Labor

By Alex Blair

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Douglas Turner auditioned for a spot on Fox News in the July 7, 2007 edition of the Buffalo News. In one of the never-ending series of attacks on the efforts of workers to earn a decent living, he uses a heap of incomplete and irrelevant facts to add to the News’ charges that unions are destroying the economy of New York State. In this particular case, Mr. Turner compares the limping New York State economy with the “Virginia Miracle.”

          Essentially, for Mr. Turner, Virginia’s economic miracle—it’s remarkable performance vis-à-vis New York—boils down to two things. First, Virginia has a right-to-work law that requires unions to represent workers who don’t pay dues. Second, Virginia has no public sector unions to speak of.

 

"I am very pleased to see the successful completion of negotiations between BryLin Hospitals and 1199SEIU. The results of these negotiations will now position BryLin to once again be competitive within the community in its recruitment efforts,” stated Eric D. Pleskow, President/CEO for BryLin Hospitals. The contract includes wage increases between 9.5% and almost 17% over the three years of the contract and an increase in the employer payments to health insurance for workers and their families. Negotiations for a training fund to upgrade skills or certifications will be discussed before the end of 2006. The new collective bargaining agreement will expire on July 1, 2008. BryLin Hospitals started on the corner of Linwood and Bryant in 1955 as a 35 bed facility caring for the emotionally ill under the guidance and vision of Leonard Pleskow, BryLin’s Founder. Over the past 50 years, BryLin has expanded its services to meet the increasing needs of the community and now offers programs in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, older adult and women’s behavioral health, dual diagnosis, and substance abuse treatment for adolescents and adults. Still family owned, BryLin Hospitals remains the only private psychiatric hospital in Western New York under the direction of Eric D. Pleskow, President/CEO. 1199 SEIU represents approximately 160 health care, dietary, service, and maintenance workers at BryLin. 1199 SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East, is New York State’s largest organization of health care workers, with 260,000 members in the Northeast.

Without exception, Chicago is home to the richest history of labor in the United States. Its downtown contains literally hundreds of notable sites relevant to the struggle of working class people for more than 150 years. Chicago was the seminal site, in 1886, of the struggle for the eight hour work day – a struggle which resulted in the execution of four innocent labor activists and the creation of an internationally recognized holiday, May Day. Chicago was also the site of one of the most important strikes in American history, the Pullman strike, which was led by the fiery socialist and populist, Eugene V. Debs. In 1905, when the radical syndicalists of the Ind! ustrial Workers of the World (IWW) needed a city to host their first convention, Chicago was their choice. Chicago was also the organizing turf of A. Philip Randolph, the courageous labor unionist who tirelessly organized African American sleeping car porters. And finally, it is the city that provided the setting for Upton Sinclair’s brilliant exposé of the brutal conditions of the meat packing industry, The Jungle.

These are only some of the highlights of Chicago’s prominent place in the struggle for economic justice which has been fought for centuries by working people of all genders, races, and ethinicities. With such a prominent place, then, it should come as no surprise that the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the United States’ largest unbrella labor organization, would, like the IWW did 100 years earlier, choose Chicago as the site of its Constitutional Convention. But unlike the wobblies, this convention was to mark the 50th anniversary of the AFL-CIO. It was to be an historic celebration of the solidarity and unity of the American labor movement.! And as it happened, the convention did indeed mark an historic moment in the history of organized labor, thereby contributing substantially to Chicago’s heritage and reputation as the American labor movement’s center of gravity. The convention was certainly historic, but not for solidarity, unity, or what happened inside the Exhibition Halls of Navy Pier, where it was held. It was historic, rather, for what happened outside the convention’s walls.

