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Wait: I'm Confused

by Richard Mellor Monday, Dec. 22, 2003 at 5:58 PM

The Labor leadership's handling of the grocery workers strike and continued reliance on "friendly" employers and the Democratic Party leaves many workers wondering what's next.

Wait: I’m Confused

"Brethren we conjure you...not to believe a word of what is being said about your interests and those of your employers being the same. Your interests and theirs are in a nature of things, hostile and irreconcilable. Then do not look to them for relief...Our salvation must, through the blessing of God, come from ourselves. It is useless to expect it from those whom our labors enrich."

It is quite fashionable to poke fun at the low level of class-consciousness that exists among U.S. workers today. Yet in the last 25 years, years that for me have been spent as an activist in the trade union movement, I have witnessed great struggles by U.S. labor against the forces of capital. In a small supportive way I was involved in the great struggle in Austin MN between meatpackers of UFCW Local P9 and the Hormel Company, a strike that was eventually crushed by a combination of the employers, the UFCW International and the entire AFL-CIO apparatus.

Hormel hasn’t been the only great clash between capital and labor over the past period. Eastern Airlines, Greyhound, Pittston, Detroit Newspaper, Diamond Walnut, Staley are just a few. There is no doubt that during the eighties in particular there was an attempt by the organized working class to go on the offensive. But despite the heroism and sacrifice on the part of the rank and file union member, these strikes were all defeated. The responsibility for these defeats falls squarely on the shoulders of the labor leadership at the highest levels. It has been their policies, their refusal to go on the offensive that has led to one defeated strike after another.

In a foolish moment of weakness I thought that perhaps things couldn’t get worse. But as I read the papers this week the reports on the California grocery strike bring me back to earth. It is no wonder that class-consciousness is at the level it is. Just a few days ago it is reported that the Union leaders are going to get tough. They are going to “broaden” the strike, do something nationally. .I am not fooled by this as getting tough normally means a boycott and writing your congressman but I am sure many of the striking grocery workers are pleased at such a development; after all, they’ve been out 10 weeks. In fact, the Union leaders assured the employers that they won’t get tough but they do have some preachers from the civil rights movement who are prepared to.

A big union strategy meeting to support the strike is called in Southern California. Participating in the meeting according to the San Francisco Chronicle are “Miguel Contreras, executive secretary- treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor; Sean Harrigan, executive director of the UFCW State Council; Art Pulaski, executive secretary- treasurer of the California Labor Federation; Walter Johnson, secretary- treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council; and heads of several other unions.”

But alongside this, pickets are called off the retailers warehouse facilities. "We're late in the 10th week of the strike and we wanted to make a gesture to the companies to show good faith going forward," said Barbara Maynard, a union spokeswoman.” Is this making sense to anyone? Good F***** faith? So they’re spreading the strike and they’re removing pickets and they’re having a meeting to organize support and they’re showing good faith.

Here lies the answer to the question: Why is there a high level of confusion among U.S workers?

Walter Johnson, head of the San Francisco Central labor Council had this to say about the strike, “Southern California unionized groceries should stop fighting against labor and start fighting with labor” against such super stores as Wal-Mart....”

What is this? The unionized groceries want to be like Wal-Mart. The unionized groceries are better places to work because of unions despite the grocery store owners. Does brother Johnson seriously believe that the unionized grocers want to help workers and unions fight Wal-Mart? They are in league with Wal-Mart. It’s hard to believe that Brother Johnson has this as a strategy but sadly he, and the entire AFL-CIO leadership do and this is why we can’t win strikes and why are standard of living is declining. It is also why the labor leadership cannot organize.

I attended the rally in San Francisco yesterday (12-21-03). There were the usual speeches and threats of lawsuits etc. There were many examples of why the labor leadership’s policies are so disastrous, and why they drive the average member away from the Union movement, or at best away from any thought of activity.

One of the keynote speakers was San Francisco’s Mayor-Elect, Gavin Newsome. He was the candidate of the labor movement in San Francisco for the most part. Newsome warned recently that city workers, who took a 1.7% pay cut two years ago and another 7.5% last year, will be expected to do the right thing again this year. He had this to say about his Union support: “I never made one commitment to any public employee union with regard to any contracts or negotiation as relates to my refusal to consider layoffs or rollbacks or whatever.” (SF Chronicle 12-15-03)

Here is Newsome publicly assuring the employers that it will be working people that continue to pay for the economic crisis not them. On top of that, he is so confident that the Union leaders will stick with him in this endeavor that he can announce it publicly in a mass consumption paper.

Working people are not stupid. We see that our officials are supporting politicians who will continue to attack our standard of living yet here they are proclaiming their support for our causes at a Union rally. The power of working people cannot be harnessed with this method. Of course, the Labor leadership knows this, too many members showing up in one place would be dangerous, and things would get out of hand. Workers might even occupy a Safeway instead of walking harmlessly round and round in the parking lot as we did at yesterday’s rally. Newsome’s real purpose for being at yesterday’s event is to ensure that it doesn’t get out of hand, that our activities remain passive, within the parameters accepted by the employers, the law and the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, our standard of living continues to decline, the attacks on the job intensify, and the Union appears to the average member as a powerless, employer friendly organization that takes their money.

The dominant ideology, the employers ideology, the ideology of capital, goes unchallenged in society. On every social issue they have the last word, no, the first and last word. The heads of the labor movement who head an organization with some 14 million members who control the economic levers of society offer no alternative to big business ideologically and no resistance to them politically or in the workplace. The Union leaders policies of collaboration, their damage control strategy, means we will travel a tough road ahead, we will experience some hard knocks that could have been avoided. Any attempt from the rank and file of Organized Labor to change course will inevitably mean a confrontation with the established Union hierarchy but this is unavoidable. Until this situation changes, until we return to the traditions that built our organizations in the first place, occupations, mass picketing, collectively challenging anti-Union/worker laws, it is quite possible that the AFL-CIO’s membership will continue to decline in the short term.

1840's appeal from New England laborers to their fellows to abandon the idea that the employers/capitalists would solve working people's problems. Philip Foner History of the Labor Movement Vol. 1 p192

Richard Mellor

Member, AFSCME Local 444

Oakland CA

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