Finding Workers Power

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

Dianne Feeley

SOCIALISTS IDENTIFY THE working class as a potentially powerful agent of change. Working people have that potential because we keep the economy running. We therefore have the power to stop production through a general strike, create bottlenecks through which a relatively small number of strikers can significantly disrupt the economy, or we can stay on the job and work to rule, slowing down production.

Such actions immediately pose the question: Is there an alternative way to organize the economy?

The U.S. working class is also capable of uniting a heterogeneous population into an effective force for change. Workers are not only producers, but people with multiple identities and multiple needs. We are of different genders, different generations, different “races” and ethnicities. When we leave work we may go back to very different communities. But while we are working together, we learn from each other, we cover each other’s backs — or suffer the consequences of division.

We have the capacity to organize collectively. But why, then, hasn’t the U.S. working class — 90% of the adult population — been able to challenge capital’s “one-sided class war” for the past quarter century? We are the vast majority of the population, we are literate, and we see the country’s growing inequality, while productivity has risen.

Has the potential power of the working class been dissipated? Has that potential been squandered? Many workers see the failure of the unions to support the airline pilots when they struck in 1981 as a crucial moment. Others point to the UAW’s willingness to take concessions and petition the government to help “bail out” Chrysler in 1979 as a decisive moment. But for the majority of the work force, that era is ancient history.

When Workers Act

While it’s hard to remember a moment when the U.S. working class took action on the scale that’s necessary, we can see what happens when even a section of the class moves into action:

* After work yesterday I went to the Detroit airport for my flight to Atlanta for the U.S. Social Forum. First we were told the flight would be delayed, then that the flight was cancelled. Passengers were told to go to another counter for rebooking. It turned out that hundreds of people had spent the day standing in line; the lucky ones were given flights for the next morning, or where able to book a flight on another airline. Others went home, knowing they just couldn’t get to where they were going in time. A few, like me, decided to drive to our destination. For me that was driving all night to get here on time: 735 miles.

According to the newspaper Northwest had put on extra flights for the summer but hadn’t called back furloughed pilots. Having forced pilots to take a pay cut, Northwest was demanding they work overtime, and what do you know, people weren’t showing up. I went to baggage claim only to discover another long line. We were told there were 8,000 bags and assured it would take hours for our bags to be pulled off the ramp. I was told not to bother; just go to the airport in Atlanta and pick up my luggage there. After this workshop is over I’m going to head for the airport, hoping my bags are there!

* Perhaps the most dramatic nationwide working-class action of our lifetimes occurred in April and May 2006, when immigrants decided the Sensenbrenner bill was so draconian that they marched in opposition to the attempt to criminalize them. Although this was a march for human dignity rather than for economic rights, it closed down many meatpacking, construction and port facilities where the majority of the workforce were immigrants.

* A similar example of a march for human dignity that had deep roots in the working class was the Million Man March. I was working in an auto parts plant and that night most Black men didn’t show up for work; in fact many Black women took the day off too in an expression of solidarity. In my plant they had to shut down areas of the plant in order to keep the main line running.

* This year is the 10th anniversary of the United Parcel Service strike. Every UPS worker interviewed on the picket line was absolutely eloquent about why they were striking. Each had a story about their own circumstances that gave immediacy to the demand for more fulltime jobs. They brought the Big Brown machine to its knees. That could have been a turnaround moment —which is why, I think, the feds had to find a way of stopping then-Teamster president Ron Carey, a dynamic union leader who provided the space for developing rank-and-file action.

Today workers are told by the media, the corporations and the government that we must “accept” the reality of “globalization” and “the market” as if these are impersonal forces. Many auto workers believe that there is nothing we can do about job loss — that all the jobs are on their way to China. Reality is much more complex.

Who Makes the Rules?

“Globalization” is not just something that happened, but something that the corporations planned with the connivance of Washington. Why is it that laws protect corporations, allowing them to increase profitability, but there are few laws protecting workers? Why is it that when the majority of workers declare they want a union, the company isn’t compelled to recognize that reality?

Why can corporations fire workers who attempt to organize, and get away with it year after year? Why can a corporation file bankruptcy as a way to break its contract with its work force? Why can a corporation get away with not setting aside the amount needed to meet its pension obligations? Why are people whose countries have been invaded by U.S. agribusiness and who come here in search of work branded “illegal”?

The fact is that the U.S. working class has very little institutional help. As they say, “the deck is stacked.”