On July 25, 2005, two of the largest and strongest member unions of the AFL-CIO ended a nine month debate about the future of the labor movement in the United States and voted to break ranks with the federation. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents over 1.8 million workers, and the Teamsters which represents another 1.3 million, both publicly disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on the opening day of its convention citing irreconcilable differences in principles and strategies to acheive security and fairness for working people everywhere. A new labor coalition has been formed, Change to Win, which will challenge the pre-eminence of the AFL-CIO as American labor’s vanguard organization. Adding to the controversy, three other major unions, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the United Farm Workers (UFW), and UNITE HERE rebelled against the AFL by boycotting the convention and joining the Change to Win coalition spearheaded by SEIU and the Teamsters. Although none of these three have formally disaffiliated from the federation, the revolt against the status quo of organized labor in the United States could not have been made at a more prescient time or with more emphasis.

Continuous economic and political blows have been rattling the ailing American labor movement for decades. Not only is union membership down in this country, it is way down. In fact, when the AFL-CIO was founded 50 years ago, 1 in 3 workers belonged to a union. Now 9 out of 10 workers have no union representation in the workplace. Free trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the newly passed Central American Free Trade Agreement, which allow transnational corporations to shift production to countries with little or no respect for workers’ rights, have meant, and will continue to mean, the loss of important union jobs in the United States. Thus far, unions have not been able to muster the international solidarity necessary to combat the onslaught of corporate globalization. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the governmental agency which is responsible for protecting the rights of working people to form a union, is recognized by everyone within the union movement as a bureacratic slug that is more beneficial to employers than to workers. Right to Work legislation, which has made organizing a union more difficult in many states, has severly hampered the labor movement’s ability to grow. And finally, there is Bush. If anything has symbolized the decline of the labor movement in the United States, it has been the re-election of one of the most rabidly anti-worker administrations in modern history. Although organized labor was effective in mobilizing its members to vote last election – union households accounted for 24 percent of all votes and of those votes there was a 5.8 million vote majority for John Kerry – in the end, the effort failed and Bush was returned to office for another 4-year term of assaulting the rights of working people.

There have been some bright spots amidst these dark anti-union clouds, however. The service employees, SEIU, has been able to increase their membership by 900,000 over the past nine years. They have grown to be the largest, most diverse, and most powerful union in the United States and they have done so through intensive organizing campaigns, shrewd political dealings and industry-wide collective bargaining. It is little wonder then that SEIU and another successful union, the Teamsters, would decide to abandon the sinking ship of the AFL-CIO which has been unable to successfully react to corporate America’s attack on organized labor.

Enter the Change to Win Coalition, the SEIU-led rival to the AFL-CIO, which emphasizes putting more of labor’s money towards organizing new members and the elimination of cross-sector unionism, that is, unions organizing workers outside their core industries. According to members of the Change to Win coalition, having the United Steel Workers organize health care workers makes little, if any, sense because the USW does not possess the industry specific experience, understanding, or strategy to win health care workers the best possible deal. Likewise the Service Employees would be ill equipped to provide steelworkers with the best possible representation. Althoug! h some advocates of this cross-sector organizing believe that competition between unions gives workers a choice for their preferred representatives, the Change to Win coalition argues that such organizing creates division within the movement and diminishes the power of unions to bargain collectively with such corporate titans as Wal-Mart. It is through large, consolidated unions that organized labor can challenge the corporate bohemoths, not through small, employer-specific locals. Anne Burger, Chair of the Change to Win Coalition, has articulated the plan of the new group: ‘industry-wide organizing, coordinated bargaining, and political action aligned with aggresive organizing campaigns’.

The AFL-CIO has not taken lightly the decision of two of its largest unions to defect. Indeed the federation will now lose some $20 million from dues paid by SEIU and the Teamsters. The AFL has hit back at the members of the Change to Win coalition claiming that their split with the federation is fueled more by an obsession with personal power than with real change. President of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, whose re-election at the convention was cause for concern for many in the Change to Win Coalition, has been very receptive to the idea of spending more of the AFL’s resources on organizing and has already done his part to substantially increase the federation’s expen! ditures in this very area. He sees the differences that exist between the rival factions as narrower than some would like to believe and he understands the rebellion to be an attempt at a power grab by some union leaders, especially Andy Stern, President of SEIU, the union for which, ironically, Sweeney served as President before taking the reins at the AFL in 1995. “It is far easier to tear down a union movement that to build one. America’s working people cannot afford for unions to declare ‘it’s my way or the highway’ when workers are under the biggest assualt in 80 years.” He said. Other prominent members of the AFL-CIO like Larry Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) say that the Change to Win coalition has got the strategy of organized labor backwards. He point! s to the larger anti-union political-legal structure of American society as the number one priority. “In CWA, we think that the issue is the virtual elimination of collective bargaining rights and the linkage between those rights and any modern democracy. Our union identified that as a the critical crisis more that fifteen years ago, when we helped start Jobs with Justice and put enormous effort into building it…The primary crisis is not about union membership. We reject that. The crisis is about American workers’ right to join and build unions.”

