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Vol. 81/No. 39      October 23, 2017

(front page, As I See It column)

Supreme Court set to take on anti-union case vs.
dues checkoff

Union officials are up in arms after the U.S. Supreme Court announced Sept. 28 it will hear a challenge to an Illinois law that requires all workers covered by union contracts to pay union dues.

The anti-union lawsuit was filed by public worker Mark Janus against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and the Illinois state government. “The union’s fight is not my fight,” Janus says.

Echoing the union officials, the New York Times claimed that if the court overturns the law it “could deal a crushing blow to organized labor.”

But the problem facing workers is that our unions — and us along with them — have been losing ground for decades. The central reason is not anti-union laws. It’s because top union officials have tied our unions to getting out the vote for (mostly) Democratic Party politicians, instead of mobilizing to organize workers and build a broad social movement in the interests of workers, the unemployed and the oppressed.

The union bureaucracy fosters the illusion that by being the foot soldiers for “friendly” politicians, our “friends” take care of us.

How’s that been working out?

Over the last 43 years the number of unionized workers in manufacturing has declined nearly 80 percent, from 38.9 percent in 1973 to 8.8 percent in 2016.

Public workers union membership rose, going from 23 percent in 1973 to 34.4 percent last year. But this was based on reliance on Democratic Party politicians passing laws that expand the number of government workers who have to pay dues.

Fighting the carnage

Today workers don’t have health care, we have health insurance with deductibles so high, it’s often like no insurance at all. Real wages are stagnant. Tens of millions who want to work can’t find full-time jobs that pay a living wage. Homelessness is on the rise. Retired union members have seen their pensions slashed to the bone when pension funds go bankrupt. It’s a growing carnage.

Many union officials say the turning point was in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker, elected in 2010, pushed through anti-union Act 10, which both ended mandatory dues checkoff and restricted public workers unions from bargaining over pensions, health insurance, anything beyond wages.

Union officials blame the law — and the Republicans — for the loss of 70 percent of AFSCME’s membership in two districts.

They say the answer for workers is to put more time and money into getting out the vote for Democratic Party politicians. Their protests at the Capitol in Madison, saying the answer was to kick Walker out of office, disoriented workers. The officials campaigned to recall Walker, or stop his reelection. They failed.

A dead end for workers

When the unions were expanding in the 1930s, workers used a qualitatively different approach. They won members — and the dues needed to maintain a small staff — by fighting for gains against the bosses and their backers in both capitalist parties. They backed other fights — workers, farmers, the unemployed, youth, Blacks and immigrant workers.

Teamsters Local 574, led by members of the Socialist Workers Party and other militants, dealt with these questions in Minneapolis. Local 574 relied on the education, mobilization and democratic participation of its members to win thousands to the union.

In his book Teamster Power, former Local 574 and SWP leader Farrell Dobbs pointed out that “whether an elected officer or an apprentice organizer, all on the union staff got the same pay,” he said. And we’re not talking about the corporate executive level salaries that union tops get today.

The SWP and the leadership of Local 574 called on workers to break with the two bosses’ parties and build their own party to advance workers’ struggles and to fight for the working class to take political power.

For the union bureaucrats, Dobbs said, a closed shop — compulsory union membership and dues payments — was a “liberating instrument” because it enabled them to “more or less freely ignore or go against the wishes of the rank and file.” Whatever they did, the dues money was flowing into the union treasury.

Rank-and-file Local 574 members had viewed it differently. They had “a healthy resentment against freeloaders,” who didn’t pay dues, Dobbs said, but received the benefits of union gains.

After the union defeated the employers in a militant strike, the Local 574 staff and rank and file would regularly organize to comb the city talking to workers on loading docks, shipping rooms and warehouses to collect back dues and sign up new members.

And, if they won dues checkoff, they continued to fight exactly the same way.

That’s the kind of unions we need to fight for today.
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Railworkers face frame-up trial in Lac-Mégantic disaster
Labour Party mayor in London puts 1,000s of Uber drivers out of work
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