Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The State of Unions

Ever wonder why labor unions in the United States are so weak? One of many reasons is that union officials are too busy electing their class enemy and excluding their petit-bourgeois ally from ballots to focus on putting movement back into the "labor movement."

Here's an example from Oregon:
  • "A union backing Sen. John Kerry for president charged the Ralph Nader petition campaign with fraud and forgery Monday in its effort to place Nader on the presidential ballot in Oregon. Leaders of the Service Employees International Union, Local 49, said they analyzed some Nader petitions and found that two-thirds of the names might be fraudulent" (Don Hamilton, "Union Blasts Nader Petitions," Portland Tribune, August 17, 2004).

  • "The service employees union . . . said it has spent as much as $25,000 to investigate Nader's petition drive" (emphasis added, Jeff Mapes, "Service Union Contends Signatures for Nader Petition Faulty," The Oregonian, August 17, 2004).

  • [Greg] Kafoury [a Portland attorney who is Nader's top campaign aide in Oregon] said he was incensed that union investigators had visited many canvassers to deliver a letter warning that falsifying petitions is a felony. He said the letter was worded to scare petitioners into thinking they could be held liable for an invalid signature, even if they believed the signer was a properly registered voter.

    "The obvious goal is to intimidate people so they stop gathering signatures because they know we are close," Kafoury said. "Visiting people at their homes at night to threaten them with prison is gangster tactics. Nothing like this has ever been seen in Oregon before."

    The letter tells petitioners that "your signature certifies that you personally witnessed each signature collected on the petition and that you obtained the signatures from qualified voters. Falsely signing the petition may result in conviction of a felony with a fine of up to $100,000 or prison for up to five years." (emphasis added, Mapes, August 17, 2004)
It's ironic that one of the few things that union officials expect the Democratic Party to do is to allow card check. What if bosses are to show the same zeal shown by SEIU Local 49 above in beating back card check drives, spending big bucks to "investigate" the validity of signatures on union authorization forms, to propagandize that they are fraudulent, to deliver threatening letters to volunteer organizers at night, and even to recruit a few workers to become turncoats who claim that they did not actually sign the authorization forms? That will reduce the utility of card check to virtually nothing.

Union officials would certainly protest if the same tactics used by SEIU Local 49 against the Nader/Camejo campaign were used against their own organizing campaigns. They would rightly call it undemocratic.

However, something more than a simple inability to remove the beam from their own eye may lurk in the conduct of SEIU Local 49 officials. Commonly, unions negotiate with employers for "neutrality agreements" (i.e., the employers' promise not to conduct an anti-union campaign) in card check drives. Such neutrality agreements do not come without a cost to workers. For example,
The UAW International has entered into an agreement with a fast-growing auto parts maker, Metaldyne, to remain neutral in union organizing drives. So far, so good. And in at least two of Metaldyne’s plants already represented by the UAW, the union has negotiated a wage of $16.21 an hour. That’s higher than many auto parts workers, though not in the top range. So far, pretty good again.

But in both these cases, $16.21 represents a wage cut. In one of the plants, a New Castle, Indiana machining facility, production workers have been making close to $26 an hour.

Those 1,200 New Castle workers are still employees, for now, of DaimlerChrysler. But after September 14, when the current UAW-DCX contract expires -- and along with it a ban on plant sales -- the factory will be sold to Metaldyne, which already owns 40% as of early this year.

Metaldyne has about 5-6,000 hourly workers in 26 small plants in the U.S., mostly in the Midwest. They are represented by the UAW, the Steelworkers (who were given a neutrality agreement in exchange for an investment in Metaldyne from the union’s pension fund), the United Electrical Workers, and an independent union, with ten plants still non-union. . . .

In the recent past, in 1999 and 2000, when GM and Ford sold off their parts divisions, the UAW negotiated for the affected workers to continue to receive Big Three-level wages and benefits from their new companies, Delphi and Visteon. Many had over 20 years’ seniority and had expected to retire with a Big Three pension. The Metaldyne sale indicates a change of policy -- apparently in exchange for the organizing neutrality agreement. (by Jane Slaughter, "UAW Trades Pay Cut for Neutrality," Labor Notes, July 2003)
Union officials used to the idea of making concessions to employers in exchange for neutrality agreements may be thinking in the same way about elections: neutrality is not a right but a privilege you pay for. Therefore, looking at the Nader/Camejo campaign, they think, "The chutzpah of running an electoral campaign without making concessions to the Democratic Party bosses first!"

No comments: