How Labor Loses When it “Wins”

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Peter Downs

A STORY IS told about a young union staffer assigned to negotiate a wage increase for members in a local factory.

Before his first meeting with management he nervously asked an older, more experienced, colleague how to do it.

“Just walk in there, slap your hand on the table and say ‘It’s eight dollars or else.'”

That sounded like good advice, so the young staffer drove off with high hopes. When he arrived at the factory, he marched into the conference room, slapped his hand on the table, and declared “It’ll be $8 an hour or else.”

“Or else what?” asked the boss.

The young staffer gulped and his face turned red. Finally, he blurted out “or else $4.50?”

Every election cycle, union leaders across the United States act like that young staffer. In between elections they bluster about holding the Democrats accountable. Election time rolls around and they drop everything to get in the candidates good graces. This year they are doing it again.

Labor leaders expressed outrage when President Bill Clinton used every trick at his disposal to get the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress, in the process handing unions their worst legislative defeat in years. Some union officials declared it was time to break with the Democrats and form a Labor Party. Others, including Bill Bywater, president of the International Union of Electronics Workers, hinted darkly at exacting retribution in future elections.

Clinton Democrats called labor’s bluff. The elections are coming, and suddenly union leaders across this land are falling in line behind Clinton and the Democrats. The difference between today’s labor leaders and the young union staffer in the story is that the labor leaders are trying to hide their timidity and uncertainty by constructing a new image of Clinton as labor’s friend. As one headline in a regional UAW newspaper shamelessly proclaimed: “President Clinton Standing up for workers and their unions.”

Things have gotten so bad that some union officials seem to have forgotten why workers form unions. The membership of a UAW local union in Missouri voted in February to invite Caterpillar workers to address a future union meeting. That membership works at General Motors. Looking ahead to a potentially tough contract fight in September, they thought they could learn something from the experiences of their co-unionists at Caterpillar. They voted 96-9 allocate $1000 to pay the expenses for some Cat workers to visit them and share what they learned in their struggle with Caterpillar.

The local president reported in March that the union’s regional director had vetoed the invitation.  “We’re putting together a program to elect Democrats in November,” he said, “and this would distract attention from it.”  One member wryly exclaimed “But of course, we don’t have unions to negotiate better wages and working conditions.  We have unions to elect Democrats!”

Pete Edge, a UAW political organizer in Missouri took the task of electing Democrats without preconditions so seriously that he wrote to every UAW local in the state to tell them not to support an initiative petition to raise the state minimum wage. Opponents, he wrote, would be able to outspend supporters and “that will make it harder to elect Democrats in November.” UAW International president Steve Yokich overruled the functionary after a member appealed to his office.

Strategy: Reward Our Enemies

Whatever happened to retribution? What has Clinton done to deserve such devotion from labor?

What did labor get when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress?

* Clinton used every resource he had — the ability to get federal contracts, the ability to write and enforce (or not enforce) federal regulations, the ability to control billions of dollars in discretionary spending, and control over some votes in the House and Senate — to buy the votes necessary to pass the NAFTA, which exerts a powerful downward pressure on wages, environmental quality and health and safety standards.

* Clinton gave less than tepid support to a bill to legislate minimal protection of the right-to-strike by barring companies from hiring permanent scabs. Companies still would have been able to hire “temporary” scabs. Clinton sat out that battle, announcing that if labor managed to get the bill passed, he would sign it.

Senate Democrats read that reluctant endorsement as meaning he would prefer not to have to see such legislation, but if it was forced on him he would go along with it. Striker replacement never passed the Senate.

After Republicans took control of Congress last year, Clinton did issue an Executive Order to bar federal agencies from contracting with companies that hire permanent scabs. But he left intact all the grants and subsidies that flowed to them. Caterpillar, for example, was one of the biggest recipients of Department of Commerce research grants.

* Clinton tried to sidestep labor’s demands for reforming the nation’s labor laws in order to protect workers’ rights to organize and to join unions.

Clinton’s labor and commerce secretaries set up a commission to study ways to “modernize” labor relations in order to encourage “cooperation” and “efficiency.”  The unsurprising result was that Republicans introduced a bill to legalize management’s ideal of efficient labor relations and worker cooperation with management:  company unions.

Clinton and the Democrats had allocated millions of dollars to Department of Labor programs designed to woo unions away from an industry-wide approach to workes’ need towards a company-oriented partnership with management.  That had the virtue, for the Democrats, of preserving a place for existing union organizations, which remain important financial backers of — the Democratic Party.

The Republican Team Act, on the other hand, chucked these organizations out into the cold. Clinton can’t afford to see one of his financial props cut off. He vowed to veto the bill if it passed.

* Clinton set the cause of universal access to health care back years. Watching while millions of Americans lost health care — and millions of others had their coverage cutback k– Clinton came up with a plan to rescue the insurance industry, which didn’t want to be rescued. He could have embraced a proposal to guarantee working Americans access to health care and the freedom to choose their own providers, while slashing health care costs by replacing bloated insurance company bureaucracies and profit-taking with a single, nonprofit national administrative service. He didn’t.

