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Organizing Labor’s Left Pole

2016 has seen both the soaring heights of labor's class-struggle left pole and the abject lows of its business-unionism right.

A Chicago Teachers Union rally on November 23, 2015. Bob Simpson / Flickr

For the past few decades, the labor movement has fluttered precariously at the intersection of revitalization or ruin — most often leaning towards the latter.

As their membership and resources have continued to dwindle, unions are trying to figure out how best to respond to the current moment. With a Trump inauguration fast approaching and the Republicans taking control of the Supreme Court, the United States Congress, a majority of governorships, and over two-thirds of state legislatures, this choice has become even more urgent than it already was.

Some “innovative labor leaders” called for labor to retreat from battle this year. They claimed that “striking is a bad bet” and that unions should be looking to the entrepreneurial ethos of Silicon Valley and the wisdom of the professional-managerial class for answers — in the form of labor “incubators.” This is an approach that speaks the language of business schools, appeals to the sensibilities of program officers at foundations, and wins nodding approval from academics.

Others called for labor to return to class-struggle unionism — to a no-shortcuts approach to organizing that centers labor’s relevance and strength on the capacity of workers themselves to take collective action in day-to-day battles with management.

This latter approach is the tried-and-true method of the “left pole” within the labor movement.

The left pole is an inchoate grouping (though there are organized efforts at coalescing it, such as the biennial Labor Notes Conference) of unions and reform groups that have recognized that the long-term strategy for challenging corporate power begins on the job. It is at work that rank-and-file leaders forge relationships, identify issues of common concern, and learn how to creatively wield their collective power against the boss. Unlike venture-capital-fetishizing labor officials, union activists on the left pole have long argued that everyday people not only still have the ability to strike and win, but to change the balance of power in society in the process.

The left pole is a diverse grouping. It includes longstanding unions that have always held firm to this approach, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the United Electrical Workers. It includes rank-and-file reform movements that are pushing their unions towards the left pole, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union. It also includes locals that have split from their International and struck out on their own, such as the National Union of Healthcare Workers. And it includes the Chicago Teachers Union.

For the past several years, the CTU has embodied many of the tendencies that unions clustered in the left pole have historically represented: labor militancy, progressive politics, and a deep commitment to rank-and-file democracy.

And the CTU’s last two contract negotiations, along with their one-day strike and another near-strike this year, are dramatic examples of how the left pole can not only grow an army of rank-and-file leaders capable of taking risks and winning in 2017, but expanding the horizon of what is politically possible as a result.

Lessons From Chicago

As is always the case, the strike of tomorrow is won by the organizing being done today. The recent battles between Chicago teachers and the city’s political elite were the culmination of years of work in a union that has been transformed by a reform caucus that understands where the core of the union’s strength radiates: the self-directed activity of their rank-and-file membership.

When 98 percent of the teachers voted in favor of strike authorization in 2012, the union sent a clear message of unity and anger. Behind that vote was the tremendous amount of work that made it possible: the thousands of teacher-to-teacher organizing conversations that had taken place in schools all across the city; the dozens of workplace actions, like collecting signatures on a petition or participating in “Wear-Red Fridays,” that stewards monitored and chartered so they could track the level of active support that the union had among the rank-and-file base in their schools.

While focusing on the rank and file as the source of their power, the CTU never lost sight of their enemy. Rather than cozying up to Democrats — who also happen to be their boss — the union drew a hard public line between “us” and “them.”

This helped set the stage for the strike, casting the work stoppage in a mythic light of heroes versus villains. The contrast between Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his cohort of investment-banker financiers and corporate education reformers on one side, and the teachers, parents, students, and community on the other, was stark.

In the end, the teachers came out on top, and the Left had a champion on which to pin our hopes for what a future labor movement might look like if we can find a way beyond the risk-averse, top-down business unionism that has come to dominate the culture of so many unions.

Unlike so many unions after a contract is settled, the CTU didn’t demobilize. Instead, the union has spent the last four years continuing to organize on the job and in the community, building on their past work as the foundation for their 2016 contract campaign.

Teachers engaged in civil disobedience and the union filed lawsuits and partnered with community organizations to demand a moratorium on school closings. In coalition with other unions, the CTU organized an independent political organization, the United Working Families, to recruit and support progressive, pro-labor candidates to run against pro-business Democrats. UWF-endorsed candidates won several city council seats (one by a CTU rank-and-filer) and forced Emanuel into a runoff election, which hadn’t happened in a Chicago mayoral election in over twenty years.

