By BILL ONASCH
Below are major portions of the trade-union report that Bill Onasch presented to the Socialist Action National Convention on Aug. 20 in Kansas City, Mo.
We’re gathered here in the hometown—or at least home metropolitan area—of James P. Cannon. It’s common to personify important historical trends. Without a trace of hero worship, we consider ourselves to be in continuity with the Cannon current established first in the Communist Party, and later as a founder of American Trotskyism, and still later playing a prominent role in launching our world party, the Fourth International.
In addition to these programmatic and organizational landmarks, Cannon, who began his service in the workers movement as a self-described foot-loose organizer in the IWW, knew a thing or two about unions. He considered our work in the only class-based mass organizations in this country to be essential to building a party primarily proletarian in composition, leadership, and orientation—a transition belt bringing our transitional program in to living day-to-day struggles.
But I understand that my task this morning is not biographical. It is a supplemental report to the Political Resolution about the state of the unions and our work in them today.
Younger comrades have mostly seen a labor movement in decline, if not crisis. We are constantly reminded that union membership numbers and density have plummeted. There are fewer strikes, and strike victories have become as rare as steak tartare. As we have noted, although the union bureaucracy is far from monolithic, the mainstream seeks “partnership” with the bosses and doesn’t hesitate to sell out the next generation through tiered give-backs.
But this is not the first time American unions have faced such a dismal conjuncture. Certainly, conditions were no better during the Depression year of 1934 when Minneapolis Trotskyists led what was aptly titled in an excellent film “Labor’s Turning Point”—the great Teamsters strikes well chronicled in books by Farrell Dobbs, and new material recently published by Cannon’s biographer, the Canadian socialist Brian Palmer.
We don’t see anything so imminently transforming today. But a Socialist Action National Committee discussion last September did note some promising stirrings and decided to expand coverage of labor actions in our press. Even more has happened since.
For 15 and a union!
Perhaps the most promising development came from a most unexpected source—the Service Employees International Union. Andy Stern would have been my pick for most loathsome top union bureaucrat during his reign at SEIU for far more reasons than I have time to enumerate. They include sweetheart deals that the Mob would envy. He also engineered an unprincipled split in the AFL-CIO, then headed by his predecessor and mentor. But then Andy retired, with an adequate pension, in order to serve President Obama on a blue-ribbon commission tasked to slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—a betrayal that failed only because congressional Republicans wouldn’t touch anything coming from Obama.
Even before that failed attempted back-stabbing, Stern was dissed by the SEIU executive board he could no longer bully. They rejected his designated successor and instead replaced him with Mary Kay Henry. It turned out that sister Henry was a bit of a throw-back to what was once a bigger current in movement politics—a Catholic radical. She’s a great admirer of Pope Francis, who throws pizza parties for the homeless and speaks out on climate change. But she diverged from Church doctrine by becoming a founder of SEIU’s Lavender Caucus, advocating the interests of LGBT workers.
For several years, SEIU has promoted a mass movement of fast-food workers around the demand for a $15 minimum wage—“15 and a union.” Not since the CIO upsurge in the 1930s has a major union paid any attention to the working poor. To their credit, SEIU went all in, and has spent tens of millions of dollars and countless hours of staff time on this effort. The movement has grown far beyond anyone’s expectations. Along the way, other groups of low-wage workers—home care, airport service, child care, even adjunct college professors—have been embraced.
Last weekend saw a new milestone in the progress of the movement for 15 and a union with the Richmond, Va., convention and mass march involving thousands from around the country. Though workers of all colors are involved, African Americans are clearly the majority, with a strong representation of Latino workers as well. The Richmond events raised slogans of the fledgling Black Lives Matter movement and the demands of immigrant workers.
SEIU is also one of the unions most active around combating climate change. Others include National Nurses United, UNITE HERE, UE, and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Most are affiliated with the Labor Network for Sustainability and/or the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. Both of those coalitions are strong advocates of Just Transition, and the TUED calls for socializing all energy and restructuring and operating the industries under worker management.
Last September, at the time of our discussion in Socialist Action’s National Committee, the UAW was in the midst of negotiating national contracts with the Big Three automakers, covering 140,000 workers. Back in the day, this bargaining helped set a pattern for improvements for other industrial workers. But, especially since the transformative 2007 sell-out agreements, they have been utilized by the bosses to secure givebacks from nearly all unions.
Last year had some unpleasant surprises for the bureaucrats and their management “partners.” They had picked Fiat-Chrysler—the weakest of the three—for the lead negotiations. For the first time in decades, however, a tentative agreement recommended by the bureaucracy was rejected by Chrysler workers. This further emboldened the ranks at GM and Ford. The Kansas City-area Ford plant—the second biggest—voted to strike, ostensibly over local conditions.
Fiat agreed to rob Peter to pay Paul by rearranging the same money package, and with the use of scare tactics, their UAW partners managed to sell a second vote. More was won, including phasing out the hated divisive two-tier wage rate for full-time workers. Even then, the vote at Ford was razor thin. The lack of any substantial organized national union opposition allowed the bureaucracy to escape only bruised and embarrassed, but not bloody.
The Verizon strike
I wrote in our paper about the Verizon strike: “Strikes are the most basic and common expressions of clashes between workers and employers. Cartoonists often illustrate these fights as heavyweight boxers slugging it out in the ring. Using that metaphor, there are few knockouts. Most winners and losers are usually determined on points for the best punches and most adept footwork. Against the pre-match odds, most of the bosses’ media, as well as union officials, and left observers, award the 39,000 Verizon workers who dared to strike the telecommunications giant a win on points.”
The unions had recognized that Verizon’s “brand” was vulnerable in the highly competitive nationwide wireless market. Not only were rallies of thousands of strikers and supporters held in the numerous major cities in the strike’s East Coast jurisdiction; CWA, along with Jobs with Justice and other allies, held informational pickets at Verizon retail stores across the country.
When another Socialist Action supporter and I showed up at a Kansas City solidarity event in a major shopping center we wore our Labor Party caps. This stimulated some good, friendly discussion with CWA Bernie Sanders supporters about the need for workers to have a party of our own.
When the White House finally reluctantly intervened in the strike, with the Secretary of Labor personally mediating, it was mainly to save face for Verizon. Both Clinton and Sanders felt obliged to make photo-op appearances on the picket lines. The old taboo against major strikes in a presidential election year was successfully defied.
The final deal was not completely concession-free. The unions had agreed before the strike to contribute more toward their health insurance. But they beat back most of the onerous demands in the company’s last, best final offer. The company dropped the demand for technicians to accept out-of-town temporary transfers for up to two months and pledged not to offshore more work and to instead create 1500 new call center jobs. A first contract beachhead in wireless retail stores was established. Verizon withdrew their previously insisted pension cap, and a 10+ percent wage increase over the four-year contract was won. That’s why it was the strikers—and all class-conscious workers—who were doing a victory dance at the end.
(Above) Members of UNITE-HERE Local 634 and other trade unionists gather in front of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin High School to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters in July. (Philadelphia Inquirer photo.)