Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Union vs. Corporate Showdown Has Officially Begun

by

The attack on the U.S. labor movement just sharpened with the Harris vs. Quinn Supreme Court decision, aimed at the heart of concentrated union power — public sector unions. When you add in the Obama-led assault on public school teachers unions and the Koch brother-funded “Right to Work” laws, the labor movement appears to be facing imminent ruin.

At the same time, however, a powerful counter-force has emerged: the union movement has won significant victories around the fight for $15 minimum wage in Seattle and Los Angeles, and is poised to win in San Francisco where the strongest measure yet is headed for the November ballot. These wins and prospective wins have sent shock waves through the country, showing what’s possible if unions and community groups take the initiative and focus on inspiring demands that resonate through the broader community.

The 2012 the Chicago teachers’ strike set an equally powerful example for unions, which has been studied by unionists across the country. Chicago teachers re-taught the labor movement the importance of the strike and the prerequisite internal democratic organization of union members. Once organized internally, members rallied community groups and the broader population over popular demands like stopping school closures.

These advances for unions in the face of intensifying corporate attacks are forcing labor relations to a crescendo. Organized labor has, at long last, realized that fighting back is their only salvation. The tension inherent in this dynamic is volatile, and will inevitably explode as corporations relentlessly attempt to boost profits at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits.

The above examples of labor’s involvement in the ‘Fight for $15’ and the Chicago teachers’ strike encapsulates all that unions need to do to re-gain their lost status as organizations that represent the broader working class, as they did to a significant extent in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. The strategy is simple: workers inside unions need to be organized and inspired sufficiently to be able to strike, if necessary, while simultaneously fighting for demands for the broader community, like the $15 minimum wage.

Unions do not need flashy gimmicks or to re-invent the wheel. Of course, technological advances must be used while new demands and creative forms of protest should be experimented with, but Twitter and Facebook cannot replace face-to-face organizing and collective action, only complement it.

For years union leaders convinced themselves that “strikes don’t work,” based on the many that were misled and then lost. Instead union leaders searched in vain for labor’s equivalent to the philosopher’s stone, that magic “something” that would save the labor movement if only it were discovered. Since nothing “new” was discovered, in practice union leaders resorted to making backroom concessionary deals with politicians and corporations, and labor’s power slid further into the mire.

And while many unions seem intent on breaking out of this organizational-political straitjacket, others seem suicidally comfortable repeating the same failed tactics.

For example, there is no reason that organized labor should not immediately put the $15 minimum wage up for a statewide referendum in all 24 states that have the ballot initiative process. The ballot initiative should also be used to raise taxes on the rich and corporations so that cuts to services and education can be prevented and reversed, and to create more public sector jobs building roads, fixing infrastructure, etc.

The only reason this isn’t being done everywhere is because some labor leaders still have a “partnership” with Democratic politicians who are adamantly against the $15 minimum wage, not to mention opposing taxing the rich and corporations. These labor leaders still believe, delusionally, that they can get more from politicians than they could get by going over their heads, directly to voters.

An additional barrier that unions need to overcome in utilizing the full strength of the ballot initiative is the idea of using ballot measures as bargaining chips, where unions use the threat of progressive ballot initiatives to pressure politicians to make union-specific concessions.

For example, in Oregon SEIU filed for progressive taxation ballot measures that were later withdrawn, ostensibly in exchange for the right wing to drop their Right to Work initiative, a “deal” which was brokered by a Democratic governor.

This union “strategy” was also mentioned by the president of the United Healthcare Workers of SEIU, Dave Regan, in his “Live Better Together” proposal for the labor movement.

And while Regan’s proposal contains many good ideas, the “ballot initiative as bargaining chip” isn’t one of them. The anti-union Bloomberg website made several good points in attacking the tactic:

“…But, of course, this strategy is not free for the SEIU, either; you can spend a lot of money on fake initiatives, have your bluff called, and end up with no money and no more members.”

More importantly, using populist ballot initiatives as bargaining chips unfairly raise expectations for the broader community, which then gets upset when the initiatives are removed in exchange for something that appears to benefit union members only, as was done in Oregon. Lastly, fake ballot initiatives do not mobilize union members or the community at large, and resorting to backroom dealing with politicians inspires nobody.

The years of bad habits that unions have accumulated can be shed quickly, but not if the process is done bureaucratically, behind closed doors and without the involvement of rank-and-file members and community allies. Most unions still have a long way to go to actively engage their memberships like the Chicago teachers have done. But without the buy-in from rank-and-file members, a union is a paper tiger in a time where the real thing is needed.

Ultimately a union without an actively engaged membership that fails to connect with the broader community will not survive the corporate onslaught. And any labor leader that stops the process of internal union democratization and external community mobilization is destined to be exposed as incompetent, unable to lead labor out of this period of crisis.

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 

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:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Andrew Sullivan
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Richard W. Behan
Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
Daniel Kato
Rethinking the Race over Race: What Clinton Should do Now About ‘Super-Predators’
Peter Certo
Clinton’s Awkward Stumbles on Trade
Fran Shor
Demonizing the Green Party Vote
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Road Rage to the White House
Luke O'Brien
Because We Couldn’t Have Sanders, You’ll Get Trump
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]