This year, when the CTU came to the table for this most recent round of negotiations, management knew they weren’t bluffing. The union had already led a successful one-day citywide strike on April 1, which city officials denounced as “illegal,” and held two strike authorization votes in which Chicago teachers once again voted overwhelmingly to hit the picket lines. Teachers and parents organized actions around the city, including school walk-ins and a picket at Mayor Emanuel’s house.

Fearing another showdown, the city government wavered and minutes before the strike deadline on October 10, the CTU bargaining team announced that they had successfully reached a tentative agreement. The contract, like their 2012 agreement, was far from perfect, but CTU membership seemed to consider the contract a victory and subsequently ratified the agreement by an overwhelming majority.

The union won two remarkable concessions in the contract. First, Mayor Emanuel has agreed to increase school funding by $88 million by pulling revenue from the city’s tax increment financing program, the mayor’s policy pipeline for diverting property tax revenue from schools and public services to developers and corporations. Second, this contract is the first in the nation to set a cap on charter school growth.

The union is not legally allowed to strike over the city’s tax or charter policies, yet that didn’t matter. The scope of negotiations was expanded and new political possibilities opened up because the union could make good on the threat of a strike that would likely have had widespread public support — proving that striking, and the threat of striking, is one of the most powerful weapons in a union’s arsenal.

The CTU’s success is a galvanizing confirmation of the role that the troublemaking wing of the labor movement plays in changing the balance of power between capital and labor in society. It is the role of class-conscious rank-and-file leaders to expand the number of unions, like the CTU, at the left pole by deepening the organizing work of the unions they belong to and engaging in public conflicts that heighten class polarization.

This class-struggle current within the labor movement continued to grow in 2016, and new movement infrastructure is helping facilitate it — such as the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators, a national network of CTU-inspired teacher union reformers that organize monthly calls and regional conferences so a burgeoning base of militant teachers can lean on each other for support and insight as they organize their workplaces and run for office in their own locals.

Unfortunately, there are still far too few CTUs and far too many union officials that continue to act as if their power lies elsewhere — typically, through siding with the boss and internalizing the prerogatives of capital.

On the other end of the spectrum from the left pole lie those unions that embrace strategies of accommodation and appeasement. They risk little and are rewarded with less as they continue down a path of decline and irrelevance. The result of this decline is that more and more workers are left economically isolated, politically disoriented, and increasingly susceptible to the divide-and-conquer schemes of the Right.

Unions, like all member-based organizations, are complicated, contradictory, and ever-changing. So most don’t exist solely at one pole or another, but along a spectrum between the two. This means that the overall tenor of the labor movement is determined by this tension between the left pole and the accommodationist strain — how strong they are and how far apart. This is one of the dynamics that the troublemaking wing of the labor movement hopes to affect.

Accommodation and Appeasement

Organizing is hard and many unions are on the lookout for shortcuts, or at least the path of least resistance — which unfortunately means that it is not too hard to find counter-examples to contrast with the CTU.

A copy of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International’s internal communications strategy, written in late 2015 and obtained earlier this year, is an all-too-common example of the easy drift that so many unions are making towards a state of total acquiescence to corporate power.

In a working draft copy of “The Do’s and Don’ts of Messaging” put together by Park Street Strategies — an expensive consultant group which touts its work for both “Labor as well as Fortune 500 corporations” — for UFCW locals across the country, union members are encouraged to talk to their co-workers about union dues as being “similar to a Costco membership.”

“We must strive to monetize this value,” the communications strategy reads.

It goes on to provide helpful examples of talking points that union members might use: “For just $1 dollar day [sic], you and your family get all of the benefits of becoming a partner and a part of our union family.”

The document chides workers to “not make blanket statements about employers . . . You are not anti-employer, we want to change employers for the better.”

It also helpfully lists “strike” and “collective bargaining” as words to avoid when talking to other workers. (To see this messaging in action, check out the UFCW’s recent press statements in support of the successful strike by Jim Beam workers, which bends over backwards to avoid using the word “strike”).

It is hard to imagine a more obvious example of the “service-based model” of business unionism than the UFCW’s own projected self-image: in a state of total deference to corporate power, the UFCW is bleaching any indication of class struggle from their own public communications. In its place, the union is offering talking points crafted by consultants that favor an image of union membership as “similar to a Costco.”

