Two Labor Partisans Propose Some Ideas for the Labor Movement

by Charles Walker

This article, and the ones that follow, are from the web site Labor Tuesday for Dec. 17, 2002. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

Barbara Ehrenreich (“Nickel and Dimed”) and Thomas Geoghegan (“Which Side Are You On?”) lay out in the Nation (Dec. 23) some strategies for turning the labor movement around, or as they might say, putting the movement back in the labor movement. They say that their ideas are not the last word on the subject and encourage others to make their own proposals. Far be it from us to discourage anyone from doing some brainstorming about our declining labor movement; but we hope that others have a clearer grasp of the enormity of the problem, the extent of the degeneration of organized labor. For seemingly Ehrenreich and Geoghegan don’t understand that our unions need a thoroughgoing transformation.

For decades now, the bosses have been rolling back many of the gains made by rebellious labor during the 1930s and ’40s, without much challenge from the unions. Why the two writers think that one answer to the bosses’ anti-labor tidal wave is to take the bosses to court is astonishing. Perhaps the authors need to recall what it was that led workers to organize unions, and how they went about it, almost igniting a civil war in the 1930s over the right to unionize. What workers want is a union that can raise their living standards and that can bring stability and security to their lives.

Without claiming to be able to do more than read between the lines, our guess is the two authors are making an attempt, a desperate attempt at that, to get the attention of AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. “We would love to see the AFL-CIO take up the reforms we’ve proposed,” they say in conclusion. “But ultimately, the labor movement is too important to be left to the AFL-CIO, however much we may admire John Sweeney and his administration. It’s up to all of us, not just them, to bring the labor movement back.”

But that statement is only partly true. It’s not Sweeney’s job to bring the labor movement back (to what, they don’t say); if it were, Sweeney would be leading a street fight with whatever weapons he had at hand to stop the travesty that’s about to befall the thousands of union members at United Air Lines. Sweeney would tell the West Coast shippers that it was time to hire more dockworkers, not de-skill the ILWU workforce. He’d be telling everyone that if the New York transit workers strike, Gov. Pataki can take the Taylor Law and shove it.

And if Sweeney were not doing these things and more, after four or five years as head of the nation’s major labor federation, workers would understand that it was because the time wasn’t right, not the leadership. That’s because he would have demonstrated his intentions not to see our labor movement misled any longer. He would have moved to kick out the thieves, who have pocketed millions from the ULLICO schemes. He would have kicked out the craven bureaucrats who golf with the bosses on Saturday after selling their union members a concessionary contract on Friday. He would have kicked out every official he could lay his hands on that stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated opposition candidates, told the members to sit down, that they were out of order; and he would have started that process in the SEIU, his own home union. He would have done all that and more by leading the ranks where they want to go.

The pair say that the “underlying reason for organized labor’s decline is that our labor laws do not let people join unions, freely and fairly, without being fired.” Yes, it’s true that the bosses haven’t passed laws to make a union organizer’s job easy; and it’s true that the labor laws that were passed under immense mass political pressure during the 1930s have been rendered mostly toothless by amendment and judicial interpretation; but the answer is not to sign up members for legal services, no matter how useful the services might be: “Two hours a year of free legal services, i.e., a consultation with a real lawyer.”

Nor is the answer to the nation’s “roaring inequality,” which the authors rightly bemoan, to be found in any other of the authors’ proposals, singly or collectively. They include: have an ACLU operate within the AFL-CIO; have an “international-solidarity membership”, whose dues “could help support strikes and organizing drives in other parts of the world;” “do a few Tammany-type things for the poor,” e.g., help them figure out their earned-income tax credit; start ten Labor Colleges in ten cities; since “unions can’t raise wages very much,” connect union membership, they say, “with a lifetime program of learning.”

The two writers also have proposals that lead to political action, but not independent political action by workers, unionized or not. In fact, they try to sell their program to the labor tops by pointing out all the new members “labor can mobilize on Election Day,” if proposals such as they propose are adopted. They imply that the labor movement’s tops’ collaboration with some of their corporate counterparts through the Democratic Party wasn’t a part of the problem.

The writers’ suggestions aren’t wacky, but tacked on to what is left of organized labor, their proposals will not drive the unions forward. The pair says that “workers now are angrier and more willing to take on their employers.” But the Machinists union leaders are presently recommending that their United Airlines members take wage and benefits cuts. The Teamsters leaders just settled an “historic contract” on the backs of their UPS part-time members. The Steelworkers and Mineworkers leaders are on their knees begging for pension protection. The Autoworkers leaders lose members every time they bargain a new auto deal. Are these the leaders that angry workers should be looking to for help?

The American labor movement doesn’t need a band-aid; it badly needs resuscitation. And the place to look for help that matters is not in the chambers and corridors of the AFL-CIO. Real friends of labor, that is, workers themselves, who have advanced to the point that they realize, as do Ehrenreich and Geoghegan, that labor solidarity is the key to the future, but unlike Ehrenreich and Geoghegan, really feel the extreme seriousness of the fix we’re in, need to turn to one another. Union reformers and militants going their separate ways are not going to slow down the overarching trend of trade union retreat and defeat. To think otherwise is to be dumb, deaf, and blind.

To resign oneself to waiting for the economy to fall off a cliff (ala the Great Depression), when, presumably, U.S. workers will once again mobilize their social power is to ignore the present opportunity to begin to assemble and put in place an experienced corps of activists, dedicated to turning the labor movement into a fighting machine. That’s the job that needs to be done right now, if organized labor is to survive and not slowly and agonizingly wither into dust.

The overriding task always is to organize, yes. But the gear that will turn the larger gear needs to be organized first. In other words, today’s job is to organize the organizers, the militants and the activists, around a program designed to replace what the writers call the “overbearing bureaucracies” with dynamic, workers democracies, that is, trade unions that fight!

The ILWU Pact: “Historic Victory”? Or Not?

A letter writer has taken note of the polar-opposite estimates of the ILWU tentative agreement by Harry Kelber and Charles Walker. The letter and our reply follow. Readers are directed to “Labor Talk” for Brother Kelber’s views:


I read your commentary on the ILWU settlement and also Harry Kelber’s. I agree with what you had to say and believe Harry got carried away somewhat with what were some admittedly positive features of the deal. He seemed oblivious to the downside. Of course, we will have to see the details of the contract before knowing exactly what was gained and what was given up.

Having said that, it seems to me that there is one critical consideration missing in both accounts. The fact is that the ILWU did come away with a better settlement than might have been imposed upon the union if the full weight of the government’s power had been brought to bear, including bringing the dock workers under the tender embrace of the Railway Labor Act. That the government did not choose to crack down all the way on the union at this point is, I believe, attributable to its preparations for the war against Iraq and its willingness to subordinate, at least for now, any union busting plans against the ILWU. After all, the Taft-Hartley injunction’s 80-day period would have been expiring at about the same time as the escalation of the war is scheduled to take place. Bush’s priorities are crystal clear and if he had to go along with the union making some gains in this situation, so be it.

In Solidarity,

A Reader


Yes, Brother Kelber views the ILWU pact as a “historic victory” for the besieged West Coast dockworkers, as well as “an encouraging example for embattled unions.” Presumably, he has the same somewhat limited access to the facts that we all have. Yet, while we see the pact as a setback for the longshore workforce, and, by extension, for all labor, he believes that the union’s leaders managed to wrest a hard-earned victory from the dock bosses and the government, a vital party to the dispute’s resolution (provided the ranks accept the pact). Who is right and who is wrong may not be immediately determined.

In fact, how to make that determination is subject to dispute. The simplest way to tell if a union has won a contract beef is to compare the new contract with the old one. If there were union-side improvements, not offset by losses, then analysts would call the result a victory for the union. Without access to the contract terms that kind of comparison is not yet possible.

However, the simplest method can be a misleading method. We say that for the simple reason that it doesn’t take into account the relationship of forces. Surely, a union that leaves something on the table that it was big enough to take away can’t legitimately claim the same degree of victory that it could if it had done otherwise. And what of the union that somehow gets concessions that the relationship of forces wouldn’t normally allow? The same considerations can be made for union-side losses. If a union, despite everything, yields concessions, it surely is not in the same category as a union that gives up without a fight (figuring that fighting back is part of the relationship of forces).

