Beyond 'business-as-usual' unionism


By Norm Dixon

DETROIT — Walking along Michigan Avenue is a depressing experience. Forget the glitz and glamour on TV: this is the real United States. One of the Motor City's main thoroughfares, Michigan Avenue is symbolic of the crisis of US capitalism. For miles as you leave the CBD of Detroit (a virtual ghost town in its own right), it is lined with dilapidated shops and takeaway joints, burned out buildings, the odd seedy bar with intermittent flickering neons yelling "topless" and "nude".

The few people on the streets are overwhelmingly black and latino, and universally poor. Detroit makes Johannesburg look sophisticated and vibrant. The millions of people who live here are, as a local socialist told me, "superfluous to the needs of US capitalism".

Amongst the wreckage of the "American dream" that lines Michigan Avenue is the small office of the radical labour movement journal, Labor Notes. Despite the almost surreal landscape surrounding them, the activists here have not lost hope that things can change. I spoke to Jim West, editor of Labor Notes, about the aims of the journal and the state of the US labour movement.

"We published the first issue in 1979. We knew there were lots of grassroots union activists scattered across the country doing very good work, such as trying to reform their unions, fighting for better contracts and union building. These were people who felt the labour movement really needed to be revitalised and rebuilt but realised that the impetus was not going to come from the top levels of the AFL-CIO", West told Green Left Weekly.

"We felt that we could put these people in touch with each other, where union activists could debate and discuss problems facing the labour movement, and give them a place where they could get news not published in the daily newspapers nor in the official labour movement papers. There are certain things you are not allowed to acknowledge if you are writing for AFL-CIO publications, like the fact that there are dissidents in trade unions."

Not only has Labor Notes been publishing every month for almost 15 years, attracting a solid core of activists around it, but it regularly sponsors national Labor Notes conferences at which union activists meet to discuss and debate issues facing the movement. "We've now had half a dozen of these conferences; the last one attracted 1200 people. We have a theme for each one, but really the theme is the least important thing. The most important thing is that people come and get to know each other, talk to each other, make contacts and get ideas. It gives these people the sense that they part of a movement."

Labor Notes has published a range of invaluable books on labour-management cooperation programs, "which we view as very dangerous to the labour movement. We have held schools and conferences on that topic. We have done a lot of work recently building solidarity between US, Canadian and Mexican workers in the light of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. We've done work on sexual harassment. We published a book called The Troublemakers Handbook which presents alternative ideas that people can use for fighting back on the job."

Labor Notes has also encouraged debate on the need for the trade union movement to break with the Democratic Party and form a labour party.

West agreed that Labor Notes tends to have a critical attitude to most union leaderships. The journal campaigns for union democracy. "The reasons for our criticisms are pretty simple. The US labour movement is in big trouble, the percentage of unionisation of the work force is dropping, labour is unable to win anything in Congress, strikes are being broken, we have one disaster after another. Yet, union leaders carry on 'business as usual'. They won't admit there is a crisis."

West believes that the US labour movement must again build its strength on the shop floor. "The notion our leaders have peddled is that a union is a professional organisation run by a highly paid staff that knows better than the rank and file. The rank and file takes its orders from the staff rather than the other way around. So the strength of the union is seen as its ability to lobby and to do research.

"We are seeing now that once you lose the strength of the rank and file at the shop-floor level, then these high paid services don't mean much. People have lost the sense that the union is the members."

Another problem, says West, "is that the labour movement has tended to divorce itself from other social movements". Unions must again make real alliances with the women's movement, minorities and the disadvantaged.

West remains optimistic that a turnaround is possible and Labor Notes will be in the front line when it comes. Strikes and labour struggles will continue, he points out. "While union leaders have to a large extent given up the class war, management has not. Management continues to try to chip away at whatever the unions have left, and every once in a while there is resistance to it."

Not all union leaders attract the wrath of Labor Notes, West adds. "There are a lot on the local level who are doing good work. There are a handful at higher levels such as Teamsters Union president Ron Carey, who was elected as a result of a grassroots rebellion against the corrupt and mafia-infested leadership several years ago." National leaders of the electrical workers' union and oil and atomic workers' union have also taken progressive stands on important issues.

"You see a lot of good things going on. Things that the people we come into contact with are doing. There are a lot of people who have a sense of where we need to be going. Sure, we're losing some battles, but we are also winning some."
[Subscription inquiries for Labor Notes can be sent to: Labor Education and Research Project, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48210, USA. Phone 1 313 842 6262.]

Teamster reformers win local elections

Local elections in the Teamsters Union show reformers are strengthening their influence in the union's 550 locals. But reformers worry that this process may be too slow to prevent old guard Teamsters associated with the union's mafia past from regaining much of their power at the union's convention next year.

Most Teamster locals elect officers in late fall or early winter for three-year terms, so about a third of the locals vote in any given year. Despite a few unexpected defeats, reformers are pleased with the outcome of 1994 voting. Throughout the country, members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and other reformers allied with Teamsters president Ron Carey won in a solid majority of about 35 contested elections.

While reformers have done well, they have not been able to contest as many elections as they'd like. Their strength — and the popularity of the new, greater militancy in the Teamsters — will be tested in other locals as the union begins electing delegates to the July 1996 convention.

Besides nominations for the election of international officers, at the Philadelphia convention old guard officials are expected to propose sweeping constitutional changes that could strip the union of much of its already limited power, while restoring the perks and positions they have lost since Carey took office in early 1992.

Currently, TDU members and other reformers control locals that will elect less than a quarter of the convention delegates. So reformers' ability to develop strength in more locals during the next year will largely determine the immediate future of the Teamsters union.
[Reprinted from Labor Notes.]

Reformers near a majority in New York transit local

Steve Downs

New York City — After 10 years of organising, union reformers are near a majority in Transport Workers Union Local l00, the 33,000-member local that represents New York City's bus and subway workers.

In 1988, when the New Directions slate first ran for office in Local 100, their presidential candidate, Tim Schermerhorn, received 22% of the vote. In 1991, he won 33%. And in the recently completed voting, 45%. Where New Directions won three seats on the executive board in 1988, it now holds 15 of the 45 positions.

The only two women who will chair the local's 15 divisions were New Directions candidates.

New Directions' victories result from activities far broader than campaigns for local office. The group's newsletter, Hell on Wheels, has argued for rebuilding the union on the basis of a deeper commitment to militancy, democracy, solidarity and accountability. The group's goal has always been to resist management's attacks and to establish membership control over the union. Running for office has been a part of that process, but winning was never the primary goal.

Local 100's old leadership agreed to let the Transit Authority hire part-time drivers with no benefits. They have agreed to let an arbitrator decide if the Authority can run trains with only one crew member instead of two.

New Directions opposes these proposals, and it's not likely the membership, or the riding public, will accept them either.

(Steve Downs, a train operator, was elected to the Executive Board of TWU Local 100 on the New Directions slate.)
[Reprinted from Labor Notes.]

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