To an outside observer, the debates raging within the American labor movement may seem to lack clarity as in-fighting over strategic details and personal power struggles sometimes muddy the substantive waters of a defined platform. Yet interestingly enough, the debates happening now contain some echoes of debates that were had in 1905 when the IWW held their own constitutional convention in Chicago. It was at this time that labor leaders like Mother Jones, Bill Haywood, and Eugene Debs advocated for industry-wide orga! nization, or One Big Union, to build working class power to fight the giant monopolies of the time. But labor’s current debate is fundamentally different from those had in the early 1900s in that the split from the AFL-CIO, and the AFL-CIO itself, both lack the social-revolutionary ideology that fueled the IWW constitutional process. In fact, it is difficult to sift through the positions of both factions today and find any ideologically consistent idea of what the strategy and mission of organized labor should be. Although labor’s dramatic decline in numbers and political failures have, ostensibly, precipitated the current crisis, it is hard to ascertain which direction either side will take in pushing the overall movement forward and whether or not this split will be beneficial to workers in the United States and elsewhere. On the Change to Win side of things, there is very little to suggest a definable platform. They speak of spending more money on organizing, but this is something that most labor leaders already agree about. They speak of industry-wide organizing, yet one their largest member unions is the Teamsters who are notorious for cross-sector organizing, something that they have not said they will discontinue. They speak of the AFL-CIO as being too close to the democratic party and suggest working more with labor friendly republicans. It is hard to imagine just how working with republicans can in the long term help to grow the labor movement in the United States. They talk about building the power of unions and consolidating locals but in! doing so may be sacrificing the kind of democracy that the labor movement is all about. And as for the AFL-CIO side of the debate, it is yet to be seen how the federation will react to the loss of two of its largest and most important unions. Clearly, it cannot continue as it has for the past 50 years. International political economy and labor markets are changing in ways that require a response. Whether this response comes in the form of a change in the internal structure of the AFL or whether it comes in a shift in strategy is a question that remains to be answered. Certainly, the loss of revenue, not to mention the enormous loss of membership, that accompanies the defection of SEIU and the Teamsters will have some ! impact on the structure of the federation. But exactly what it will do to answer the needs of the global economy and the challenge of the Change to Win Coalition is what those of us in the labor movement will be looking for in the coming months and years.

Change-to-Win has no shortage of talent to implement its ambitious goals. Anna Burger, former Secretary-Treasurer of the SEIU and daughter of a Teamster, was elected Chairwoman of the new federation, giving her the honor to be the first woman ever elected to head a major labor federation. In her speech to the convention she railed against what she termed “the American Nightmare…choosing between bus-fare and breakfast, health-care or housing.” She pointed out how during Hurricane Katrina, “the working poor were left to fend for themselves. They struggled and many died as the flood waters rose because thy couldn’t afford the gas or bus fare to get out of town.” The solution she proposes is articulated in one word. Organize.

Following Anna Burger’s speech, Teamster president James P. Hoffa was greeted with rousing applause and chants of “Hof-fa, Hof-fa,” reminiscent of the era of his father, James R. While the younger Hoffa varies considerably in style from his iconic patriarch, his willingness to break with the AFL-CIO demonstrates that he possesses the same combination of fearlessness and innovation which served the Teamsters so well under his father. He also seems to have inherited the old man’s inherent mistrust of political parties. “Who got the first no-bid contract [to rebuild the Gulf Coast],” he asked the convention. “That’s right, Halliburton…and what was George Bush’s first action in the devastated region: to repeal Davis-Bacon. That means Halliburton won’t have to pay construction workers thirteen bucks an hour.” He concluded with a promise, “Today the battle for America begins.”

