U.S. Labor: Is the Tide of Concessions Finally Turing?

Against the Current, No. 1, January/February 1986

Kim Moody

1985 WAS THE SIXTH consecutive year in which U.S. unions faced aggressive take-back demands from employers. Whether broke or profitable, awash in overseas competition or guaranteed a market by the Pentagon, U.S. corporations continued to demand that their workers accept a lower standard of living. In each of the years since Chrysler won major concessions from the United Auto Workers in 1979 as part of the federally backed Chrysler bail-out plan, there have always been those workers who resisted this shift of wealth from labor to capital. For the most part, however, they were the exceptions to a trend of surrender by the International union leaders and confusion in the ranks.

In 1985 this began to change as more groups of workers mounted concerted resistance to employer demands.

With few exceptions the change did not occur at the higher levels of the unions. The International officials continued to show a willingness to grant concessions even to companies that were profitable. But dissatisfaction and frustration from the ranks, accumulated after years of making concessions and receiving nothing in return, began to alter the degree to which a complacent bureaucracy could simply comply with employer requests.

The top leaders of the International unions saw concessions as temporary and/or inevitable. Direct confrontation with the employers was unthinkable in their world view. Instead they posed the solution in the realm of politics. The return of the White House and the Congress to Democratic hands was the first priority. Alongside this, protectionism and industrial policy, a pale version of European capitalist economic planning, were proposed to return U.S. basic industry to financial health and re­establish the economic underpinnings of labor’s lost bargaining strength.

The industrial policy schemes, however, were little more than organizational flow-charts for government, business and labor cooperation in offering new incentives to corporations to do what they had already demonstrated they had no interest in-invest in America’s high labor cost market. The political strategy was an even bigger joke, as the 1984 campaign revealed. Oddly enough, this politics-not-confrontation line found an echo on the political left where elaborate (social democratic) economic programs were counterposed to resisting concessions. Thus, the labor bureaucracy (with the tacit approval of the social democratic left) offered the ranks of labor no strategic or even tactical leadership in the fight against the employers.

A number of contract battles in early 1985 demonstrated this problem. The strike of copper miners at Phelps Dodge mines in the Southwest had entered its second year with the company taking the initiative in a decertification drive. The strikers had shown tremendous militancy and had organized considerable support around the mining towns of the Southwest. But these communities were isolated.

The leaders of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), for their part, were content to run the Phelps Dodge strike as a routine one, issuing only legal challenges to the company’s obvious union-busting tactics. Only after it was clear that their legal challenges were to no avail did the union launch its own corporate campaign.” This was a lackluster affair that was supposed to convince a heavily indebted corporation’s banker to sever relations with a company that was seeking to cut labor costs. This is rather like asking the International Monetary Fund to cut off an indebted Third World dictatorship because it is carrying out the IMF’s austerity plan.

Late in 1985, with the unions decertified, the USWA began holding rallies around the country and raising money for the strikers. It was a tragi-comic caricature of a solidarity campaign for a strike that the International had allowed to go down to defeat.

Predictably, the most outrageous surrender to employer demands came from Teamster President Jackie Presser. The previous fall, Presser had outdone the employers by asking the workers covered by the National Master Freight Agreement to accept major concessions months before the contract expired; in fact, before the employers themselves even asked for the concessions.

This act of preemptive surrender was rejected by a vote of 94,000 to 13,000. But when the Master Freight Agreement expired in May 1985, Presser was able to push concessions through in spite of considerable opposition from the membership, organized by the rank and file group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

At the same time, a strike of mechanics and baggage handlers at Pan AM collapsed as first pilots and then flight attendants crossed union picket lines. Disunity among the airlines unions was nothing new, nor were concessions. But this level of disunity indicated that even unions long under attack had not seriously considered even elemental changes in their traditional go-it-alone strategies.

On the other hand, for 15 months coal miners at A.T. Massey coal mines held off a company intent on breaking the pattern agreement of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Massey, a joint venture of the multinationals Fluor Corporation and Royal Dutch Shell, owns scores of mines, which it claims are each separate companies. Some of these mines are covered by the national agreement of September 1984. But Massey claimed that the others are separate and refused to sign the national pattern for these other mines. The UMWA struck the Massey mines on October 1, 1984.

The UMWA used Fluor’s South African connections to attack the company and link the U.S. miners’ struggle to that of Black miners in South Africa. A Black South African was hired to coordinate this campaign.

In Kentucky and West Virginia, where the Massey mines are located, active support came from other coal miners and industrial workers. On more than one occasion these workers responded to calls from Massey strikers to block scab coal shipments. The UMW leadership denounced the violence that sometimes accompanied strike actions of this sort, but condoned non-violent sit-ins aimed at preventing the movement of coal trains.

The strike was called off by UMWA President Rich Trumka on December 20, 1985, when a National Labor Relations Board ruling declared that Massey was in fact single employer and had to bargain as such. Trumka interpreted this to mean that all Massey mines were not under the national coal agreement. Massey’s President Morgan Massey, however, continued to claim that only those mines which had signed the national agreement in 1984 were covered and the rest still had to be negotiated.

In short, the strike seems to have been ended on a decision that is at best ambiguous and at worst leaves the Massey miners where they were 15 months ago. Here the problem of the leadership of the International is a little different than at Pan Am, Phelps Dodge, or under the National Master Freight Agreement. The strike was well conducted and morale was high, but the strike was ended by the International without clear progress on the actual terms of the settlement.

Victories are rare these days, particularly in competitive industries where the employers are willing to play hardball. One of the most remarkable victories of 1985, the Yale University clerical recognition strike, embodied conditions that most union militants would envy these days: a noncompetitive employer, genuine support from the International union, and a free hand to use innovative tactics including the introduction of social issues-in this case comparable worth.

The victory at Yale was by no means an easy one and without the solidarity of the various workers at Yale it could not have been achieved, no matter how relatively favorable the circumstances. But even more remarkable was a partial victory achieved in a far less enviable corner of the economy.

The workers at A.P. Parts in Toledo had been on strike against unilaterally imposed concessions since May 1984. If things had gone according to the script they would have lost big. Working for a small outfit in a declining, competitive industry with a union, the UAW, that showed no hesitation in accepting concessions, the A.P. Parts workers might well have gone the way of the Essex Wire workers a few years earlier, who were left to fight on their own.

But early in their strike they caught the attention of workers throughout the Midwest when over 2,500 workers showed up to help the 400 strikers stop scabs. Also, a multi-union organization known as the Toledo Area Solidarity Committee had been helping workers from a number of strikes, including A.P. Parts. Food and money poured into UAW Local 14 to support the strikers and help them stick it out. Car caravans from other UAW locals visited the strikers and kept morale high.

In the end, after nine months, the A.P. Parts workers returned to work with the scabs removed from the plant and a contract that would bring them back to pre­concession levels in its final stages. Ordinary workers had intervened and made a difference.

If there was a difference in the conduct of these various contract struggles that was reflected in their differing outcomes, it appeared to be solidarity: in the ranks and from other groups of workers prepared to support someone else’s fight. To a great extent this conclusion is borne out by events that took place in the rest of 1985 as well.

As 1985 unfolded the resistance to concessions grew stronger. In the summer three strikes broke out in defiance of concessions: shipyard, clerical and engineering workers at the Bath Iron Works in Maine; Wheeling Pittsburgh steel; and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9 at Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota plant. Each of the corporations involved represented important aspects of the global crisis as they affect local and regional situations and groups of workers. Bath Iron Works, like many old industrial sites in New England, had been a regional employer with a paternalistic outlook until it was taken over several years ago by a major corporation, Congoleum. Wheeling Pittsburgh is an ailing firm in the competitive steel industry. Hormel is a profitable company in an industry that has developed a significant non-union, low wage sector in the past decade.

All of the unions involved had previously made concessions to various employers. What had changed in the last couple of years was not so much the attitudes of the union leadership toward concessions or more generally toward a collaborationist policy. If anything, labor­management cooperation was becoming increasingly the official norm of the American labor bureaucracy in the second half of the 1980s. What had changed was the perception by a growing number of unionized workers that concessions had not saved jobs or in any other way lived up to the claims made for them by union leaders and employers alike.

In the case of the Wheeling Pittsburgh workers the change was particularly significant, since resistance could have meant unemployment if the company actually went under or drastically reorganized under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. The Wheeling Pittsburgh workers, however, had made concessions on three previous occasions. These sacrifices had neither saved the company nor sated management’s appetite.

