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Vol. 75/No. 12      March 28, 2011

Today’s union fights: How we got here
and the solidarity we must keep building
‘We’re meeting workers we’ll be fighting
alongside for many years to come’
“We met people at this action we’ll be working with for many years to come,” Alyson Kennedy told the Militant, after participating with more than 8,000 workers, unionists, and supporters in an Indianapolis labor rally March 10. The action was called by the state AFL-CIO in response to a union-busting bill now before the legislature there.

Kennedy, a Socialist Workers Party leader currently living and working in Chicago, has been involved in union battles in the coal mines and other industries since the late 1970s. Her response to the Indianapolis union protest reflects the realization of thousands of union militants and working people—engaged in labor actions from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio to Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Texas, and elsewhere—of struggles to come and who will be decisive in their outcome.  
Footloose labor militants
It’s not just public employees directly on the firing line who are rallying to these fights today. Far from it. Industrial workers and unionists, farmers, and youth and students—from every corner of the United States—have jumped into cars, vans, and buses, and onto airplanes. They’ve met up in Madison, Wisconsin, and other areas where the first showdowns between working people and the employing class are taking place since the sharp acceleration of the capitalist economic crisis in 2007.

This solidarity is in the traditions of footloose labor militants who helped build the industrial union movement. Kennedy reports that contingents of United Steelworkers (USW) members from mills in Gary, Indiana, and Chicago joined the Indianapolis action. Mobilizations in Wisconsin have drawn workers from Los Angeles and New York, as well as unionists engaged in their own battles—like members of USW Local 7-669 in Metropolis, Illinois, fighting a lockout by Honeywell at a uranium conversion plant, and members of Local 48G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, standing up to union busting by Roquette America in Keokuk, Iowa.

Workers from different parts of the country, from different industries and unions, are getting to know each other. They’re sharing lessons from battles, big and small. And they’re going back to factories, mines, and other workplaces better armed to win support for these struggles from coworkers on the job and from their own and other unions.  
Trying to turn the spigot off
That’s exactly what is feared by the bosses, by their political organizations—the Democratic and Republican parties—and by top labor officials who carry water in the working class and unions for the capitalist parties, the Democrats above all.

To liberal politicians and union officials, demonstrations like those we’re seeing are not a means to increase workers’ solidarity, self-confidence, combativity, and class consciousness. Instead, they view these actions as a spigot to turn on or off to advance 2012 election prospects for the Democratic Party.

Right now they’re looking to turn the spigot off.

Responding last week to the Wisconsin state senate’s adoption of antilabor legislation, the liberal editors of the New York Times wrote: “Now union members have to make sure they do not stay away from the polls again when their rights are at stake.”

Continuing its editorial cheerleading for assaults by governors in New York and other states on public employees’ wages and conditions, the Times sheds crocodile tears for workers in Wisconsin, “especially once the unions had agreed to significant concessions on pensions and health care.” The editors conclude that many workers “understand the power play” by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majority. “The place to exercise some power of their own is at the voting booth.”

What deals the biggest blow to labor is when words like these—and the course of action such words seek to justify—come from those posturing to represent the working class and unions.

In a March 10 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka boasted that the Wisconsin bill’s adoption would be “a galvanizing moment” for labor and benefit President Barack Obama’ reelection in 2012. “Thank you, Scott Walker,” Trumka said.

And in a Wall Street Journal column a few days earlier, Trumka wrote: “So here’s working America’s message to governors like Scott Walker and New Jersey’s Chris Christie: We believe in shared sacrifice. But we don’t believe in your version of shared sacrifice, where the wealthy and Wall Street reap all the benefits of economic growth, and working people do all the sacrificing.”

“Sadly,” Trumka wrote, “a group of radical Republican governors is working overtime to export the most short-sighted private-sector labor practices into the public sector.”

But the class-collaborationist course charted by Trumka is exactly how the working class and unions ended up in the crisis we’re facing in the first place. It’s how we got here.  
Workers are the union
The working-class ranks are the union, not the officials. For decades the officialdom has blocked us from using the union power we conquered in gigantic labor struggles that built the industrial union movement in the 1930s and ’40s—power reinforced by mass, working-class-based battles for Black rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and the impetus they gave to the fight for women’s equality.

Instead of organizing the growing ranks of unorganized workers, union officials have sought to protect their dues base by taking giveback after giveback—“sacrifice” after “sacrifice” (for workers, not themselves)—in return for empty promises by the capitalist owners. They’ve negotiated “fringe” benefits for a steadily shrinking percentage of the working class, instead of mounting a mass social and political struggle in factories and in the streets to demand government-funded health care and pensions for all.

They’ve tied our jobs, wages, health, and retirement to the “productivity drives” and profits of what they falsely call “our industries” and “our companies.” But those industries and companies are not ours—they belong to the propertied class that grows wealthy from the exploitation of workers and farmers.