Speeches by Bruce Raynor, Andy Stern, John Wilhelm and Joe Hansen were equally powerful, and all underscored the common goal of Change-to-Win: to turn the working poor into the middle-class, to “give America back to the people who built it.” In order to accomplish this, they say, certain guiding principles will be followed, such as the empowerment of women, people of color, and immigrant workers. Worker involvement in political action, whether it be at the state, local or national level, is encouraged because, as John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE told the group, “At the end of the day, most politicians will turn out to be unreliable.” Change-to-Win vows to not support any candidate that does not demonstrate their loyalty to labor, regardless of political party.

But their core principle, their “North Star,” is organizing new members, with three-quarters of their resources going into this effort.

Representing the western New York area at the St Louis convention was Teamsters local 264 business manager Richard Lipsitz, who wanted to make an important clarification with regard to the impact that the Teamster move might be making locally. “I want to stress that we are not at war with our colleagues at the WNY labor federation (AFL-CIO)…Not even close.” When asked for a prediction on how Change-to-Win might affect the future of Western New York, Lipsitz gave an answer that concisely summed it up, both locally and nationally.

“It remains to be seen.”

(This action occurred after delegates of four unions - SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, and UNITE HERE had already departed the convention after announcing their decision to boycott the proceedings. The SEIU and Teamsters subsequently also announced their disaffiliation.)

Rising to speak in favor of the resolution, Henry Nicholas, President of District 1199 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) of Pennsylvania, told the delegates that his son had been deployed to Iraq four times and was about to be sent again. He said, "In my forty-five years in the labor movement, this is my proudest moment in being a union member, because it is the first time we had the courage to say 'enough is enough.'"

USLAW Co-Convenor Gene Bruskin observed, "The action taken by this convention puts the AFL-CIO on record for a rapid end to the Iraq occupation - a stand squarely in the mainstream of American public opinion." Polls taken in late June show more than half of the American people feel the war was a mistake and similarly that it has made the U.S. less, not more safe. A majority of Americans also say the administration "intentionally misled" the public in going to war.

U.S. Labor Against the War had rallied its affiliates and supporters to press for the AFL-CIO to take an unambiguous stand for an end to the occupation and return of all U.S. troops. Widespread antiwar and anti-occupation sentiment among the delegates became even more evident when USLAW and Pride at Work, the AFL-CIO constituency group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered union members (also affiliated with USLAW) hosted a reception for Iraqi union leaders attending the convention as guests. The reception, which took place after the plenary on Monday, drew more than 150 delegates and guests, including top officials of a number of unions.

The convention action comes on the heels of a 26-city U.S. tour by six Iraqi trade union leaders from three of Iraq's major labor federations organized by U.S. Labor Against the War in mid-June. The Iraqi union leaders were unanimous in their call for an immediate end to the U.S. occupation, describing it as a source of instability, violence and terrorism in Iraq. (For more about the tour, visit the USLAW website at www.uslaboragainstwar.org.)

The resolution pays tribute to the troops in Iraq and says, ". . . they deserve a commitment from our country's leaders to bring them home rapidly. . . .." It accuses the Bush administration of misinforming the American people about the reasons for going to war and about the reality on the ground since it launched the invasion. It calls for expanded benefits for veterans and protection for workers affected by military base closings. The resolution also heralds the courage demonstrated by Iraqi workers and unions. It calls for full respect for the right of Iraqi workers to freely organize and bargain in unions of their choice and unconditional cancellation of the foreign debt and reparations accumulated by Iraq during the Hussein regime. It pledges continuing solidarity in concert with the international trade union movement with the workers of Iraq ". . . as they lead the struggle for an end to the violence and a more just and democratic nation."

Adoption of this resolution represents the first time in its 50 year history that the federation has taken a position squarely in opposition to a major U.S. foreign policy or military action.