One worker expressed the go-for-broke attitude of many when he told In These Times, ‘This is it. If we go down, the company goes down with us.” Another worker added, “This is the Alamo of the steel industry.” Indeed, financially weak or not, if Wheeling Pittsburgh succeeded in gouging a fourth round of concessions, the rest of big steel would certainly go for take-backs when the major steel contracts expire in August 1986.

Eight thousand Wheeling Pittsburgh workers struck for three months. The USWA ran the strike in a conventional manner. No particular effort was made by the union to make the strike a public issue. No “corporate campaign” such as that at Phelps Dodge was launched. These apparently are saved for strikes lasting longer than a year and then only when it is a case of too little too late.

In the end, the International bargained a concessionary agreement the locals had fought to avoid. Wheeling Pittsburgh labor costs were cut from $21.40 an hour before the strike-already $1.60 below other basic steel workers-to $18 an hour. Neither the local unions nor the rank and file had any organized contact among themselves. The word went out, as it has so many times before, that if you don’t buy this agreement it will mean your job. The contract passed by a huge margin.

Wheeling Pittsburgh showed that the willingness by the ranks to fight concessions is not enough. In the absence of some form of rank and file organization within and between locals the International union and the company could have their way. The Bath Iron Works strike demonstrated in a different way how lack of organization and solidarity between locals can defeat well-intentioned militancy.

The Bath strike involved two locals of the Shipbuilders Union-Local 6 composed of the blue collar trades and Local 7 of clerical workers. In addition, the independent Bath Marine Draftsmen Association (BMDA) bargained for the professionals. Locals 6 and 7 struck on June 30 in opposition to concessionary demands from this profitable firm. The BMDA crossed the lines. At first the two Shipbuilders’ locals didn’t care much, since they had effectively closed the yard. On August 30, the Draftsmen settled with a proviso that they would get the same wage increase as the Shipbuilders when the strike ended.

The real problem came when the clerical local accepted the same deal. This left the trades out all alone and demoralization was not long in setting in. To make matters worse, the Shipbuilders’ International blessed the Local 7 agreement. Local 6 felt compelled to settle for a contract that was little different from the company’s original offer, which did not include a wage increase. The irony, of course, was that under these terms neither the draftsmen nor the clerical workers, who crossed picket lines for a me-too contract, would get a wage increase.

Disunity, sought by the company and approved by the International, left everyone worse off. The problem of disunity between locals, and the absence of any form of organization to breach it and counter the Internationals’ discouragement of solidarity, was to become a theme in other key struggles against concessions as 1985 wore on. A similar fate confronted strikers at General Dynamics tank plants when they struck against concessions — in September 1985. General Dynamics is a highly profitable defense contractor. No declining industry here and nothing that passes for competition, domestic or foreign. No chance that these important defense plants would relocate in South Korea. Nevertheless, General Dynamics was intent on keeping its tank workers’ wages down.

General Dynamics was not asking for new concessions, but for the maintenance of wage levels that the union, the UAW, had conceded when the plants belonged to Chrysler. The four locals that composed the General Dynamics bargaining council argued that since Chrysler workers had now returned to Big Three parity, their wages should also rise to the level of GM and Ford workers.

The tank workers struck for eight weeks. They rejected an attempt by the International to settle below the Chrysler scale. No locals crossed the line in this case, but the militancy of the locals’ leadership was extremely uneven.

In Detroit, Local 1200 ran a highly visible strike, raising the issues of GD’s overcharges on defense contracts and encouraging active solidarity from other UAW locals in the area. Informational bulletins to the membership were frequent and meetings and rallies well attended. The other three GD locals, however, eventually succumbed to the pressures from the UAW and the company.

The bargaining council, with Local 1200 President Jim Coakley dissenting, recommended a sub-parity settlement. The offer was approved by an incredibly narrow vote of 2,227 to 1,941. Local 1200 members voted against the agreement by 933 to 240, which meant that most of the votes for the new contract came from the other local. Once again an International leadership and the company were able to divide and conquer.

At Wheeling Pittsburgh, Bath Iron Works, a, General Dynamics no particular preparation was ma1 for the strike and little or no contact was establishe1 between locals outside of conventional union channel Thus the overall initiative remained in the hands of the company and the International union.

