While we are allegedly in a “recovery,” mass layoffs and corporate bankruptcies are occurring in sector after sector of the workforce, including the postal service, American Airlines, Archer Daniels Midland, Kodak, and Procter & Gamble. Unemployment remains at a staggering 24 million when part-timers who want full-time work are included.
While the mass media is screaming about employment gains, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there has been a net loss of over 5 million jobs since the financial crash of 2008. Poverty and near-poverty rates have reached record levels across the country while bosses place wages and benefits on the chopping block.
Labor unions are facing a vicious attack on an unprecedented scale not only by Republicans, but also by Democrats in Congress and many statehouses. 2011 saw right-wing governors in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio attempt to pass legislation to strip the unions of collective bargaining rights. In Congress, prominent Republicans have called for the abolition of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union representation elections and labor laws.
In January of this year, the unionization rate fell to 11.8% of the workforce – from 35% in the 1950s – with only 6.9% of workers in the private sector and 37% of public sector workers belonging to a union. Last year, the number of unionized public sector workers surpassed the number of unionized private sector workers for the first time.
In the auto industry, where longtime union workers are making $29 per hour with defined benefit pensions, new union hires are now making $14 per hour with defined contribution pensions and contracts that do not allow for pay to increase beyond $19 per hour. This represents a new pattern where union and non-union plants are now cutting wages and benefits across the board. Many corporations are moving production from Canadian factories and plants into the U.S. to take advantage of the low wages.
In the public sector, the fiscal crisis of several states has opened the door for a savage attack on workers, with nurses, teachers, fire fighters, government workers, and bus drivers accused of being “privileged.” In the last year there have been huge attacks, especially by Republican governors and legislatures, attempting to strip workers of collective bargaining rights – and often succeeding.
While the unions were successful in repealing the legislation in Ohio, many other states, including Indiana in February, have recently passed anti-union “right to work” laws, with more coming up in states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. The so-called “right to work” laws, now enacted in 21 states, enable employees covered by private sector contracts to opt out of union membership and dues payments, severely undermining the unions.
While polls show that unions continue to be popular with workers, unionizing efforts have been largely dropped by both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federations who, despite the fact that they have over 16 million members and huge resources, have been largely ineffective, mostly concentrating on voter registrations for the Democrats. (See the page 3 article on the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Obama.)
Occupy Enters the Scene
The Occupy movement has played an important role in mobilizing street protests and exposing the policies of Wall Street and corporate America. It also played an important role in supporting the struggles of the longshore workers in Longview, WA and the Los Angeles port drivers, and in building other West Coast port actions, including the shutdown of the port of Oakland in December of last year.
Although Occupy activists should not work unilaterally and need to find a way of coordinating better with union members and other workers, these actions have helped put the idea of mass, determined, militant collective action – traditions from the 1930s labor struggles that built the unions – back into the discussion about how to fight the bosses.
The protests immediately provoked a major debate in the movement and created tensions – within AFL-CIO West Coast labor councils as well as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) – between those that supported the bold action and those that opposed it.
In many ways, the Occupy movement has provided a challenge to the conservative union leaders in the U.S., who have been observing the attacks on workers without lifting a finger to organize an effective fight-back. The Occupy movement has inspired a new generation of young people who want to build a dynamic, powerful movement of working people, relying on our power to protest, organize, and disrupt business as usual.
This vision is not shared by most union leaders today, whose conservative outlook has been shaped by a period of huge setbacks for labor as well as by salaries and benefits that are 5 to 10 times those of an average union member. For example, AFSCME president Gerald McEntee took home $479,328 in 2009, and AFT president Randi Weingarten got $428,384 in salary and benefits. While the typical union member in the US made $48,000 in 2008, the number of union officials earning over $150,000 tripled between 2000 and 2008!
By failing to lead a generalized fight-back against attacks of the bosses over the last 30 years, the present leadership has weakened the whole tradition of struggle in the unions. More and more, the current union leaders are reduced to spending billions of dollars and mobilizing members to get Democrats elected – a party that has sided with the 1% again and again.
What is needed to reverse the situation for workers and the labor movement is exactly what the Occupy movement has demonstrated: bold, mass, militant direct actions and strikes that utilize the power of organized workers. This can rebuild fighting traditions in the unions and also inspire other workers to join unions.
While some labor leaders have supported the Occupy movement with some donations and organizing marches here and there, their support is still pervaded by the same old conservative methods and policies, with the aim of controlling the movement. This can be seen most clearly with SEIU trying to corral the movement into support for Obama and toothless, ineffective protests.
Potential Powerful Challenge
Despite the ambiguous and conservative role played by the leaders, an important section of rank-and-file union members and non-unionized workers is enormously inspired by and attracted to the ideas of struggle that have re-emerged with the Occupy movement. This shows the potential for building a powerful challenge to the conservative policies of the present union leaders and for rebuilding the labor movement on the basis of fighting policies and determined mass action: occupations, mass actions, and general strikes; organizing the unorganized; defiance of crippling anti-union laws; and building a mass workers’ party to defend the interests of all working people.
This possibility will only be fully realized if Occupy activists, socialists, and rank-and-file union members develop clear fighting demands to rally workers, at the same time systematically organizing inside the existing union structures to transform the unions into militant, democratic workers’ organizations and reclaim them from the conservative bureaucrats. This can be done by building mass opposition caucuses to rally around demands such as leaders making the same amount as the members they represent, campaigning for fighting policies, waging campaigns against concessionary contracts and budget cuts, and building a new political party of workers to end the hopeless reliance on the Democrats.