*************************************************************************** Resolution #53 The War in Iraq Submitted by the Executive Council, as amended from the floor and adopted by the delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention in Chicago, July 26, 2005

The AFL-CIO supports the brave men and women deployed in Iraq, which include our members in all branches of the armed services. Our soldiers—the men and women risking their lives in Iraq—come from America's working families. They are our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our husbands and wives. They deserve to be properly equipped with protective body gear and up-armored vehicles. And they deserve leadership that fully values their courage and sacrifice. Most importantly, they deserve a commitment from our country's leaders to bring them home rapidly. An unending military presence will waste lives and resources, undermine our nation's security and weaken our military.

We have lost more than 1,700 brave Americans in Iraq to date, and Iraqi civilian casualties are in the thousands. In recent months, the insurgency increasingly has focused its terror on the Iraqi people, engaging in a deliberate campaign to frustrate their aspirations to take control of their own destiny. These aspirations were clearly demonstrated earlier this year when Iraqis defied widespread intimidation and escalating violence by turning out in the millions to elect a new Iraqi interim government tasked with writing a constitution. The AFL-CIO applauds the courage of the Iraqi people and unequivocally condemns the use of terror in Iraq and indeed anywhere in the world.

No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. The American people were misinformed before the war began and have not been informed about the reality on the ground and the very difficult challenges that lie ahead.

It is long past time for the Bush administration to level with the American people and for Congress to fulfill its constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities. The AFL-CIO supports the call from members of Congress for the establishment of benchmarks in the key areas of security, governance, reconstruction and internationalization.

Since the beginning of the war almost two-and-a-half years ago, the AFL-CIO has emphasized the support and participation of a broad coalition of nations and the United Nations is vital to building a democratic Iraq. Greater security on the ground remains an unmet precondition for such efforts to succeed. The AFL-CIO calls on the international community to help the Iraqi people build its capacity to maintain law and order through a concerted international effort to train Iraqi security and police forces.

Future efforts to rebuild the country are hampered by the weight of the massive foreign debt accumulated under the Saddam Hussein regime. The AFL-CIO calls for cancellation of Saddam's foreign debt without any conditions imposed upon the people of Iraq, who suffered under the regime that was supported by these loans. Further, the AFL-CIO calls for the cancellation of reparations imposed as a result of wars waged by Saddam Hussein's regime and the return of all Iraqi property and antiquities taken during the war and occupation.

The bedrock of any democracy is a strong, free, democratic labor movement. That is true in the United States and Iraq.

Our returning troops should be afforded all resources and services available to meet their needs. Our members should return to their jobs, with seniority and benefits.

The AFL-CIO calls on Congress and President Bush to expand benefits for veterans and assist those affected by military base closings, including a G.I. Bill for returning Iraq veterans and a Veterans Administration housing program that meets current needs.

The AFL-CIO supports the efforts of Iraqi workers to form independent labor unions. In the absence of an adequate labor law, the AFL-CIO calls on the Iraqi government, as well as domestic and international companies operating in Iraq, to respect internationally recognized International Labor Organization standards that call for protecting the right of workers to organize free from all government and employer interference and the right to organize and bargain collectively in both the public and private sectors. These rights must be extended to include full equality for working women.

The AFL-CIO condemns the fact that Saddam's decree No. 150 issued in 1987 that abolished union rights for workers in the extensive Iraqi public sector has not been repealed. Under current laws, payroll deductions for union dues are not even permitted. The AFL-CIO calls on the Iraqi government to place as a top priority the adoption of a new labor law that conforms to international labor standards to replace the old anti-worker laws and decrees.

Despite legal obstacles, Iraq's workers and their institutions are already leaders in the struggle for democracy. Trade unionists are being targeted for their activism, and some have paid for their valor with their lives. The AFL-CIO condemns these brutal acts of intimidation.

The AFL-CIO has a proud history of solidarity with worker movements around the world in their opposition to tyranny. In concert with the international trade union movement, the AFL-CIO will continue to provide our full solidarity to Iraq's workers as they lead the struggle for an end to the violence and a more just and democratic nation.