The strike of United Food and Commercial Work (UFCW) Local P-9 at Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota packing plant stands out as a unique attempt to prepare well in advance of the strike deadline, to establish some sort of direct and independent links with other locals in the same company, and to organize aggressively for solidarity from locals of other unions. As might be expected, P-9’s rather unconventional strategy for fighting concessions has become the focus of controversy within both the labor movement and the political left. As of this writing, P-9 is still on strike and Hormel standing pat in its concessionary demands. Because of that it is too soon to really draw all the lessons of this important strike. Bu it is possible to point to what was different about P-9 strategy and what it might mean for other unions fighting concessions.

In October 1984 the George A. Hormel Company unilaterally cut the wages of its workers at the Austin Minnesota packing plant. The UFCW had previously granted concessions to Hormel in 1982. But this time the leaders and members of UFCW Local P-9 refused tog along with the International union’s acceptance of concessions. The wage cut was made on a technicality in previous agreement which granted Hormel wage parity with Oscar Mayer. When the UFCW accepted wage reductions at Oscar Mayer in 1984, Hormel unilaterally cut wages by 23%.

The contract covering Hormel was not to expire until August 17, 1985. The leadership of P-9 determined I prepare well in advance for a possible strike if prior efforts failed to rescind the wage cut. The local hired Ray Rogers and Ed Allen to run a corporate campaign in the hopes that this would pressure the company. The campaign was directed at Hormel’s major financial partner the First Bank System.

What was most significant about this campaign however, was not the financial leverage it was designed to produce. In fact, First Bank System appears to be a loyal an ally of Hormel as ever. What came to be important about Rogers’ and Allen’s work with P-9 was the frequent mobilization of the ranks to spread the word about the meaning of Hormel’s actions and its possible impact on the community. Throughout the winter and spring a 1985, caravans of P-9 members canvassed Austin and then drove in caravans around the upper Midwest to carry their message to other Hormel plants and surrounding ding communities to prepare for an eventual strike in August 1985.

From the start, the UFCW International leadership opposed both P-9’s stand against the wage cut and all of the actions it employed to fight it. The UFCW leadership, in a unique inversion of past logic, argued that by insisting on maintaining a wage level above the other Hormel locals that had accepted the wage cut P-9 was upsetting the bargaining pattern. Years before the UFCW had adopted the odd “strategy” of allowing wage reductions in the higher wage brackets in the belief that this would establish a more realistic pattern-one that could come closer to competing with the non-union, low wage sector of the industry without destroying pattern bargaining altogether.

The “strategy,” of course, only produced more aggression from the employers, who saw it as a sign of weakness. P-9 reasoned that accepting the 23% wage cut imposed by Hormel would do nothing to help any other plant and would certainly hurt future bargaining possibilities. If Hormel went into 1985 bargaining with a 23% cut in place, what would they offer the UFCW then? They were determined to fight. But first they went to the UFCW to try and get their support.

Attempting to go through channels, Rogers and Allen presented their plan to the UFCW International leaders in the fall of 1984; the UFCW rejected it. When P-9 took it upon itself to implement the plan, they opposed that. As P-9 caravans roamed the upper Great Plains, the UFCW sent out the message that other UFCW locals were not to support P-9. Later, as locals from the UAW began to express support for P-9’s struggle, the UAW International tried to pressure their locals to stay out of the fight. By the time the strike deadline arrived in August, the P-9 membership was highly active, directly involved in all of the decisions about strategy and, with a few exceptions, prepared for a long struggle.

As the strike began, support poured in from scores of local unions from various Internationals. A United Support Committee had been established in Austin to handle this solidarity. In the Twin Cities a Metro Area P-9 Sup­ port Committee collected food, clothing and money to aid the strikers and their families. A series of mammoth car caravans traveled the 100 miles to Austin bearing tons of food and other aid. Ray Rogers’ ability to command national attention made the P-9 strike a well-known symbol of the resistance to concessions.

P-9’s persistence forced the International to sanction its strike in August. Nevertheless, the UFCW leadership continued to try to undermine P-9. When P-9 threatened to send roving pickets to other plants in the Hormel system, the International promised that it would sanction these if only the local would wait until talks with Hormel resumed. Then, if the company did not move from its concessionary position, the International would instruct the other locals to respect the lines. The leadership of P-9 felt compelled to accept this offer because, if carried out, it would guarantee an effective strike against Hormel. Also, if the UFCW did not follow through, which everyone knew was more than likely, P-9 would have the procedural high ground and could then send its own pickets anyway.

