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by Richard Mellor
Thursday, Jan. 07, 2010 at 7:45 PM
The turn out at the Unite/HERE rally was good but the rank and file were well contained and the same old tactics and methods that have failed us for so long are still there.
AFSCME Local 444, retired
About 1500 San Francisco hotel workers, members of Unite/HERE Local 2, turned up for a rally in the city last night. They started at 4th and Market then split in to two separate marches meeting back up outside the Hilton where 100 or so of them sat down outside as they called for a boycott of the hotel.
Much like the strike and lockout a few years ago, the strategy of the Union leadership was not to seriously prevent people from entering. During that strike/lockout, a “safe” area was sealed off with tape and workers were contained so that picketere didn’t impede the scabs. This strategy, not to hurt business in any way, was a deal sealed between the hotel owners, the police and the Union leadership and was so effective, some Union members, many of them fairly recent immigrants and not fully aware of their 1st amendment rights, thought it was illegal to picket on a pubic sidewalk outside a business.
The event last night was similarly well orchestrated. When I asked one Local 2 staffer if he was not a bit cautious about the massive police presence he said that he was not worried because, “We helped them get a Union”. “They won’t f*^ with us” he added with confidence, “We helped elect 11 of the thirteen supervisors.”
Another admitted that the event was carefully planned and agreed to by the police and the Union.
But this was obvious to any rank and file Union activist that has been around for any length of time as among those sitting down and getting arrested were Union officials or former Union officials from the California State Labor Federation as well as San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin. You rarely see these people and they are not going to get arrested in a serious clash with the police.
This scenario has been played out time and time again over the years. Rank and File Union members are brought out in numbers to let off a little steam and to put increasingly ignored pressure on the employers. Union officials at the highest levels of the AFL-CIO hierarchy come out of their offices and, along with their friends from the Democratic Party, get arrested in a photo-op to show their militancy and dedication to the working man and woman, the rank and file Union members that pays the dues.
Perhaps no better evidence of the staged nature of the event was The Hilton management’s response to it in the media this morning:
“A hotel spokesman said the Hilton did not make any attempt to have the protestors arrested if all they did was sit, but protestors demanded to be taken into custody.” (My added emphasis). When a top Union bureaucrat and a big business politician are pleading to be arrested the rank and file should be wary.
Fear of the Troops
Despite the staged nature of the even,t the mood among the rank and file was upbeat and positive. The police presence was huge with hundreds of officers present and the march and Hilton rally was accompanied by a lot of Union staffers in their blue coats. The sit down at the Hilton was obviously agreed to but its clear that while Union officials have to call out their members in order to pressure the employers a little, they are equally afraid that the ranks might get out of control. I recall this happening at a rally for the Greyhound strikers in 1980 (I think it was 1980 as there were two Greyhound strikes). A crowd of about 2000 of us were being lectured to by Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor when suddenly, the crowd just turned, left the lecture, and headed down to the Greyhound building. I remember some of the workers shouting “vote for me, vote fore me” as they turned their backs on Brown, indicating that this was all his speech was----an election appeal. We amassed outside Greyhound and some of the workers tried to enter. The police were caught unawares as they rely on the Labor officials to keep events like these within limits set by the authorities and the Democratic Party; this wasn’t planned. Eventually though, and with the help of Labor officials, workers’ efforts were shifted to picketing around the building, a long block which strung out the numbers, until more police reinforcements arrived.
An occupation of the Greyhound building would have given a great boost to the striking transit workers.
This is why, despite agreements made between the parties, the authorities feel the need to have sufficient police presence and the top Union officials do their best to keep a tight reign on the troops so that everything goes according to plan. There is always a danger that the intense anger that exists beneath the surface in US society, the anger that workers feel at the increasing disparity between us and the rich, will break through the surface, crash the barriers set by others and take a much more militant form. The line between sitting outside the Hilton calling for the hotel customers to boycott and two or three hundred moving a few feet in one direction and sitting down inside is a very thin one.
There is nothing more frightening to the Union hierarchy than losing control of the members. This is why they can’t raise expectations, why they call for “fair” contracts rather than raise demands that would inspire people to fight for. The official policy of the trade Union leadership is the Team Concept and concessions; so angry, active, conscious members threaten the relationship they have built with the employers and the Democratic Party around this view; they will demand what they need rather than what the employers say they can give.
But this dam will be breached at some point in the future. The Union leaders have to call out the troops to a point, and the present crisis, severe as it is, is forcing more workers to question the system and their activity in it. The Local 2 march and rally showed that the Labor leaders can still get people out; this should be a lesson to the student movement as it is why top Union officials have endorsed its call for on March 4th as opposed to a strike which is what the Union leaders should do, an action can be wearing a pink armband. The Union officials have far more numbers and resources to make a strike on March 4th a broad and successful one. That’s the problem----calling thousands of people in to activity is one thing, controlling what they do is another.
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