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If We Don’t Change The Union, The Union Will Change Us

by Richard Mellor Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005 at 9:39 AM

The Bay Area grocery workers' contract continues to erode workers' living standards and strengthens the employers' resolve. Only a revolt in the ranks can reverse this trend.

Richard Mellor

Retired member, AFSCME Local 444

Oakland CA

Ron Lind, UFCW spokesperson and Secretary Treasurer of UFCW Local 428 considers the recent contract approved by his members to be a pretty good deal. He isn’t as angry as many of his members are. I don’t know the details but I am certain Ron never opposed the contract. But then, like most union officials, he won’t have to work under it. Ron also earns upward of 0,000 a year so even if he had to pay it, the a month retirees will now have to pay toward their health insurance premium wouldn’t burn too deep a hole in his pocket. And he isn’t going to be one of the new employees who will have to work five years before reaching top pay instead of one year under the old contract.

Grocery workers here in the Bay Area voted to approve the contract despite feeling miserable about it. After all, what alternative is there? The UFCW and the AFL-CIO have failed to mount a serious challenge to the employers’ increased aggression and the recent defeat in Southern California has not gone unnoticed. “Two thirds of our members agreed that it wasn’t worth a strike” says Lind. This shows how democratic he is. The members have spoken. But what strategy does Ron Lind, the UFCW and the entire AFL-CIO offer the member that is different than that which failed in Southern California? There wasn’t one. The strategy is the same and workers know that, so why go on strike.

The Union says it “did as well as could be expected under the current bargaining climate” reports one local paper. Could someone explain to me what the current bargaining climate is and what makes it different from other climates? I know that Ron Lind and all the top union officials have a lot to do with creating climates. At the end of January when UFCW negotiators agreed with the employers to further destroy union members’ lifestyles, Lind justified his actions with the following remarks in the press, ”We could have gone for a bigger wage increase, but it would have had to come out of our health-care benefits plan…….” (1)

Well that comment sends a not so subtle message to the employers I would think. The Union then gets a “labor expert” to give intellectual justification for the defeat, Harley Shaiken from U.C. adds, “This is a very good contract in a very tough context---the precedent in Southern California and the shadow of Wal-Mart.”, Shaken is the default academic who adds weight to the union officials’ argument that you can’t win and going backwards is the only direction possible.

First of all, I very much doubt that when Ron Lind says “we” he is referring to himself. I could be wrong but I doubt that his health care plan was under attack. But what sort of climate do his remarks create? They create a climate of defeat and despair and that is their intention. They tell the employer that there will be no offensive on the part of the union movement against their profits and power in the workplace. And the members are told that a wage raise comes at the expense of health benefits. So why fight? . And Harley Shaken should consider what led to the “precedent” in Southern California being the defeat it was. It was not the membership who lost five months pay. It was the leadership of the UFCW and the entire AFL-CIO who refused to shut the grocery stores down nationally.

The contract “sets the tone for another 10,000 workers…” writes Jim Knowles in my local paper, the San Leandro Times. It sure does and they can kiss some wages and benefits goodbye too. Let’s be realistic here. What can they do? The climate has been set by the labor leadership’s obsession with legality and with their blind worship of the market and the rights it conveys on the employers. They cannot think outside the box to use a modern term.

Here in the Bay Area the main strategy of the union leadership during negotiations was getting consumers to sign pledge cards, to pledge they would support (not shop) the grocery workers if there was a strike or a boycott. The grocery chains laughed at this one. Organizing consumers is not what builds unions or win concessions from employers; organizing workers is. But the dangers there is that the membership will become conscious of its own power, will want more, not just from the employers but from union leaders as well. In fact, Ron Lind’s 0,000+ salary is a mere pittance compared to some. UFCW leaders are among some of the highest paid union officials in the country. Jack Loveall, former president of local 588 here in California was on about 0,000 a year before his recent retirement. John Niccollai, President of local 464A about the same. An active, conscious membership would soon put a stop to that. But this is not the main issue; their view of the world is.

The employers intend to drive us back to the conditions that existed prior to the rise of the CIO in the 30’s. They have made this clear. The entire leadership of the AFL-CIO has no answer to this onslaught other than to beg and plead with a return to the old days, the 50’s and 60’s when things were relatively good by historical standards. And climates? In the 1990, s profits reached a 40-year high and still the labor leaders refused to go on the offensive. I would like to hear from Ron Lind or any other union official that supported this and all the other concessionary contracts we have endured over the years: What climate are you waiting for and what is the force that will bring it about?

I can answer that question myself. Get the Democrats back in power. This is the best the labor leadership has to offer. Andy Stern, president of SEIU who is said by many to be the new face of the labor movement considers Howard dean a great organizer. He is impressed by Dean’s Internet skills and SEIU’s Internet site is based on Dean’s efforts during his election campaign. Let’s face it Brothers and Sisters; we, the members, the folks who pay the dues, we have to change things.

The first thing we have to accept is that the idea that we are in a bleak climate is false. Money is everywhere; the productivity of labor is such that we could easily work three-day weeks. I was talking to a guy recently who tried to tell me that society couldn’t afford a 30-hour workweek. There are the more obvious figures about wealth like the billion profit that Exxon made or the billion that BP made or the 0 million this or that executive makes each year. But capitalism is such a wasteful and inefficient system all round. There are the billions spent in advertising drugs that are bad for you. There are the same billions spent on developing them. Then there are the billions wasted in the fast food industry advertising and selling us food that contributes to the illnesses that we have to buy the drugs to cure. This is apart from the billion or so a month the U.S. is spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, there’s money all right; the world is “awash in cash” as one big business commentator once put it.

If we are to reverse the present course; if we are to prevent the employers from taking us back to pre- 1930’s conditions we have to return to the methods of the thirties that built the unions in the first place, mass pickets, occupations, and being prepared to challenge anti-union laws. We have to reject the employers’ view of reality that is echoed by the labor leaders. We can raise our expectations.

The other thing that we have to accept is that we have to build oppositions, caucuses and rank and file committees in our unions that openly challenge the failed policies of our leaders and actively campaign against them. This is difficult as opposing the established leadership is portrayed as being disloyal to the union or even worse. But many workers and union members want a change. Their discontent with the failure of the union leadership to make gains or protect what they have often manifests itself as hostility to the union itself which is a mistake. Many workers will be drawn to an open opposition to the views expressed by Ron Lind and his co-thinkers in the labor movement. They will see an alternative and be drawn to it.

This is what we, the average union member, must consider. There is no easy way out; the alternative is further decline and no future for our children.

(1) Ron Lind, UFCW spokesperson, SF Chronicle 1-25-04

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