Labor Briefing: March 2017

By BILL ONASCH

A Clean Win For Janitors—It took six years of strikes and demonstrations, but the tenacity of 600 Twin Cities janitors, nearly all people of color, many of them immigrants, has secured a first union contract. It was a tripartite struggle. These members of SEIU Local 26 actually clean Big Box retail stores like Target, Best Buy, and Macy’s. But their paychecks come from janitorial service companies contracted by these high-profile merchants. The pressure on these retailers, who didn’t like being associated with the ruthless exploitation by their contractors, is what finally won a first agreement that can win even better future gains. This concludes the Good News section of this month’s Briefing.

Fake News—I received a gushing e-mail from Jobs with Justice about a “breakthrough settlement” ending a 105-day strike at the Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant in Waterford, N.Y. I am always eager to find some upbeat labor stories, so I did some digging. I found a comprehensive description of the deal, brokered by Democrat (and Working Families Party) Governor Cuomo, in the Albany Times-Union, a paper often giving fair coverage to unions.

That paper’s honest reporting made clear that the breakthrough benefited only the hedge fund vulture owners determined to make Momentive more attractive for a “flip” to another buyer. The final deal was even more onerous than what the workers in two IUE-CWA locals had overwhelmingly rejected when they went on strike in November.

Retiree health insurance was eliminated and active worker benefits greatly reduced. A week of vacation time was lost. The signing bonus in lieu of a wage increase was further slashed from the pre-strike offer of $3000 to $1000. And the agreement did not guarantee reinstatement of 27 workers fired for “strike misconduct.”

I would never second-guess workers, most with families to support, who after going without pay for more than three months reluctantly decide it was time to go back to work with their union intact to fight again another day. Even then, the vote in the main local of production workers was no slam dunk—317-211 to accept the Governor’s deal.

I don’t know enough about the union’s strategy and tactics to rush to judgment of a “sell-out.” Sometimes the relationship of class forces confounds even ably led unions. There is no dishonor in losing a bravely fought battle. But those who try to spin a devastating defeat in to a breakthrough victory deserve nothing but contempt.

The Decline of the Strike—In last month’s Briefing, we looked at the annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed another decline in union membership and density numbers. This month we’ll deal with the BLS report on strikes.

While there was actually a slight uptick in the number of strikes, strikers, and strike durations last year over 2015 numbers, it is unlikely this indicates a reversal of the decades-long decline in these stats. The big CWA-IBEW strike against Verizon is what swelled the 2016 figures.

However, there are some caveats to keep in mind in analyzing the downward trend. The BLS only counts strikes or lockouts of 1000 or more workers. The Momentive strike that began last year is one example of those too small to be counted. A thousand was a more reasonable cut-off when these reports began in 1947. But private sector workplaces have been greatly reduced in size by technology and outsourcing. National contracts that once covered tens, even hundreds of thousands of workers are today rare, and the few remaining have shrunk drastically. Nor are short strikes by workers without a certified union—such as the Twin Cities janitors and thousands of fast-food workers—tallied.

But these factors, which also contributed to union membership loss, don’t fully account for the much steeper decline in strikes that have plummeted over the last few decades. From 1967-76 there were 3321 major strikes. For 1987-96 that number was down to 404. In the just concluded 2007-16, there were only 143.

The Labor Briefing format is inadequate for an in-depth analysis of the factors leading to this paucity of strikes—the traditional “ultimate” workers’ weapon in the class struggle in the workplace. It certainly involves a dominant trend of the mainstream union bureaucracy to seek “partnership” with the boss. This leads to peaceful surrender of hard won past achievements in wages and conditions—especially through odious tiered wages and benefits affecting only new hires, undermining solidarity.

The IAM’s Debacle In North Charleston—The class collaborationist bureaucracy that abhors strikes also poisons organizing efforts—dramatically illustrated last month in the dismal failure of the IAM’s drive to organize Boeing’s runaway plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. The final vote was 2097-731. The IAM vote total shMArch 2017 Boeingowed they lost the support of more than 700 workers who had signed union authorization cards that led to the election.

Most early commentators speculated that the Machinist organizers had gone off half-cocked and didn’t do the necessary home visits and community outreach. That the election was premature is valid—but that decision was made several pay grades above the organizers on the scene. All indications show that the field organizers used all the best practices. They were assisted by the small but militant local labor movement—especially the predominantly African-American Longshore and ATU transit locals. They spent an allowed $20,000 on television advertising.

Of course, as could be expected, the company, and the area Chamber of Commerce, spent a lot more money warning that unions would block economic growth. Boeing used their “captive audience” meetings with workers to not only slander the union that is a “partner” in Seattle and other places, but also exposing some inconvenient truths.

They revealed not only the rotten sell-out deals the International leaders had imposed at Harley-Davidson but also at Boeing in Seattle. There the top bureaucracy collaborated with Boeing and state politicians against the local union to force a contract reopener with enormous give-backs. Undoubtedly, many in South Carolina concluded they didn’t need a union to negotiate cuts in wages and benefits.

Mike Elk, Michael Schreiber, and Adam Shils contributed to this month’s Briefing. If you have a story appropriate for this column please contact billonasch@kclabor.org. Photo: A Boeing work in North Charleston, S.C.