FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Standing Up to Anti-Union Democrats

by SHAMUS COOKE

After years of painful backsliding, the state workers of Oregon’s largest union, SEIU 503, recently stood firm and scored a big win in their contract negotiations against the state’s anti-union Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber.

After again demanding many anti-union concessions, Oregon’s Democratic governor backed down when the union proved organized and ready to wage a statewide strike, which would have shut down many state-run agencies, including highway repair, Department of Motor Vehicles, Parks and Recreation, food stamps, the Employment Department, Child Welfare, Department of Revenue, and others.

SEIU 503 is a union of 50,000 plus members, the core of which consists of Oregon public employees. On paper the union looked impressive after having expanded its membership in mostly non-public areas, including private home-health care.

But the union’s power had been hollowed out in preceding years, due to successive Democratic governors demanding concessionary contracts from the state workers, who pay most of the union’s dues while having the most cohesive work units and political power.

SEIU 503 had suffered from a disease that— if left untreated— was potentially fatal: concessionary bargaining. Consequently, with each new contract wages were lowered, members’ health care contributions increased, and the governor continued to demand that public employees be blamed for the budget deficits caused by the recession that the banks triggered and the lowering of taxes on corporations.

The life force of the union was being sucked dry by years of weak contracts, and eventually many members began to question why they were paying dues to a union that appeared incapable of protecting their wages and benefits. Morale was low. Hope for the union’s future — and its members’ livelihood — started to dim.

Sensing blood, a variety of right-wing funded organizations and politicians were preparing the anti-union deathblow, with ballot measures — like “right to work” legislation — that intend to decapitate unions in Oregon, as happened in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

But after this big win, SEIU 503 is in a better position to defend itself against these right-wing attacks, and in a better bargaining position for contract negotiations next time, since members will want to expand on their momentum to regain the losses they’ve incurred in recent contracts.

This win required that the union out-muscle nearly every politician in the state, who all lined up to vote against the union. The Democrats, who control Oregon’s House and Senate, co-authored a bill that illegally attacked the pensions of current and future retirees (a bill the union is challenging in court). After this treachery was passed, the Oregon Democrats pushed for yet another anti-pension bill, which they called a “grand bargain” — raising minimal taxes on the wealthy in exchange for even more pension cuts. The Grand Bargain failed by one vote, although the Democratic Governor has announced he will pursue it again in a special session.

Many — if not most — of these Democrats were supported by Oregon labor unions and they proceeded immediately to stab unions in the back. Oregon Democrats are now parroting the longstanding Republican propaganda that blames unions for the state’s budget problems.

The Democrats now look at organized labor through the same anti-union lens of the Republicans; the budget was to be balanced on the backs of public employees while the bigbanks and corporations — who caused the recession — were given new tax breaks.

For example, the Democratic governor called the Democratic-controlled legislature into “special session” exclusively to give NIKE a special tax break, which of course will be expanded to other corporations in Oregon. This is happening at the same time that the Democrats and Republicans — and their associated media mouthpieces — both pour blame on unions for the bad economy, which tends to drive public perception against unions.

Oregon’s anti-union, pro-corporation dynamic is not unique. Since the start of the Great Recession, the Democrats nationwide have veered even sharper to the right in regards to labor — what little difference remains between Democrats and Republicans over unions is now a matter of degrees within a shared, bi-partisan ideology.

Although Republicans have wanted to institute anti-union laws like “Right to Work,” the Democrats have helped to weaken these unions and made them vulnerable to such attacks — the old one-two knockout punch combination. Strong unions that bargain strong contracts are less vulnerable to Republican attacks.

It’s undoubtedly true that the Democrats rightward political drift is, in part, the byproduct of a labor movement that refuses to hold them accountable for their actions. In Oregon, for example, the current Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, had previously proved himself an enemy of organized labor when, in 1995, SEIU 503 went on a statewide strike against him.

When Kitzhaber re-entered politics in 2010, SEIU 503 and the other unions agreed to back him on a “lesser of two evils” basis, regardless of his public statements that aimed at “curbing pension costs” and other anti-union, Republican-inspired rhetoric. When the Democrats co-authored the anti-pension bill, instead of publicly denouncing it the unions were mostly quiet, a response that empowered the Democrats to double down later for a Grand Bargain. Passivity doesn’t stop your political foes, but invites more aggression.

The key lesson in SEIU’s recent victory was that the union proved it was not dependent on Democratic politicians for favors; unions have an independent power completely separate from politicians, expressed most strongly through their ability to mobilize the membership for a strike.

SEIU 503 defeated the concessions demanded by the governor by organizing strike petitions in the worksites, staging statewide worksite actions, organizing numerous regional membership meetings to discuss bargaining proposals and strategy, phone banking members to educate and elicit feedback, and holding statewide in-person strike votes that resulted in a strong “yes” from the membership, further empowering the bargaining team. Because of these and other actions the governor backed down and the membership now has their first contract victory in years with zero concessions, wage increases, as well as protections against privatization and other improvements in working conditions.

Now, many within SEIU 503 are re-thinking their relationship with the Democrats. Most members now realize that the Democrats are transitioning from “fair weather friends” to outright enemies; and most union members do not want to dedicate their time or money for their political enemies, whether or not the enemy is considered a “lesser evil.”

Unions in Oregon have already started “candidate schools” for members interested in running for public office. And although laudable, this small step towards political independence must be accompanied by a larger investment from all unions toward creating a political party to represent working people with the resources and organizational ability to challenge the two-party system once and for all.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker and an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nasty As They Wanna Be
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Chris Welzenbach
The Forgotten Sneak Attack
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Yoav Litvin
Resist or Conform: Lessons in Fortitude and Weakness From the Israeli Left
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Pierre Labossiere – Margaret Prescod
Human Rights and Alternative Media Delegation Report on Haiti’s Elections
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
David Yearsley
Brahms and the Tears of Britain’s Oppressed
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail