Friday, June 10, 2011

Unions Strike Out With Big Bankrolls and Tactical Bankruptcy

California’s largest labor union, the SEIU, is planning on making big donations to “moderate” Republicans, in a sign that mainstream unionism is for all practical purposes dead. It’s not so much that they are supporting Republicans, who are infamous for their disdain for unions, but that they continue to labor under the delusion that they can purchase the loyalty of politicians of any stripe. In this case, the SEIU believes that by supporting “moderate” Republicans they can purchase their support for regressive tax extensions that would essentially buy the state one more year of the status quo and save a few jobs and services, primarily on the backs of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

According to the Bay Citizen, the SEIU has created a new political action committee that will make political donations exclusively to the GOP. Leaders of the union said they want to “increase the number of moderate Republicans in Sacramento.”

In the past, such talk would have been anathema to unions. Rather than calling for “good” Republicans, they would have called for more Democrats, who are naively presumed to be allies of labor simply by virtue of their party affiliation. In contrast, rather than demanding austerity for their members and allies (the lower one’s income, the greater percentage of their income goes into a regressive tax), a fighting union would have demanded that the affluent and privileged members of society bail out the state (e.g., a 1-2% tax on families earning $500,000 or more per year). Furthermore, they would have avoided campaign financing entirely and started organizing for a General Strike months (or years) ago.

SEIU officials bring up the fact that 87,000 of their members are Republican, as if this justifies funneling members’ dues into the pockets of wealthy Republican candidates. However, rather than pandering to conservative members’ partisanship, unions would be much more effective and powerful if they got out of the politics game entirely. By not supporting any candidates or parties they would much more effectively (and accurately) demonstrate that they do not favor some members’ views of others. More importantly, the millions of dollars saved could be used for organizing and education campaigns, not only for members, but for society as a whole. For example, ads and commercials demanding higher taxes on the rich, and higher wages, affordable housing and free healthcare for everyone else, would be a much more effective use of union resources since the message would reach everyone, not just the politicians. It would have the potential of building solidarity among larger numbers of working people and it would plant the seed for increased labor militancy.

The Business of Unions
While such a change in tactics by the SEIU might seem shocking to liberals and trade union members, it is nothing more than the logical next step in a failed strategy the trade unions have followed since their inception.  Not only does it reflect their acceptance of the political and economic status quo (e.g., Democrats could never win in certain districts, so let’s hedge our bets with the lesser-evil “moderate” Republicans), but their acceptance of the battle rules set forth by the ruling elite: The only legitimate method to air grievances is through the ballot.
This strategy highlights the fact that the public sector unions (like virtually all trade unions) are essentially business unions (i.e., the union is a business that sells labor and whose leaders align themselves with the leaders of business). As such, their primary goal is to keep their members on the job (not laid off OR on strike). Secondarily, it is to achieve immediate short-term improvements to wages and working conditions. They do not care if there is a wealth gap or if some members of society control the majority of wealth and power, even though this reality creates the conditions for unemployment and declining living standards. If their goal is to maintain employment and wages for their members, then their focus must necessarily be on those who control hiring and the purse strings: the bosses (in the private sector) and the politicians (in the public sector). Furthermore, this narrow-minded and egocentric perspective creates competition between unions and between workers, rather than solidarity, as well as shutting out large sectors of society from the hope of union representation (e.g., initially, no unions were willing to represent graduate students because they didn’t want to invest resources into workers who would leave the industry and the union within a few years; only the IWW initially was willing to represent unskilled workers or accept non-white  workers in the early 20th century).

By increasing political financing, the SEIU has indicated that they are no longer interested in the strike or other forms of direct action. One reason for this is that organizing for strikes and job actions is difficult and time consuming. It requires an investment in organizers who meet regularly with workers, listen to their grievances, and collaborate with them to develop tactics. It requires taking risks and getting one’s hands dirty. It is not as cushy and relaxing as wining and dining with members of the ruling elite. It requires union bosses to relinquish some power and control and occasionally defer to the rank and file, who they (like their wealthy politician and corporate buddies) generally view as ignorant, angry, and dangerous hordes. Strikes, particularly general strikes, are disruptive to the comfortable, safe and luxurious lifestyles of the privileged members of society, including the union bosses. They are undignified, particularly when workers must confront scabs, goons, and state violence. In effect, a strike not only disrupts life for the ruling elite, but for the union bosses, too.

It is commonly, but incorrectly, assumed that union leaders share the same interest as their members. In reality, the leaders of the big unions (and even many local presidents) no longer (if ever) work in the industry they represent. They generally receive much larger salaries than their members (Randi Weingarten, boss of the AFT, receives over $600,000 per year in compensation) and they do very different work. They do not face the day to day risks and threats that their members endure, nor do they suffer pay and benefits cuts when they encourage compromises or discourage strikes.

On the other hand, when workers go on strike, they suffer more than anyone (including their employers and union bosses). However, it is a short-term sacrifice they recognize they must make in order to improve their working or living conditions. Not doing so not only means a continuation of unacceptable circumstances, but increased attacks by the bosses who see them as weak and frightened. Regular and ongoing strikes send the message to the bosses that workers are organized and willing to fight for their  interests and that they are not to be taken for granted. When the bosses fear an organized labor force, they are much less likely to propose cuts to pensions or the abolishment of collective bargaining and they are much quicker to come to the bargaining table to discuss other grievances.

It is clear what workers stand to gain from strikes and direct action and it is clear why bosses fear them. What do union bosses get for their trouble? Unfortunately, nothing but headaches, potential lawsuits, perhaps even jail time. They have no interest in going on strike and nothing to be gained by it, except possibly the support and respect of their members. But this does not keep their six-figure salaries flowing or their seat at the ruling elite’s banquet table. In the short-term, workers who want to see improvements in their working and living conditions have no other choice but to organize themselves and prepare for wild cat actions, since their leaders will do everything possible to avoid a strike, including making sell-out compromises. In the long-term, workers need to abandon trade and business unions entirely and start organizing militant industrial unions that include all members of an industry (e.g., teachers, custodians and secretaries in the same union), that eschew politics, and that have representative delegates who continue to work in the industry and who are instantly recallable.

Most importantly, workers need to start regularly and proudly using (and doing) both S-words: Solidarity and Strike!

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