The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Unions Say No Concessions, but Offer No Prospects to the Working Class

Oct 31, 1982

The trade union officials seem to have taken a different stance toward concessions in the last period. Apparently today they are opposing concessions, at least in words and sometimes even in actions.

For example, Doug Fraser of the UAW (United Auto Workers), even though he proposed a new contract of concessions to the Chrysler workers, said, “There absolutely are going to be no more concessions – none.” At the end of July, the top officials and some 400 local presidents of the USWA (United Steel Workers of America) unanimously voted to refuse the demand for concessions made by the steel companies.

Concession demands are still continuing, to be sure. And the unions continue to accept them, and sometimes still argue openly for them, as in the case of the USWA at McLouth Steel or the UAW at Burroughs. But in the last few months, we have also seen a number of strikes led by the unions against concessions, or at least opposed to the extent of the concessions being demanded.

The UAW, for example, proposed the strike at Caterpillar, and also at General Dynamics. There have also been a number of smaller UAW strikes against tool and supplier plants in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The Food and Commercial Workers Union struck Iowa Beef Processors in Nebraska. The United Rubber Workers has been fighting concessions with a strike against General Tire in Waco, Texas. The International Association of Machinists, the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, as well as others have also led strikes against concessions.

Up until the last few months, the leaders of the trade unions argued for concessions. They said that because times were difficult, the workers had no other choice but to sacrifice in order to keep their company going. Confronting failing companies, and an overall weakened economy, the union officials argued that concessions were the only way for the workers to keep their jobs. That is, in effect, they told the workers that their interests were tied to those of their bosses. First, second, and even third rounds of concessions were promoted by the union officials.

What happened which could explain this change in the stance of the union officials? The bad economic situation had been their excuse to justify the concessions earlier. But nothing in the economic situation had improved – in fact, it had gotten worse.

The only thing which is different which explains this change is the difference in the mood of the working class.

Are the Workers Ready to Refuse Concessions?

Up until recently, workers have accepted huge sacrifices in wages, benefits, and working

conditions. After Chrysler Corporation three years ago, the demand for concessions was made in sector after sector of the economy. Almost nowhere did the workers outright reject these demands and fight against them.

One significant reflection of this acceptance has been the steady decline in the number of strikes in the country. On an annualized basis, the number of strikes dropped in 1980, 1981, and the first 6 months of 1982 to the lowest point since the government first began collecting these statistics back in 1947. With very few exceptions, strikes were not proposed by the unions, nor did workers push for them.

When members of the UAW voted down the proposed Chrysler contract overwhelmingly, by a 70 to 30 margin, it was an indication of changes going on in the working class. This vote came despite everything the UAW officials did to try to sell the new contract. It was the first time since the strike wave following World War II that an auto contract has been voted down company-wide.

At this point, we don’t know if the first vote of refusal will be followed by a decision to strike, but regardless of where the situation goes from here, it indicates that at least one large section of the working class is no longer willing to accept all the rationalization supporting concessions.

Perhaps this change is restricted to Chrysler — right now, that vote is the clearest expression we have of change – but in fact, we think that this change in mood is much wider spread. Not only do we hear the UAW presenting new concessions under the guise that they aren’t concessions, but other union officials like those of the USWA are doing the same.

This new mood in the working class has led union officials to new words and, where need be, to new actions, such as calling strikes against concessions.

The Limits of Isolated Strikes Today

Are the unions opening up a new perspective for the working class? We have an answer

when we look at the strike at IBP (Iowa Beef Processors), a strike which went as far as a single isolated strike can go.

When the contract between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and IBP expired this summer, IBP demanded concessions. The union offered a two-year wage freeze and a three-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments. But this wasn’t enough for IBP. Management cut off negotiations, and the workers voted to go out on strike.

