Our Needs Do Not Fit on Their Ballots

We are living in difficult times and our situation is not good. I am referring not only to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan. Neither am I referring mainly to the collapse of the credit markets and the speculative real estate bubble fueled by the global sale of collateralized debt obligations. Nor am I referring to the unfolding recession that will be with us for months if not years. I am referring to broad historical trends in the relationship between employers and their workers. These trends have developed over the past thirty years and appear to be intensifying. These trends are political and economic developments that have eroded the power and position of those of us who labor for wages or salaries. We are losing income, benefits, free time, and even our health.  For us the possibility of a secure retirement with decent health care is becoming more and more problematic. For our children’s generation the possibilities of a life-time career with one employer and decent wages and defined benefits are becoming more and more remote.  Worse still for the kids are the public health forecasts indicating that their generation, compared to ours, may have higher rates of obesity and diabetes and, quite possibly, lower life expectancy.  Add to these realities the current and future costs of the banking crisis, foreign wars, and economic recession and it should be clear that our situation is not good. How did this come about?

The high point of wages (adjusted for inflation) was in 1973. From that time income has steadily declined. This includes a deep erosion of defined benefits – especially health coverage and retirement pensions. Beginning in the 1970s employers (capital) broke the wage-productivity bargain they had with workers – the bargain promising that increases in production would be matched by increases in wages. Since then, production has risen without the corresponding gain in wages.  The workforce has been collectively disciplined through a variety of measures that have reduced many of us to “flexible” contingent labor. Capital has restructured its relationship to labor for purposes of greater exploitation. It continues to do so. This restructuring has been accomplished by transforming many full-time and long-term jobs into part-time and temporary ones, leasing workers from employment agencies, outsourcing public employee jobs to private companies, off-shoring, using prison labor, instituting workfare policies, denying cost of living raises, and moving pensions from defined benefit to defined contribution programs. The result over the past generation has been a tremendous increase of two-income families, a time squeeze in daily lives, a declining rate of savings, an increase in debt and an increase of financial risk and insecurity. Many years ago there was an expression that effectively encapsulated this relationship between capital and labor: it was called “class struggle”. Today, however, that phrasing is more than passe` – it has become politically incorrect.

As unionized workers in the public sector we are not isolated from this long-term trend to increase the rate of exploitation. In fact, college and university administrations have been pioneers in the assault on labor. Look at the faculty on your campus and ask yourself how many are “adjuncts” – a polite word for temporary, part-time, lower-wage workforce. The answer is probably about 50 per cent.  As the assault on labor continues, we public sector workers will come under increasing attack as a privileged caste that has it too good when compared to private sector workers. Already there are “taxpayer” groups throughout the country calling for an end to public employees’ defined benefits – especially the retirement pensions – on the grounds that they, as taxpaying citizens, should not be charged for benefits that they themselves do not have. If they don’t have pensions, then why should we? Before you laugh at their position, consider the possibility that there are enough voters in the country who may find this argument compelling – especially now that their tax dollars are funding a trillion dollar   bailout for bankers. And this sum is an addition to the almost $700 billion already spent for the war in Iraq.

In a private enterprise economy the drive for profit demands a reduction of wages. Labor costs are generally the greatest cost of production and reducing them raises profits.  The constant pressure to reduce labor costs (wages and benefits) has historically been offset through the organization of the workforce into unions and the implementation of collective bargaining. Getting workers organized was (and remains) no easy task and was carried out by women and men who realized the necessity of a collective voice and who further realized that the only real power they held was their collective ability to stop production by withholding their labor. There is a word for this power: “strike” – but it too has become politically incorrect. The tremendous union drives of the 1930s and 1940s were led, in large part, by women and men who had this understanding of power. Such understanding appears to have been lost by certain members of the baby-boomer generation that has ridden through life on the coat-tails of their grandparents’ union struggles.

Political power, according to the current leadership of our AFT, is defined as hiring sophisticated lobbyists, giving money to the Democratic Party, and “getting out the Democratic vote”.  Political realism is now seen as compliance with the limitations put on labor by management, politicians, and corporate investors. Realism today consists in believing that there is no connection between the fact the faculty get cost-of-living-adjustments below the rate of inflation (i.e. a pay cut) while the country spends thirteen billion dollars a month on a war. Realism now consists in believing that there is no money to hire our many adjuncts into full-time positions while the bipartisan leadership of the country spends billions of taxpayer dollars to rescue the credit and insurance markets; meanwhile, the executives of Bear Stearns, AIG, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Countrwide, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia who guided the country to its current financial debacle receive millions in compensation.  Realism now consists in believing the fantasy that there are substantial differences between two presidential candidates both of whom take most of their financial contributions and advice from the corporate sector, call for an expansion of the military by 100,000 troops, support a U.S. missile system in Poland, advocate a greater war in Afghanistan, back military strikes in Pakistan, take a bellicose line on Iran, and will not provide universal health care, repeal the Taft-Hartley Act, and stop ICE raids against undocumented workers.  How did we come to such absurdity? The answer lies in history.

Union purges, in the late 1940s and early 1950s during the liberal Truman regime, of those labor activists who had an understanding of the contradictory interests of employers and employees led to a development of a politically obedient union bureaucracy. This bureaucracy – staffed with liberals loyal to the Democratic Party – had a gentlemen’s agreement with management to not seriously challenge the repression of the Taft-Hartley Act and other subsequent anti-labor laws. When a crisis of profitability caused employers to break the labor-management truce in the mid 1970s, both labor leaders and rank and file were unprepared to respond effectively. Since that time, workers have been steadily forced to accept more part-time jobs, temporary jobs, two-tier wage structures, fewer defined benefits, less unemployment insurance, and less welfare coverage. These things in turn have led to the growth of two-income families who cover wage losses in a volatile job market by borrowing on their credit cards and/or against their home equities.  Union executives, viewing employers as “partners” in production rather than as an exploitive opponent, have been unable to mount an effective defense against these attacks. This failure of leadership has contributed to a decline in union membership from 35 per cent of the workforce in 1954 to about 11 per cent in 2008.  With only one in nine workers unionized and a union leadership that believes the Democratic Party is the party of organized labor, the workers of America and of AFT Local 1521 have little real ability to halt the ongoing assaults against them.  How much worse must our situation become before we abandon our suppliant strategy?

There is now talk within our guild local of training a new generation of leaders to replace soon-to-retire officers. Yet, in light of the historical track record of the AFT, what training will be effective to reverse the assault upon faculty wages and benefits – let alone stop it? Our union represents public sector workers and, compared to the benefits of most private sector workers, our wage-benefit package for full-time employees stands out as an exceptional holdover from the good old days.  The wages and benefits of full-time faculty are a constant reminder of what other workers (including our part-timers!) could have. This example will not be tolerated by the employers of America. They will not raise their employees’ wages to match ours; they will not restore retirement pensions; they will not bring back health coverage. Rather they will seek the opposite: to reduce ours to non-union private sector levels.  To do otherwise would contradict the logic of acquiring profit.

If we are going to encourage unionization and train a new leadership, we should deal with the problem that, even though one of every three workers in this country was unionized in 1954, this was not enough to defend the workers against a sustained assault beginning about 1973 and continuing to the present.  It is not enough to simply unionize or train a new generation in the ways of lobbying the legislators or “getting out the vote”.Our needs do not fit on their ballots.

It is necessary to have the big picture of the antagonistic relationship between capital and labor and of the structural forces pushing employers to continually intensify our exploitation, put us in debt and send our young off to war.  And to stop these forces it is necessary to develop real political power – the collective ability to stop production at the point of production.

Chuck O’Connell is an adjunct professor of sociology  at  Pierce College. He can be reached at OConneCT@piercecollege.edu


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Chuck O’Connell is a lecturer in sociology at UCI.