In a democracy like ours, the basic way elections are “fixed” isn’t by stuffing the ballot box, although that can happen; the critical factor is how the election is structured. The amount of money it takes to win a Congressional seat or a Presidential campaign means that candidates must be beholden to corporate interests. Elections are also “fixed” by laws that set up a winner-take-all system, rather than one based on proportional representation.

Laws penalize any independent candidate; politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties scream that any independent has no business butting into their campaigns, and most often are excluded from the debates. Even if the Democrats pose as the champions of labor, it’s clear that they support trade policies that allow corporations to roam the world looking for cheap labor, destrolying the infrastructure of other countries.

Working people are counseled by our union officials that we need to elect a Democratic President and Congress so we can get our legislation passed. But when they are in office, it doesn’t happen. What would it be like if we had 6-7 or more independent voices in Congress? At least we’d have a team of fighters who would use their office to “tell it like it is.” We’d have a base we could begin to build upon.

Their Institutions and Ours

Today unions represent about 11% of the work force, and less than 8% of the U.S. private-sector work force. These unions, such as they are, are the only institutions that belong to us. Back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s workers in industries ranging from mining, steel, rail, auto, teamsters and postal workers attempted to transform their unions into democratic structures.

For the most part the struggles were defeated, yet the need for rank-and-file control remains. In fact since the economic downturn at the end of the 1970s, most union officials have been committed to “helping” the corporations maintain their profitability. They say that unless companies are profitable, we won’t have jobs.

As a retired autoworker, I’d like to point out that workers don’t have a say in management’s decisions. The fact is that over the years the Big Three has been designing and marketing gas-guzzlers. Now they are in a bind — of their own making. Yet top management has the audacity to state that the crisis they are currently in can be solved by cutting wage costs 20%. In article after article daily newspapers all across the country repeat management’s strategy: cut wages, introduce higher co-pays on health insurance, and dump “legacy” costs.

It’s even a broader agenda: they want more labor “flexibility.” This means almost every worker should be interchangeable, leading to deskilling of jobs and the risk of more injuries based on repetitive tasks. It includes more outsourcing of jobs. The corporate strategy is to attack the contractual gains workers have made since World War II.

Back in the 1990s the Big Three sold off its parts plants, creating American Axle, Delphi and Visteon. At the time many auto workers worried about losing the Big Three wages and benefits, and some even organized protests. The UAW’s response was to reassure workers in the sold-off plants that the union would fight to maintain the same standards. Within a decade, of course, the UAW signed agreements for a two-tier wage structure, arguing with those who dared oppose the contract that we had to keep the plants profitable.

Why did the unionized work force at these plants vote for two-tier and other concessions? For most, the pressure to trust the union negotiators is pretty intense. After all, our lives are in their hands, and many assume they must have “the big picture” whereas we only know what’s happening in our particular work site.

Some of us were able to organize against two tier, to explain how corrosive this particular concession is to the basic concept of a union. Many of the new hires might be our own family members, but even if they aren’t, allowing a tiered work force means cutting the bonds of solidarity. Why then should that lower-wage worker protect the pension of the retired worker?

As one worker told me: “Dianne, I expect the boss to be on the other side, but I don’t expect my committeeperson, my chairperson and the International to be against me.” But this realization doesn’t necessarily lead to fightback. More often it leads to greater alienation, a sense that there’s nothing that can be done.

The Battle for Democracy

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

Certainly we see the constant revolution of production today, with the universalization of lean production methods. This restructuring is an attempt to atomize the individual worker and increase management’s control. But that’s true only as long as workers are unorganized (whether formally a member of a union or not).

I offer three suggestions for how we can begin to reverse the situation.

1. We need to relaunch the battle to democratize our unions, to make them function to meet our needs and to build working-class institutions that examine the workplace and the larger community from our point of view, not from the corporation’s perspective.

2. We need to build new unions at the workplace right now. Most workers don’t have a union, and need one. But this will not happen through having outside organizers, no matter how well intentioned, collect cards. We need to start with a group on the job, committed to being the core that will launch the union, and committed to reaching out and organizing others in specific campaigns, whether it be around health and safety issues or around winning MLK day as a paid holiday. This method of organizing is known as a “non-majority union.” It does not need to win an NLRB election; it just starts functioning as a union.

3. It may be necessary to take concessions in this corporate-dominated period, but it’s necessary to establish the principle that concessions need to be labeled as setbacks. The purpose of a union is to take competition out of wages, and to stand together. If we allow ourselves to be pitted against other workers or whipsawed by other workers, we undermine ourselves. A contract that legitimizes different wages and benefits for new hires destroys the union’s potential to unify the working class and should be rejected as unprincipled.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)