To restrain patient choice and to police doctors and hospitals in order to preserve insurance company profits, he suggested, instead, adding a layer of bureaucracy. His complicated, expensive plan was doomed to failure, but it took real health care reform down with it.

* He and his Democratic colleagues also failed to increase the minimum wage, which continued to lose purchasing power and dropped to record low levels.

Corporations ’ Candy Store

The contrast with Clinton’s labors for corporate America couldn’t be more striking. In his first three months in the Oval Office, Clinton boosted corporate welfare with increases in old programs and a host of new handouts for the GMs and GEs of the world.

Chrysler chairman Robert Eaton hailed the new administration as a “junior partner in Detroit, Inc.” He gushed that in just three months, Clinton had met with top Detroit auto executives more often than George Bush had in four years, and given them more of what they wanted.

William Morin, spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers said the Clinton administration was distributing so many goodies to corporate America “it’s tough to keep track of it all.”

Then Apple CEO John Sculley, when asked if high-tech companies liked the new “technology policy” subsidies, replied “how could we not like it, we wrote it.”

In addition to new subsidies, Clinton embraced more corporate tax breaks and lobbied for yet another cut in the capital gains tax. He apparently believes that each capitalist dollar is worth so much more than each worker dollar that the federal government needs proportionally fewer of them.

The cost of all these giveaways to corporate boardrooms is difficult to gauge. Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law estimates the federal government spends $167 billion a year on corporate welfare, costing each taxpayer an average of $1,400.

Robert Shapiro claims $114 billion in annual spending and $111 billion in special tax exemptions artificially bolster corporate profits, and cost the average taxpayer $1,886 a year.

The right-wing libertarian Cato Institute tallies the federal cost of corporate welfare at $250 billion a year, or $2,096 annually from each taxpayer.

The liberal Citizens for Tax Justice estimates corporate welfare and handouts to the rich cost the federal treasury $456 billion annually. That’s $3,823 per taxpayer, or almost $2 an hour from the wages of every working American that the government takes to give to the rich.

With Democrats like Bill, who needs Republicans?

More of the Same

Many union folk aren’t particularly happy with Clinton, but they can think of nothing else to do but going along to get along. At a special meeting on March 25, the seventy international union presidents who govern the AFL-CIO decided to stick with Slick Willy. Teamster president Ron Carey abstained, saying it was too early to endorse a candidate. The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union also abstained. Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers president Bob Wages, a harsh critic of both major parties and a leading figure in Labor Party Advocates, reportedly left the meeting room during the vote.

Already the AFL-CIO leaders are trying to cover their timidity by touching up Clinton’s image. “Clinton may not be everything we want,” they say, “but you can’t look at just three or four issues. You have to look at the whole picture.”

Clinton supporters cite a string of economic statistics and claim the credit goes to their man, while ignoring statistics that are less than positive. Interest rates, they say, are the lowest in thirty years. The combined inflation and unemployment rate is at its lowest level in twenty-five years as over eight million new jobs were created during Clinton’s tenure.

The AFL-CIO’s March 25 press release announcing its endorsement of Clinton also pledged “a $35 million national effort to educate union members and the public about elected officials’ positions on the issues most important to working families.”

If Clinton’s supporters want to give him credit for the economy, however let them give him credit for all of it, like the fact that wages during Clinton’s term remained stagnant while profits and stock values surged and CEO pay at large corporations jumped, rising 23% last year alone. Or that 20% of the population will earns less than $8,230 a year.

Steelworker officials, for example, would respond that the only thing that saved the parts of the government that protect workers and their families — agencies such as OSHA and the NLRB — is “one man with a pen — President Clinton.”

That would be the same OSHA that imposes fines on companies after workers get killed. The same OSHA that doesn’t want to burden companies with unannounced inspections. The same OSHA that advocates “partnering” with industry to let companies police themselves and avoid fines.

The NLRB so admired by union officials would be the same NLRB whose toothless bite failed to protect Caterpillar workers fired, beaten and terrorized by management, despite finding the company guilty of nearly 200 violations of federal labor law. That would be the same NLRB that fails to protect the jobs of workers who vote for unions in organizing campaigns, nearly 10% of whom lose their jobs. That would be the same NLRB that is so clogged with complaints against bosses that it takes years to act on any worker’s case, but finds itself free to move against unions that attempt to bargain over meaningful, and therefore illegal, issues.

It is time for unions to stop looking for someone else to save them. They need to find ways to save themselves. Companies show no hesitation at joining together to break the law to advance their own interests, and when they do so they win. There’s a lesson there, if unions would only learn it.

Mass picket lines, sit-ins, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts and refusing to handle struck work are weapons that we need to put back in labor’s arsenal. Unions must learn to broadly mobilize workers as a class, even if it means violating court orders and injunctions, to regain the initiative for workers’ rights.

Back in 1978, with a Democrat in the White House and a large Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, labor lost every single item on its legislative agenda. Waiting for Democrats to turn federal agencies into bulwarks of worker rights takes more faith than waiting for Godot.

ATC 62, May-June 1996