The union officialdom pits us against fellow workers in other countries by pressing the demand to “protect American jobs,” as they seek to garner patriotic support (even if occasionally with “criticism”) for Washington’s imperialist foreign policy and wars, from Afghanistan, to Iraq, and beyond. And they tell working people to help get out the vote for “friends of labor,” especially in the Democratic Party.

What’s the upshot?

The industrial unions have grown weaker year after year—the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers, garment and textile unions, rail unions, and others. As 2011 opened, some 6.9 percent of workers for private employers were union members, down from 30 percent in 1965. And the bosses, backed by their government and political parties, are driving to push that figure down further—much further.

But some 36 percent of government workers are unionized. So public employees unions are in much better shape, aren’t they?

The answer is “no.” Workers, whoever employs us, need to understand why. That’s necessary to wage an effective fight to defend our jobs, working conditions, pay, and unions.

The industrial unions were forged in battle as part of a mass working-class social movement in the 1930s. Labor was strengthened further by gains of civil rights struggles and fights for Black freedom in the 1950s and 1960s. These hard-fought conquests opened the way for millions of government workers to be unionized too—often brokered through deals with Democratic Party officials at the state, local, and federal levels, not through labor battles of their own.

Workers for a private boss can jointly withhold our labor power—we can go on strike—and deprive the capitalist owners of profits. Those profits come from one and only one place: from the wealth produced by the labor of workers in factories, mines, and mills and of working farmers on the land.

“One day longer!” became the battle cry in 1989 and 1990 of some 8,500 members of the International Association of Machinists in their 22-month-long battle against union busting by Eastern Airlines. We can stay out one day longer than Eastern stays in business. And they did.

The rank-and-file Machinists, with solidarity from other workers and unionists, forced Eastern to shut its doors and defeated management’s effort to turn it into a profitable nonunion airline.

Teachers and other public employees don’t have that option. They and their unions sometimes succeed in shutting down schools, government agencies, or hospitals for a period, but that doesn’t touch the capitalists’ bottom line. They can’t stay out “one day longer” than local, state, or federal governments, which won’t go out of business. What’s more, the employing class cynically plays on the challenges facing government workers unions in sustaining broad public solidarity for an extended strike closing schools, medical facilities, and other state services working people rely on.

As the post-World War II capitalist expansion began to sputter in the early 1970s, the bosses first took aim at the industrial workers and unions that account for a lion’s share of their profits. Having dealt heavy blows to those strongholds of labor, the employers, their governments, and their political parties began turning their fire on public employees unions as well.

Struggles to reverse the decline of the industrial unions are essential to stemming assaults on government workers and their unions.  
Cops aren’t workers or unionists
The capitalist parties and politicians take a different class approach toward cops and prison guards, who serve and protect the propertied rulers’ class interests by force and violence.

In Wisconsin, Indiana, and Idaho, for example, union-busting bills seeking to gut collective bargaining exempt cops and police associations. (They also exempt firefighters who—while not serving the repressive role of police—do perform duties vital to the rulers’ property interests and often identify with cops as members of the “uniformed services.”)

Since cops often come from families of workers, working people can be misled to overlook the pro-employer, anti-working-class function of the police—until, that is, they are hit upside the head by a billy club or pistol-whipped on a picket line, hauled off to jail, or targeted for random cop brutality on the streets of a working-class neighborhood.

It takes time and class-struggle experience for such lessons to be internalized by growing sections of the working class and union movement.


Contrary to Trumka and other labor misleaders, the way forward for workers and the unions is not to divert and dissipate workers’ time, energies, and resources through efforts to reelect President Obama and restore Democratic Party majorities in Congress, state legislatures, and city halls.

That was the purpose of the heroes’ welcome staged by Democrats and union tops at the March 12 action in Madison for 14 state senators who went into self-imposed (and self-aggrandizing) “exile” in Illinois for a few weeks, while their Republican colleagues put new antiunion legislation on the books.

That’s also the aim of the bombast about “recalling” Republican state legislators and Governor Walker—demagogy that largely marks time until the labor officialdom goes all out for a Democratic “comeback” in 2012.

But the current round of antilabor attacks by state governments—and resistance by public employees unions and supporters—are still under way in the Midwest and other regions.

What’s needed is for working people to hit the road and bring solidarity to actions by these embattled workers. Bring other working people with you—government workers and those working for a private boss; employed and unemployed; native born and immigrant; whatever your skin color or sex.

Help organize support from your unions. Encourage more tractorcades by farmers, like the one in Madison March 12.

Join picket lines and rallies by locked-out workers in Metropolis, Illinois; Keokuk, Iowa; and Flatbush Gardens in Brooklyn, New York.

Reach out to students and other young people.

By doing so, we’re not only helping to spread solidarity and extend the lines of working-class resistance today. We’re also sowing the seeds of battles—fighting shoulder to shoulder—for many years to come.
Related articles:
Labor-farmer unity in Wisconsin
Keep on expanding labor solidarity
Rallies in states across U.S. demand halt to attacks on public workers
Unions call rally against austerity measures in UK
March in Montreal protests budget cuts
California students, teachers protest cuts  
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