But we have been told by both the ILWU and the PMA that the deal includes what the longshore bosses were seeking, the right to introduce new technology without hiring more dockworkers. The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 26), in a gloating editorial, says: “Moreover the PMA [Pacific Maritime Association] can continue instituting new cost-saving technology as it comes along, so that it can compete with rival docks in Europe and Asia.” Labor reporter Nancy Cleeland of the Los Angeles Times, who has followed the talks from the beginning, agrees, and wrote on Nov. 25, “The contract also sets out a collaborative process for implementing labor-saving technology.” Moreover, its been stated, without contradiction, that at least 400 ships clerks jobs, are to be phased out, though the workers will continue to be paid, until retirement.

To us, that constitutes a major union-side concession. Reportedly, the dock bosses agreed to increase future pension payments by 50 percent in exchange for that concession. And then, it’s said, the bosses threw in some other trade-offs, as well. A few dozen jobs are to be recognized as under ILWU jurisdiction, and over time, some new jobs as well. But the purported size of the new pension structure is a sure sign that the ILWU traded jobs for the pension money. For the PMA the “core” issue was the right to implement new technology as it becomes available. Moreover, the PMA seemingly won the ILWU’s future collaborative assistance in implementing new technology.

If the ILWU had mobilized its members, called on all workers to join the fight, and still had been forced to accept the pension-money-for-jobs deal, then its losses would still be losses, but of a different character. Perhaps, it would have taken another historic fight, not unlike the 1934 strike, which to this day inspires union militants, to beat back a government-backed attack by the bosses. Maybe it would have taken a rebellion in the AFL-CIO to bring enough workers’ power to the ILWU’s side. But when the bosses gave every sign that it would take a fight to deter them from their “core” goal, it was clear that no amount of talking by the union could substitute for a fight.

Looking back, the ILWU settlement will seem little different, in its chief characteristics, from the retreats and defeats that have defined organized labor’s history since the 1970s. Its secondary characteristics are not answers to organized labor’s need for jobs that matter.

Note: Rich Trumka, one-time head of the coalminers union and now the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, was called an “important partner to the ILWU throughout this [bargaining] process” by ILWU President James Spinosa. Trumka declared that the tentative agreement showed that workers “can harness technology and make it work for them.” Given that boss-controlled technology has reduced the coalminers union to a shadow of its former self, Trumka hardly seems an authority on how workers “can 

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) Convention

by Donny Schraffenberger, steward, Teamsters Local 705

harness technology and make it work for them.”

 — Charles Walker

CLEVELAND — More than 200 reform Teamsters and activists met at the 27th annual Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) Convention November 1–3.

The key speaker on the opening night was left-wing writer Studs Terkel. The following evening, Ken Riley, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., spoke on the Charleston Five victory and the attack on the West Coast dockworkers today.

Also addressing the convention was Tom Leedham, principal officer of Teamsters Local 206 in Oregon and twice a reform candidate for general president against James P. Hoffa.

The convention also highlighted inspiring struggles from meatpacking workers at Excel in Colorado and IBP in Washington state and movers in New York City.

An antiwar resolution proposed by this writer and Joe Allen, a shop steward in Local 705 in Chicago, was heartily received by many Teamsters. The resolution was modeled on one passed by a recent Local 705 membership meeting — but was tabled in a vote recommended by the TDU steering committee.

The result is that the longest-standing reform group in the labor movement is silent on the war drive against Iraq at a time when increasing numbers of union bodies are voting to oppose it.

The vote stood in sharp contrast to the convention workshop on “Building Labor and Community Alliances.” Speaking along with Ken Riley was Bill Gibson, principal officer of Teamsters Local 96 in Washington, D.C. Gibson said that he opposed the Vietnam War when he was younger — and that his local is taking up the issue of war today.

Also, the convention didn’t take up the question of why TDU criticized — but did not oppose — the recent UPS contract. And although there were interesting reports from UPS Teamsters from across the country, we still need a more organized plan on how to take on the company on the shop floor. TDU’s new “Guide to Enforcing the UPS National Contract” is good, and I encourage everyone to get a copy. But we also need a fighting strategy, like the one that workers at IBP in Washington state implemented — not just getting reformers elected to office on the lowest common denominator of being anti-Hoffa.

 — Socialist Worker Online, December 6, 2002