As of this writing, it was expected that P-9 would begin sending out roving pickets by mid-January 1986, with or without the International’s approval. This would amount to a significant escalation of the struggle with both the company and the International.

Some of the tactics employed by P-9 have been controversial on the labor left. Ray Rogers has come under attack not only from the UFCW leadership, but also from many other AFL-CIO officials who see him and his Corporate Campaign, Inc. as outsiders — a loose cannon that they don’t control. The Labor Research Review, for example, carried an article questioning the effectiveness of the First Bank System/Hormel campaign. Indeed, the conception of using one sector of capital against another, as was done successfully by Rogers first at J.P. Stevens in the late 1970s, seems questionable in this era of closing capitalist ranks.

But the fact is that the P-9 campaign emphasized the mobilization of the rank and file in a way that helped to spread the word about P-9’s fight and was crucial in laying the basis for widespread support from unions all around the Midwest. P-9 had already rallied the kind of support that had made the difference at A.P. Parts earlier in 1985. But unlike the local at A.P. Parts, the base of this support had been largely organized before the strike even started — certainly an important advantage for a lone local taking on a major national corporation.

P-9’s fight is far from over, but the precedent of advanced preparation, membership mobilization, and broad solidarity activity in the region serves as an example to others in similar situations.

Advanced preparation, rank and file strike organization and extensive community support made it possible for Local 26 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees to defeat a major concessions package demanded by Boston hotels. Local 26 began its “Come Alive/Contract ’85” campaign in January 1985. Rank and file committees were set up in every workplace. Mass rallies were held frequently. The needs of “back of the house” workers, most of whom are female and minority workers, were emphasized in order to build solidarity across the many racial and ethnic lines that characterize the Boston hotel workforce. Community support ranging from the Massachusetts Labor Support Project, a cross-union solidarity group that has been supporting strikes and organizing drives in the Boston area for the past few years, to local clergy were mobilized for rallies as well.

The HERE Local 26 contract followed in the wake of a concerted offensive by major hotels against existing union conditions. A 1984 strike of Las Vegas hotel workers had achieved a partial victory by receiving enormous support from other unions around the country. The economy of Las Vegas, of course, is highly dependent on its hotels. Strikes of hotel workers in cities with more diversified economies such as Los Angeles and New York had ended in concessions.

Local 26 leaders tried to come up with tactics that would avoid allowing scabs to replace strikers. The strike deadline, which fell on December 1, was postponed for one day, but the union threatened civil disobedience inside all the hotels if an agreement was not reached immediately. The hotels gave in. The union did grant a four month, two-tier wage setup-as opposed to the permanent one the employers wanted-but came out of the bargaining with no other concessions and a 6% wage increase. Again, long-range preparation directed at activating the membership and rallying maximum community and labor support were key to this partial victory.

Preparation and organization among the ranks don’t guarantee a victory every time, but they usually do make a difference. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has been strong among carhaulers for many years. The Carhaulers’ Coordinating Committee of TDU prepares the ranks before each contract fight, knowing that the International will not lead real resistance to concessions. In 1985, due largely to TDU efforts, the carhaulers struck and rejected a first proposal in August, forcing the union back to the bargaining table. The companies dropped a number of the concessions in the next offer. TDU also opposed that offer, but this time was not able to defeat it. Nevertheless, they had been able to eliminate some concessions.

The strike of nearly 1,700 frozen food workers in Watsonville, California that began in September 1985 is a different case, but one in which both the existence of TDU among the workers and a good deal of external sup for their strike made a difference. Prior to the strike 1′ was a small organization among the members Teamster Local 912, which represents the strikers at Watsonville Canning and Richard Shaw, Inc.

The leadership of Local 912, headed by President Richard King, had no taste for a strike. King bragged his personal friendship with one of the employers. But extent of the employers’ concessionary demands, w included wage cuts as high as 40%, forced the local TDU was able to provide leadership in forcing the 1ocal to strike, in organizing a rank and file strike commit and in mobilizing large-scale support work in the Francisco Bay Area.

This gave the strike of largely Chicano and Mexican workers in this isolated company town a morale it would have lacked if left to the King leadership, much less International Teamster leadership. The strike was able to last into the off-season down time. The real contest will come in the early spring when the crops come in to be frozen.

