Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Great Strike Wave of 2011? (Part II)

In the Great Strike Wave of 2011 (Part I) I talked about the Verizon strike and the impending Southern California grocery strike, as well as the foreign exchange student strike at Hershey. Today I will discuss other recent and impending strikes and the implications for the labor movement.

Other Strikes and Potential Job Actions
UAW members working for Ford will soon be taking a strike vote as the deadline for their new contract approaches. However, considering the UAW’s disgraceful sellout to Chrysler and
GM, including agreeing to no-strike clauses, it is virtually guaranteed that the UAW will try to sell out Ford workers, too. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that workers will strike despite their union, which could add tens of thousands more to the total number of striking workers.

Last week, hundreds of cement workers walked off the job at the World Trade Center and other New York sites in protest of management’s demand that they accept a 20% pay cut. The walkout lasted three days, Working in These Times reported, and occurred despite the fact that they were working under a labor agreement that banned strikes and without support of their union leadership.

Around the same time, the 25,000-strong New York City District Council of Carpenters authorized a strike vote if an agreement could not reached on their contract, setting the stage for the first city-wide construction strike in 80 years. However, the cement workers cut a deal with employers this week, averting a major strike. The details of their agreement are not yet available, so it is difficult to tell how much, if anything, they conceded. The situation for carpenters, on the other hand, is still unresolved, with the deadline for resolving their contract recently being extended until August 26.

There have also been numerous smaller strikes this week, including one at the Boathouse Restaurant, in New York’s Central Park, and another by workers at a water pollution treatment facility in San Jose California. If we include the basketball and football strikes, the maritime strike on the Great Lakes, several west coast long shore work stoppages, numerous other smaller strikes, and the major protests in Wisconsin, 2011 has already surpassed 2009 and 2010 combined (the 2 lowest years on record) for the sheer number of strikes and far outstripped those years in the total number of striking workers.

None of this is any guarantee that 2011 or 2012 will see any major victories for labor, but it’s a good start. The greater the number of workers engaged in job actions at a given time, the greater the chances that some of them will win, particularly if they support each other’s actions to increase the overall pressure on the bosses. A major victory by grocery workers, for example, is in the interests of all working people as it could infuse the labor movement with new energy and inspire more workers to organize and fight back, leading to more victories and an increase in union membership and participation. It would also send a message to the bosses that labor is not dead and that any continued slashing and gutting will be costly and painful for them.

Workers’ Tough Row to Hoe
Unfortunately, CWA and IBEW officials have ordered their members back to work at Verizon, while the details of a contract get hammered out with the bosses. They have also accepted a 30-day cooling off period, where all strikes are off the table, thus taking the winds out of their sails and reducing the chances that they’ll be able to build up the strength and momentum of their recent 15-day strike. It also takes the pressure off the bosses, allowing them to return to their old tricks and to bargain in bad faith.

If workers hope to slow down the assault on their working and living conditions, let alone make any significant gains, they will have to fight not only their bosses, but their union bosses, as well, as demonstrated by the UAW and numerous other unions, particularly in Wisconsin, where the unions ordered their members back to work despite the fact that there were already thousands of angry workers skipping work and willing to risk getting arrested. Many wanted a general strike. Instead, union leaders argued for a political settlement that never come and that no potential to improve wages or benefits.

Workers also need to recognize that their fates depend on the fates of their fellow workers and be willing to take some risks and make some sacrifices on their behalves. Teachers, for example, should be organizing for a general strike, not only to halt budget cuts that threaten their livelihoods, but to halt the cuts that threaten their students’ families and support services for children. They need to be willing to take job actions to support their clerical and custodial colleagues, not only because school custodians and clerical workers make teachers’ work easier, but because they need reciprocal support when they strike. Teachers need to be willing to take job actions in opposition to NCLB, charter schools and vouchers, not only because it threatens their working conditions, but because they are big giveaways to corporate vultures who are not only raiding public education, but the entire public sector.

Strikes are risky. We lose wages and risk losing our jobs when we go on strike. However, by not striking the losses are guaranteed: declining wages, slashed benefits, increased workloads, and emboldened bosses who constantly want more and know they can get it.

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