By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired
Those who regularly read this blog are familiar with the term “The Dog That Doesn’t Bark” that we tend to use when talking about the leadership of organized labor in the US. We think this term is applicable to the stifling market enamored bureaucracy that guides the organization, its theorists (students of pro-capitalism academia) and strategists. We do have to admit that there is a muffled whine that emanates from them at times when their concessionary offerings and ingratiating approach is rejected by an increasingly aggressive foe.
On those rare occasions, when they get the chance to meet with some important bourgeois or one of their prominent political representatives as the building trades leaders did a few weeks ago, they beam with admiration at being recognized by the enemy. Meeting the Predator in Chief was a special moment, validating their view of themselves that they are important people; that they are reliable allies, and the sexist, xenophobic, racist and anti-union Trump whose policies and proclamations are of great concern for their members was let off the hook. It was heaven.
Sometimes it is appropriate to quote the enemies of working people and unions to get a point across and one such enemy is Matt Patterson, the director of a vicious anti-worker/union outfit, Americans for Tax Reform’s “Center For Worker Freedom” On its website the Center affirms that, “….every worker should have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they belong to a labor organization.”.
Nowhere does it say that “every” employer should not coerce, threaten and intimidate their workers and that choices workers make should be aggressively supported. Of course people should make up their own minds free of coercion, but the bosses will always coerce. Labor history shows that they will maim and kill, drive people from homes, destroy their lives to prevent workers from organizing collectively to defend our rights and improve our working conditions.
But Patterson is right when he says that, “People aren’t scared of them (unions) the way they used to be.” BloombergBusinessWeek As long as we understand that when he says “people” he is talking about bosses, capitalists, the CEO’s at Chevron, AT&T, Caterpillar and the auto industry for example. He is talking about the ruling class.
Patterson goes on to say, “Organized labor—it’s really the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz,”
I find myself in agreement with him again except I would be more specific and substitute Organized labor for “organized labor’s leadership.” Trump never met with “organized labor” he met with organized labor’s leadership and that is a different matter. He met with them for one reason only; they are the agents of the capitalist class within organized labor and in a crucial position within it. Their role is to hold back any movement of organized labor’s rank and file that might threaten their pro-market policies, their own comfortable positions (they’re safer than corporate CEOS) and their relationship with the employers based on labor peace.
Over the post WW11 era up to the present, this business unionism worked for a significant section of the US working class. It was fairly successful during the post war upswing but with the end of the boom by the 1970’s and the beginning of deregulation begun under Carter who used the Taft Hartley against miners in 1978, the tide began to turn. Reagan sped up this process and when the Professional Air Traffic Controller Association went on strike in 1980, he fired 11,000 of them and banned them for working in that industry for life.
Throughout the 1980’s there was an attempt to overcome the obstacle of our own leadership in the national unions and the AFL-CIO under the moribund leadership of Lane Kirkland, but a powerful combination of the usual passivity and outright class collaboration from above produced some serious defeats despite heroic struggles on the part of labor’s rank and file. After the crushing of PATCO and the dogs refusal to bark, the bosses had the green light. Easter Airlines, Greyhound, Hormel and other attempts to drive the capitalist offensive back, were defeated. It’s been downhill since then.
By 2016, the percentage of workers in unions fell to 10.7%. The public sector represents about half of all union members and it is the public sector that is now coming under fierce assault after the once mighty UAW has been tamed with the help of the top leadership of that union. Despite this, we are in the position to bring the world’s number one economy to a halt. It is this that the labor leadership fears most and why they refuse to mobilize the power that slumbers in the lap of organized labor to use a famous line. For them it can only lead to chaos.
As we have pointed out on this blog, there are now 28 US states that have right-to-work laws. If the US Supreme Court rules favorably in Friedrichs vs California Teachers which seems most likely given Trump’s choice to fill Scalia’s seat, it would make right-to work a federal law. This would defund the trade unions. It would be a blow to the dogs that don’t bark because bargaining rights are also threatened. Without money and the right to sit at the negotiating table on behalf of workers, they have no job. The Democrats as well are anxious as the trade union leadership funnels millions, billions of dollars over time, in to Democratic Party electoral campaigns.
These were the concerns in the Wisconsin events a few years ago where the only two demands at issue were bargaining rights and dues checkoff (the employer collects dues though payroll) that affected the union leadership and their Democratic Party allies. The building of a movement that could drive back the capitalist offensive,that would attract millions of workers toward the trade unions was sacrificed yet again.
The response from some of the public sector dogs that don’t bark is pathetic. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry has already taken the step of announcing budget cuts and “preparing to become a voluntary organization”, that will hardly inspire confidence from the rank and file. Not only do they enter negotiations with concessions, accepting that they cannot move forward they prepare for defeat before the decisions are made.
Lee Saunders, the president of my former union, AFSCME is just as bad. Afscme has had 600,000 one-on-one with members since 2013 Business Week reports. These conversation’s are merely attempts to find out who will voluntary pay dues and who won’t. In other words, it’s merely a revenue issue. Unless Saunders took a pay cut he’s on about $500,000 a year. “We’ve found that at times we were all treating 1.6 million members as if they were activists and they aren’t.” Saunders tells BW adding that “We were tasking some things for granted”.
Indeed they were and have been for a long time. As long as the dues money kept coming in that kept their obscene salaries afloat and provided money for their Democratic Party friends things were OK. The Democrats won’t need them if they have no money but had they attended a few union meeting and been involved in the struggle “where the rubber meets the road” they would have understood the crisis our movement is in and the anger, frustration at times bordering on extreme animosity, that the average members feels toward the labor hierarchy.
AFSCME says that it has learned form this experience and is targeting workers though “e mails and Facebook ads” with information about important issues like how they can get (don’t laugh) a free associates degree through the union rather than “a call to action with an upraised fist.”
So nothing has changed, the dog is still not barking, the wizard is still behind the curtain and the members will realize that paying dues is no big deal as their dues increase while their wages, living standards, and material well being as a whole declines. As I pointed out earlier, this is why the IAMA lost the Boeing vote in SC.
The rank and file of the unions is facing a war on two fronts; one is against Trump, the bosses and the ravages of the so-called free market. The other is against the trade union leadership and their collaboration with the capitalist offensive. But this bureaucracy is like the rotten apple that clings to the tree for dear life—-it will lose its tenuous grip when the gale begins but the struggle against their policies must be in the open in order to win support among the best fighters in the ranks. I do not want to repeat ad nauseum that rank and file opposition caucuses have to be built in the unions that are linked to the communities in which we live and work and that raise demands that connect to what we need and what society needs as opposed to begging for crumbs from the bosses’ table and crumbs only for union members at that.
We must and will participate in the developing movement against the policies of a decaying system and its equally rotten adherents. Out of this movement will develop an independent working class political alternative to the two capitalist parties that have a monopoly over political life.
Lastly as we wrote in a previous commentary, the socialist left and those liberal elements many of whom occupy rungs in the lower level of labor’s hierarchy must discuss openly these very issues I am raising here at every opportunity; their silence, their refusal to mount a serious challenge to the present leadership that has brought us this far must stop as it acts as a cover for the betrayals.
Their decades long refusal to openly speak out against the present policies and campaign for an alternative among labor’s ranks must be abandoned if they are to have any significant influence in the building of a new front in organized labor.