Instead of participating in collective action, workers “partner” with the union to make their employer more beneficent. And a union that can’t bring itself to even say the work “strike” is extremely unlikely to lead one.

According to filings with the Department of Labor for 2015, the UFCW paid Park Street Strategies at least $787,249 for their consulting services over the course of the year. While the consultants were raking in the fees, the UFCW International’s newly elected leadership was gutting funding for OUR Walmart, an alt-labor group that had been organizing retail workers and community allies to put pressure on the largest private employer in the world. Some in the UFCW characterized this shift in funding priorities as a “realignment,” moving resources out of organizing towards a greater focus on “on advertising and public relations campaigns.”

More recently, UFCW International president Marc Perrone sent a letter out to locals across the country, outlining the union’s strategy for countering the threat presented by the Trump presidency. The letter outlines a multi-step response to the incoming Trump administration, yet it doesn’t mention the word “organizing” a single time. It does, however, repeatedly belabor the importance of messaging — in fact, Perrone attributes Clinton’s loss to the campaign’s messaging, for failing to “effectively communicate value” to “critical” Democratic voters.

In what must be a great relief to UFCW locals everywhere, Perrone states that he has “instructed UFCW International Communications Department to draft a year-long communications plan” that will help UFCW locals communicate “what we already know is true — that our members receive an incredible financial value from being part of the Union family.”

A few talking points from risk-averse leaders might seem pretty benign. But it is this kind of logic that, when carried to the extreme, ends in more than absurd conclusions. Take the example of the Independent Drivers Guild, launched in May to ostensibly represent an estimated thirty-five thousand Uber drivers in New York City.

The Guild is the result of a secret five-year agreement between Uber and the International Association of Machinists District 15 — so secret that even the drivers that the Machinists union purports to represent cannot read it. Uber has agreed to fund the Guild, to encourage driver participation in the organization, to meet monthly with Guild representatives for non-binding discussions about working conditions, and to provide drivers a forum for appealing “deactiviations” — Uber’s term for firing workers.

In return, the Machinists have agreed not to publicly criticize, much less fight, Uber over the issue of employee misclassification. Currently, Uber classifies their drivers as independent contractors.

Unlike employees, independent contractors are not provided with minimum wage or overtime protections, they are denied the right to unionize and collectively bargain, and are forced to pay the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. If drivers were employees, Uber would be on the hook for reimbursing them for business expenses, such as vehicle maintenance.

Employee misclassification is at the heart of Uber’s $60 billion-plus valuation. The company employs more lobbyists and lawyers than Walmart to defend this exploitative business practice. Unfortunately, rather than drivers being organized, the Machinists are being Uberized.

The Guild is legally and financially dependent on the company — an act that would be unlawful if drivers were classified as employees, since the Guild would be legally classified as a “company-dominated labor organization.” This means that the entire agreement between the Machinists and Uber is literally predicated on their drivers’ misclassification.

When it comes to the Guild, it is the company that is in the driver’s seat. Unlike with a union and its negotiated contract, Uber is not required to agree to anything at the monthly meetings between management and drivers. Even if Uber were to agree to changes, the company could change its mind at any time.

By entering into a legally binding agreement to form the Guild, the Machinists are “greed-washing” Uber: putting a labor-friendly face on a deeply exploitative company.

The Machinists might like to claim that this is an “innovative” model of worker organizing — and right-wing, anti-worker organizations like the Mackinac Center have been more than happy to hold it up as such — but the union is actually partnering with Uber to reinforce the subordination of workers at the actual site of the workplace by ceding the question of employee misclassification.

The Machinists union’s monumental sellout this year is a case study in how accommodationist tendencies can metastasize until a union becomes a junior partner with corporate America in managing the decline of employment conditions and living standards for the working class. As junior partner, the Machinists are also potentially undermining the organizing efforts of competing unions that have the courage to take Uber on, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

The Drivers Guild and the International UFCW are two of a number of unions that are being drawn towards the pole of labor-management partnership, an ideological grouping of unions that have become agents in legitimizing social inequality and rationalizing worker inaction. As this grouping increases in size, the more likely it is that a majority of workers will continue to be disillusioned with organized labor, which currently joins Congress, newspapers, banks, and big business as institutions in which the public has historically low levels of confidence.

Lessons From Verizon

Luckily, the last year has seen more than the rise of misguided attempts at labor-management partnership. In addition to the Chicago Teachers Union’s work, we also saw the successful multi-state strike by thirty-nine thousand Verizon wireline workers and a small number of wireless workers, represented by the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

After routinely posting over a billion dollars a month in profits, Verizon came to the bargaining table demanding concessions from their workforce. Rather than giving in, the workers walked off the job — turning the strike against Verizon into a symbolic referendum against corporate greed and skyrocketing inequality.

For forty-five days, workers and their allies picketed and protested outside Verizon wireless stores across the country. They organized solidarity squads that followed scabs doing Verizon work, organized mass rallies and marches, and did serious damage to Verizon’s brand image. This was the largest US strike since the last time that the Verizon workers walked off, in 2011.

When the dust settled, the workers had taken on the largest telecommunications company in the United States and won. While the union did concede increased costs to their health care, the bigger concessions came from Verizon, which agreed to rescind a hated disciplinary plan, phase in a 10.5 percent raise over four years, and add over 1,300 jobs in the United States. Verizon also withdrew their concessionary demands on job security, pensions, and work-rule changes.

Participating in the strike were nearly one hundred Verizon Wireless technicians, as well as retail workers from seven Verizon Wireless stores who had been working for two years without a contract after voting in their union. The strike ended with ratification of a contract for the Verizon Wireless technicians and a first contract for the retail workers.

It’s important to note that the Communications Workers are far from homogenous. CWA Local 1101, the district’s largest and most politically powerful local, was taken over in 2011 by a group of reformers who were dismayed by the local’s allegedly corrupt leadership and the concessions made during the last Verizon strike. They were elected on the promise of cleaning up the union and being more militant in the next contract fight — and they kept to their word.

In the case of both the Chicago teachers and CWA Local 1101, the reform leadership and the rank-and-file base that elected them have been absolutely crucial in moving their unions towards the left pole. The recent histories of both these unions shines a light on how militancy and effectiveness goes hand-in-hand with union democracy.

The Choice

Between the UFCW and Machinists union on one side and the CTU and Verizon strikers on the other, we have a sense of the decision facing unions in the year to come and beyond: the choice between capitulation or confrontation, between settling for scraps or flipping over management’s table.

Down one road is the dead end of labor-management partnership, in which unions like the Machinists take a non-adversarial approach towards corporate power, going so far as to cut a secret deal with an employer — by definition behind the backs of workers. This road is well-worn. Hoping to capitalize on labor’s weaknesses, corporations began luring unions into so-called “win-win strategies” in the 1970s (then under the newly developed guise of “quality circles,” “labor-management committees,” or the “team concept”), promising workers more “participation” and “involvement” in managing their own workplaces in exchange for a shared commitment to ever-rising levels of productivity.

While talking partnership in the workplace, companies were demanding concessions at the table. The results are impossible to miss: for the past four decades, rising productivity has been totally divorced from what workers are paid. Workers today are working harder and producing more than ever before, but the value of that work is accumulating to capital, not to labor. This very fact should expose the lie at the very heart of labor-management partnership schemes: that workers and management share the same interests.

The urgency of the moment, the allure of access in elite circles, the difficulty of organizing, and the uncertainty of conflict against such a powerful adversary are all factors that have led many union officials and staff into acting as if the core of their strength resided in cutting deals with management and throwing money into elections. The bar for victory is never set higher than the challenge of just surviving another day.

Down the other road is struggle, where both private- and public-sector unions, both teachers and wireline technicians, go head-to-head with corporate power, with no guarantee of success.

It is through conflict with a shared class enemy that unions are able to bridge social divisions and provide opportunities for recruiting and training a growing army of rank-and-file leaders — both of which are necessary preconditions for developing a politicized, united, and self-conscious labor movement capable of effectively challenging capital’s domination of our working lives, our communities, and the state.

The facts are that unions will not reverse their fortunes by throwing more money into the campaign coffers of establishment candidates, paying consultants to craft talking points about the “incredible financial value” of being part of a “union family,” agreeing to “innovative” labor-management partnership schemes, or “incubating” a phone app. It is only by building fighting organizations centered on the creativity, expertise, and leadership of the rank and file that labor stands a chance of channeling the growing ocean of working-class rage and resentment against a social order that is failing us all.

For all its many horrors, 2016 was a year in which labor’s left pole actually made some fighting progress. Let’s build on these victories in 2017 and revitalize the legacy of class-struggle unionism.