Some accounts of the Watsonville strike, such as Joan Walsh’s account in In These Times (Dec. 18-24, 1985), have focused on the split among TDU activists that occurred during the local elections and have interpreted as a defeat for the strike. In fact, this electoral division represented a fairly common phenomenon that occurs during struggles where the official leadership refuses conduct a militant strike and a small opposition is for to fill the vacuum.

TDU played the key role throughout the strike du the industry’s operating period. King himself was discredited that he and his chief crony “retired” before the local elections in December 1985. The official slate was composed of younger officials, led by a Chicano who talked a better game than King had. TDU did not really have the strength to contest the entire slate. As often happens in these situations, a center grouping arose composed of some TDUers, but dissociating itself from TDU’s militant reputation in the hopes of winning more votes. TDU ran only one candidate, while another TDU member ran on his own using the TDU tag.

The turnout for this local-wide election, which involved workers from non-striking plants as well, was low — as is usually the case in union elections. The center group, the People’s Slate, did very poorly. TDU’s candidate, Joe Fahey, won one of the four full-time positions in the local, Business Manager, by a margin of two one. The unofficial TDUer didn’t win but by far outpolled the People’s Slate.

The attempt to stake out a center ground in the name of broadness failed and left the rank and file forces s for the time being. TDU’s popularity was shown in Fahey’s victory, but the organizational slate of the rank and file was weakened.

The election split, however, did not weaken the strike. In the minds of many strikers the “politics” of Local 9 long removed from any of their concerns as workers, remained something distinct from the strike and its conduct. Support from the outside, mainly from the Bay Area labor movement, continued to flow in and moral remained high as 1985 ended.

When the real contest with the employers comes spring as they attempt to start production again, the state of rank and file organization will be important. The new leaders of Local 912 are better than King and the presence of a popular TDU leader can make a difference if there is sufficient organization and pressure from below.

Resistance to concessions took an important step forward in the summer of 1985 when three Minnesota local unions sent out a call for the formation of a national organization specifically aimed at helping unions fight concessionary demands by aggressive employers. UFCW Local P-9’s President Jim Guyette signed the call along with Tom Laney, President of UAW Local 879 and David Foster, Grievance Chairman of USWA Local 7263. Two planning meetings were held, the first in Minneapolis and the second in Gary. The organization was named the National Rank and File Against Concessions (NRFAC).

The idea was to create an organization based on local unions that could provide concrete assistance to locals fighting concessions. NRFAC was not meant to be an option caucus in the AFL-CIO, much less an ideological group. Its founding conception was focused on what was clearly the central fight at the moment. NRFAC got off to a promising start. By its founding convention on the weekend of December 6-8, 22 locals had joined and scores of local officials had endorsed the effort.

About 500 trade unionists attended the founding convention of NRFAC. Furthermore, those in attendance represented many of the locals that had been on the front lines of the fight for the past couple of years. There were some groups missing: no one was there from the A.T. Massey strike or from Watsonville, and local cross-union solidarity groups such as the Toledo Area Solidarity Committee and the Massachusetts Labor Support Project received no recognition. Nevertheless, those who came represented something real in the U.S. working class.

NRFAC’s founding convention also provided little democratic discussion about the nature of the organization it was to create. Concerned with the possibility of disruption or a poisoning of the atmosphere by certain sectarians on the left, the conference organizers rammed things through rather than attempting to deal politically with a variety of ideas and proposals. Thirty minutes was allowed for the passing of the bylaws of the new organization. This session and the election of officers that followed were run in a heavy-handed manner. An amendment proposed by Maralee Smith of the TDU allowing rank and file and unemployed organizations to affiliate and select members for NRFAC’s Executive Council was met with an impatience hardly called for in a group that proposed to represent the rank and file.

In the end the convention organizers got their way on almost everything, particularly the leadership positions. But they left a bad taste in the mouths of many who had come to the convention hoping to found a democratic movement to fight concessions.

Another problem was that the organizers of NRFAC came to the convention without any plan or indication of what NRFAC would do. Mutual support was implied in the call, but there was no discussion of how to help one another resist the employers. Workshops dealt perfunctorily with tactical questions and a last-minute motion from the floor made the “Adopt a P-9 Family” program a project of NRFAC.

