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Applauding the Sacrifice

Sugar Workers Return After 20-Month Lockout

by DAVID MACARAY

Approximately 1,300 members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union (BCTGM) from Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, who’d been locked-out since August 1, 2011, by the Moorhead, Minnesota-based American Crystal Company, voted on April 13 to accept the company’s last offer. The new contract will run until 2017. This was the fifth ratification vote. The previous four had been rejected.

The lockout began when an overwhelming 96-percent of the voting membership rejected what they considered to be an egregiously inferior, if not insulting contract offer. Among other things, the company aggressively attacked seniority, job security, and health care benefits. Considering that American Crystal was flush with profits, the employees—many of whom had worked for the company for more than 25 years—felt they had no choice but to reject it.

So why would a company like American Crystal take this opportunity to reinvent the wheel? Why now? Why would they choose this moment to go after so many of the benefits that union members have had for many decades—boilerplate benefits that U.S. companies, in their wildest and most optimistic dreams, never would’ve considered attacking?

Why? Because the time was right. Because the economic stars were in alignment, and because our zeitgeist has shifted so dramatically, today’s working men and women, particularly those affiliated with labor unions, are clearly in the cross-hairs. It’s true. While Wall Street bankers are gleefully hoisted upon the shoulders of congressional lobbyists, the American worker has been left to twist slowly in the wind.

What’s worse is that instead of being sympathetic, the public goes around saying dumb things like, “Unions used to be necessary, but not anymore,” and “We live in a global economy, so we just have to accept it,” and “Union wages drove our jobs overseas.” Dumb, dumb, dumb. Sadly, the American public has morphed into a tribe of corporate minions. They may as well drop to their knees and say, “I now worship at the altar of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”
I spoke by telephone a few weeks ago with David Durkee, the International president of the BCTGM. Durkee is a smart, tough union officer, very aware of the situation facing organized labor, and up to his eyeballs in alligators. What we discussed was the progress being made in finding new ownership for Hostess. Whatever the reason—whether the American Crystal vote hadn’t reached critical mass or whether he didn’t wish it publicized—the lockout never came up. I didn’t ask about it and he didn’t volunteer.

In any event, those union members deserve our profound gratitude. Staying out 20 months for a cause is a tremendous sacrifice. You can’t collect unemployment when you’re on strike, but you can when you’re locked-out (although North Dakota treats strikes and lockouts the same, denying all benefits). Still, these BCTGM members’ unemployment checks ran out long time ago, so they’ve been scraping by in other ways.

Another reason to applaud them is that their strike and ratification votes were done by secret ballot. Legally, they could have voted by acclimation, where people raise their hands or shout out Yea or Nay. Secret ballots are only required for elections or money issues (e.g., raising dues or officers’ salaries) One of the problems (or virtues, if you like) of an acclimation vote is that people tend to get swept away by the mood of the room, and sound tougher and more resolute than they really feel.

But these were straight-from-the-heart secret votes. Following the initial 96-percent rejection, they voted 90-percent to reject the following November, 63-percent in June of 2013, and 55-percent last December. The final offer was ratified by 55-percent. The BCTGM is an amazingly tough labor union. Of course, people will say, “That’s not being tough, that’s being stupid.” Pity those people. They have no principles.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. dmacaray@earthlink.net