Unions In Decline - Workers Lose
U.S. union membership has been declining for 45 years. In the late 1950s, 35% of private industry was unionized. Last year it was down to 8.5%, a drop of 75%! Over the last 20 years there have been massive layoffs, huge wage and pension cuts, workers forced to pay for their health benefits and outsourcing to low-wage areas here and abroad and to slave labor in U.S. prisons. This is fascism in the workplace.
The union leadership’s response has been a combination of give-backs in all areas ("until times get better"), collaborating with the bosses against foreign competition ("buy American"), relying on Democrat Party politicians and supporting the U.S. imperialist invasion of Iraq. That is one helluva losing strategy — except for the bosses.
Capitalism is driven to strive for maximum profits. Capitalist production for ever-larger market share inevitably leads to overproduction. This forces the capitalists to reduce labor costs through mass layoffs and give-backs. This also reduces the capitalists’ ability to sell their products and leads to a downturn in the economy.
Over the past 20 years, these downturns have produced market pressures that have forced corporations to revamp their business practices. In steel and auto this led to "lean" and "modular" production efficiency, automation, increased productivity, outsourcing, and large-scale layoffs.
The 1978 deregulation of the airlines produced low-cost competing airlines and huge losses among the unionized section of the industry. Pan Am and Eastern airlines went under, some merged or were absorbed by others. To stay in business they have demanded huge "voluntary" concessions from the workers or threatened to file for bankruptcy in order to break union contracts.
Sect. 1113 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code gives the court the right to void union contracts if the company can prove it "seriously hampers business." This has already happened at US Airlines, and is being threatened by United and American Airlines (world’s largest carrier) unless the unions agree to $1.8 billion in concessions. The capitalists use the state to crush the workers — the legal road to fascism - while the CEOs rake in millions in salaries, bonuses and stock options.
In comparing the leverage on both sides, a New York Times article (4/17) noted, "The unions were driving a Volkswagen Bug and the company an 18-wheeler."
The bosses try to force the working class to pay for the crisis of capitalism. The AFL-CIO operates like a business, functioning within the rules of the capitalist market and the bosses’ laws and state apparatus. The "labor leaders" act as junior partners of the ruling class, telling workers to surrender to the bosses’ demands or lose their jobs and union contracts. They urge workers to join with their bosses against "foreign competition" and "Buy American" or "Stand Up for Steel," rather than uniting with workers overseas against all bosses. As the final icing on the capitalist cake, Sweeney’s AFL-CIO supports the U.S. rulers’ imperialist slaughter in Iraq.
Could red leadership of the unions change this picture?
Could red leadership of the unions change this picture? To a limited extent. Communists fight to sharpen the class struggle, resist the bosses’ demands for concessions; break the bosses’ laws and organize class-wide solidarity whenever one group of workers is under attack or out on strike; general strikes of workers, city-wide and industry wide; and no support for the bosses’ adventures abroad, rather unity with our brothers and sisters worldwide — "workers of the world unite!"
The bosses’ would not sit idly by and watch a communist-led working class take the offense. They would (and do) use the full power of their state apparatus to jail and shoot rebelling workers, calling out the National Guard and the Army to break strikes (as was threatened on the West Coast docks). But in the course of these battles, communist leadership can emerge and workers can learn how to eventually seize state power with communist revolution.
Building a mass PLP among the workers is the only way out of the ravages of capitalism. Communist leadership of unions can raise the stakes to challenge the system itself, but the unions cannot defeat the profit system. Capitalism cannot be reformed. Wiping out this system requires a communist party. Communists in the labor movement organize struggles to produce more and more communists, building our strength to where capitalism can be destroyed.
Airlines’ Give and Take: Unions Give, Bosses Take; Workers’ Unity Needed
The current crisis in the airline industry shows that in such times the unions’ role is to deliver the workers to their exploiters. The entire industry is either in, or threatening, bankruptcy, mainly to void their union contracts. Since 9/11, over 100,000 jobs and billions in wages and benefits have been lost, with no end in sight.
The current crisis dwarfs Reagan’s firing of thousands of air traffic controllers during the 1981 PATCO strike. The AFL-CIO’s passivity in the face of that attack opened the door to two decades of union-busting and strike-breaking. Then, as now, the AFL-CIO leadership is worse than useless.
On April 25, American Airlines (AMR) workers surrendered $1.62 billions in give-backs. AMR bosses threatened to eliminate employee pensions by declaring bankruptcy if the workers didn’t agree to these give-backs, while the top five executives voted themselves million-dollar bonuses and a special trust fund to guarantee the obscene pensions of the top 45 bosses.
In the past, when bankruptcy threatened, executives had to "get in line" behind other creditors to collect any retirement money. Now, through "secured trusts," these big shots own the pension funds, no matter what happens. The pensions of 70,000 Motorola workers are under-funded by $1.4 billion while the company socked away $38 million into a special pension trust for the top executives.
AMR workers were furious and, bowing to an outcry from the rank and file, union leaders refused to sign the concessionary contracts. "Good for them!" said one Boeing inspector. "Somebody had to put an end to this management arrogance." But the union leaders then reversed themselves and agreed to the give-backs after American CEO Donald Carty resigned.
To add insult to injury, the New York Times (4/26) ran an article claiming the "unions have been taking such a pounding … because they have been so successful." By that logic, if we worked for nothing, we wouldn’t have to give concessions!
"Will [airline] worker wage cuts become a model for other companies?" asks this same article. "The airline unions, like the steel and auto workers, are far weaker….But like the others, the airline unions hope to avoid the scrap heap by cooperating with employers, perhaps by granting concessions…"
We saw this cooperation at our last union meeting when we were told to lobby our state legislators to do "Whatever It Takes" to get Boeing to build its new jet plane in Washington State. What will it take? Boeing wants state college tuition increases to be free of any limitations imposed by state government. They also want a freeze on unemployment benefits. Attack our kids and the 35,000 laid-off Boeing workers!
We must reject the rules and laws of capitalism and set our sights on a communist alternative. Our class will not spontaneously learn this lesson, no matter how hard things get. Only resolute work by our Party over a long period will drive this home for the vast majority of our class. This means increasing the sale of CHALLENGE, patient long-term building of ties with workers and initiating class struggle, from within the union if possible, or outside it if necessary. We can’t let the unions’ capitulation hold us back.
We should do "Whatever it takes" to support the airline workers’ fight against concessions: flyers, picket lines, demonstrations and ultimately a general strike in aerospace. Initiating class struggle, prepared for with increased CHALLENGE sales and personal ties, can open the door for more recruitment to PLP. "Whatever It Takes" to pave the road to revolution!