What seemed clear was that actual NRFAC programs and actions would be decided by the leadership. NRFAC’s structure also guarantees that only representatives of local unions that officially endorse NRFAC can set up local or city-wide NRFAC chapters. Aside from the fact that this limits leadership bodies to a small number of local officials, since even the organizers of NRFAC say they will consider the project successful if 50-60 locals affiliate, this structure makes it hard for activists to get NRFAC off the ground in areas where there are not a significant number of affiliated locals.

More importantly for the long run, NRFAC’s restrictive structure excludes many elements who have been resisting concessions for years. TDU and its chapters are not eligible for affiliation. Strikes like Watsonville where the local leaders are not leading the fight and would never associate with something like NRFAC are locked out. Locally based, cross-union solidarity committees, many of which have played a leading role in resisting concessions for some time now, are also denied any direct influence in NRFAC as it is currently structured.

NRFAC potentially represents the best attempt to date to raise the fight against concessions to a higher plane. It is to be hoped that those in the leadership of NRFAC who represent real rank and file unions, such as the leaders of P-9 UAW locals 879 and 1200, and some of the steelworker locals that have affiliated, will see that NRFAC is run in a flexible manner and is opened up to other rank and file forces. If NRFAC can develop viable, democratic local organizations capable of providing concrete support to key strikes and of initiating multi-union solidarity organizations, it can play a significant role in strengthening the fight against concessions. If it can broaden its concerns enough to see the importance of social issues, which made the difference in strikes like Yale and the Boston hotels, it can become the sort of organization that American labor needs.

The concessions drive of U.S. capital enters its seventh year in 1986. Contrary to the wishful thinking of some labor leaders, this drive will not slacken. A survey taken by the Bureau of National Affairs showed that employers whose labor contracts expire in 1986 are planning to demand a wide range of concessions. Twenty-two percent of the manufacturing employers surveyed said they would grant no wage increase. Those who were willing to pay more saw the increases confined to 2-4%, an indication of the downward pressure of concessions on wage levels generally. About a third of these employers planned to seek two-tier wage agreements — a popular concessionary demand for the last couple of years. Indeed, 96% of the employers polled who already had two-tier wage structures said they would keep them. The BNA survey also showed that attacks on benefits, particularly medical benefits would continue·.

Concessions are a product of the crisis of capitalism. They are by no means simply a function of the business cycle-prevalent in recessionary times, mild during recovery-as many academics and labor leaders once thought. Aggressive demands for give-backs did not slacken with recovery in 1983. Profound structural changes produced by the crisis have strengthened the hands of employers throughout the capitalist West.& The combination of global competition and the internationalization of most giant corporations has thrown the unions into a defensive posture and rendered many traditional modes of functioning ineffective.

But the actual concessions granted in the U.S., reluctantly or not, have far exceeded those in any other advanced capitalist nation. One reason often cited is the relative weakness of the “safety net” provided by America’s modest and declining welfare state. Lacking public health care, income maintenance, and other social programs common in Europe that cushion the effects of unemployment, U.S. workers are more vulnerable to threats of plant closings or workforce reductions. But of at least equal importance has been the willingness of the U.S. labor bureaucracy to grant concessions in the belief that what is good for the company is good for the union-even if not all its members.

Class collaboration as a trade-union philosophy has certainly reached its high (low) point in the U.S. Countless labor officials can always be found to praise labor-management cooperation schemes such as quality of work life programs. The AFL-CIO’s mildly self-critical report, ‘The Changing Situation of U.S. Workers and Their Unions,” calls for a new spirit of cooperation. This report, which is supposed to guide organized labor in new directions, doesn’t even acknowledge the concessionary drive that has swept through almost every organized industry.

In the U.S., concessions are only one of the many problems faced by unions in decline. It has been fashionable on the left to argue that saying no to concessions is not enough. Rather than an alleged knee-jerk militancy, the argument goes, labor needs an elaborated economic program to deal with the crisis and a deeper commitment to political action.

In fact, socialists know very well that American labor needs a great deal more than all of these things. Not the least of what is needed is an entirely different conception of the proper relationship between labor and capital: a 180 degree tum from collaboration to confrontation. But what the critics of “contract militancy” have missed is that nothing will change in the U.S. labor movement unless the rank and file begins to move in a massive way. This requires program and direction to be sure, but it also requires the will to struggle. That struggle is now centered on the fight against concessions and that is where socialists should be.

January-February 1986, ATC 1

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