years, where a million workers showed up on the Capitol Lawn to hear Labors’ leaders cry, “They’re (the corporations) not being nice to us!” Solidarity Days were a great success…. For Washington D.C.’s restaurant and hotel owners.

Right now, it’s the big airlines crying trouble. Seems there’s a race going on where each airline tries to scream “bankruptcy” first, so they can open all their labor contracts for another round of cuts, thus, being slightly ahead of their competitor airlines. And, the airline unions are cooperating… towards new wage cuts, healthcare cuts, pension cuts, you name it!

And, as public money flows to Iraq for an occupation without end, public school teachers and their unions are agreeing to work days and weeks without pay, to make up for the budget shortfalls.

I don’t want to paint things all black, as far as American workers and unions go. Two years ago, The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) fought a winning battle against West Coast port operators, who were out to destroy the union’s power to negotiate unified terms covering all West Coast port workers, in Canada and the U.S. Indeed, the West Coast port operators even had the support of George W. Bush, and potentially, the US Army. Nonetheless, through near total worker solidarity, and really good tactical thinking, the ILWU prevailed, as did its contract with the port operators, covering all Pacific port based workers.

Then there is the UMW (United Mine Workers) who fought a winning battle with Pittston coal about 10 years ago. There’s the USWA workers (United Steel Workers Union) who won 12 or so years ago at Ravenswood Aluminum. But these battles are the exception.

I have no easy solutions to the powerlessness of American workers and their unions. But I do have some ideas worth considering.

A good place to begin might be to remember why workers formed unions in the first place. Very early in the game it seemed workers understood that if they didn’t work, capitalists didn’t make profits. Thus, the strike! Thus too, through striking, workers demonstrated, and learned themselves how very powerful they could be. It might now be well worth the trouble to look at what we can do to have more strikes that last longer, and that are designed to win!.

Years ago, we had an international workers’ movement that took seriously the idea that workers could build and run a far more just and human world. Seems this sentiment has been lost in the neo-liberal glow of the last 20 or 30 years. There is however, no way that modern global capitalism can meaningfully offer workers’ a better life. Maybe our unions should pass this dirty little secret to workers? Maybe they should even suggest that there are alternatives to the, capitalist-competition-until-you-drop, model?

These ideas aren’t much, but they would represent an important change in orientation; that unions are supposed to oppose the corporate agenda, not surrender to it! And with the vast amounts of money and resources owned by American unions, the slight change in orientation could mean a lot.

What I do know for sure is that the last 25 years of surrendering to the corporate agenda has not improved workers’ lives, income, power, or well-being. So let’s stop!

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