When the company then decided to bring in scabs, the strikers used their picket line to block them. Even after the local and state police were brought in swinging clubs and firing mace, the workers continued massive picket lines. At this point, IBP called on the politicians and the judges. The Governor of Nebraska called out the National Guard, equipped with tanks and helicopters, to make a show of force. A judge issued a court injunction, threatening jail sentences if workers didn’t limit their pickets. At this point, the workers let the scabs through.

The strike then dragged on until October 1. After sacrificing for 4 months, and not seeing any other way forward, the workers voted to return to work unconditionally. They are now working on the basis of the 4-year concession demand made by IBP, with some members fired for actions on the picket line, and with many of the scabs still on the job at the new lower starting wage.

There is an important lesson to be learned at Iowa Beef. And not just for the workers who struck, but for all workers. It is true we are in a difficult period for the workers to wage a strike and win. Today we are in a period of economic crisis, and this means the bosses are not so willing, or even able, to give something to the workers. When the bosses are in a difficult period like this, it is easy for them to decide to close down a plant completely rather than to give in to the demands of the workers. If the demands of the workers mean that a plant operates at little or no profit, there is no reason for the bosses to continue.

Even if the company is not hit directly by the crisis, the bosses can still take advantage of the high unemployment from the crisis, and use it as a way to put pressure on the workers to accept what is demanded of them. We even see the use of scabs becoming more common today.

As always, the bosses have the force of the state, with its economic and political resources, on their side. As we saw previously, IBP was defended by the politicians and judges, with their cops, Guard, courts, and jails. In a time period like this, the bosses turn more to their state apparatus for aid.

All of this means that a fight of the working class is difficult today.

It is not enough to threaten the profits of an individual boss. That is why isolated strikes do not have much of a chance to win today. If there is a possibility for the workers to challenge the bosses, it can best be realized in a real social movement of the working class. The power that any group of workers has today depends in great measure on the extent it is able at least to threaten to spread their fight to other workers. It is the threat that a movement will go against the other bosses, and even their government, that counts today.

This means that the goal of any strike needs to be to spread that strike in whatever means are possible – in calling for the support of other workers, in convincing the other workers that their own problems also require them to struggle. The more militant and determined any strike is, the more it has the possibility to engage the interest and support of other workers. But the workers also need to have the goal of breaking out of their isolation.

Certainly, it may not at all be possible for any single strike, no matter how militant it might be, to be taken up by other layers of the working class. But at least the workers need this goal in front of them.

Is this the direction the unions are going today? No, not at all.

To the extent that the union officials talk about the wider interests of the working class, and about the need for a united stance of the working class, for a political action, it is only in terms of taking a trip to the ballot box this November and then again in 1984. They blame the current situation of the workers on the Republicans and call on the workers to vote for the Democrats, the other party of the enemies of the working class, as the only solution. This is hardly a way to threaten the bosses. And it does not in any way lead the workers to take any action at all.

In the particular fights of the workers, in the actual strikes that take place, the union officials propose only isolated fights. At Iowa Beef, for example, they didn’t have the perspective to try to address other workers to widen the strike. They didn’t even call out all the IBP workers in the union.

Only 1 out of 10 IBP plants struck. Maybe it was not possible to widen the strike, but the fact that it wasn’t tried leaves it an open question. The union officials didn’t even raise the problem in front of the workers. The fact that they didn’t even address the question is the proof that they wanted to keep the strike within as narrow a framework as possible.

We see this same desire to keep strikes as limited as possible, in the hurry of a certain number of officials to go to arbitration. We saw this in both the Detroit teachers’ strike and the railroad strike and the railroad engineers’ strike. The union officials were ready to hold the level of the strikes on a limited basis, and then to call on the state as a way to end the strikes. We know what this will mean for the workers.

The whole framework of arbitration is rigged against the workers: some authority looks at the boss’s books to evaluate what can be “afforded” by the boss. In a period of economic crisis, naturally school tax revenue has declined. So in order to balance the board’s budget, as is required by law, what can an arbitrator propose other than cutbacks in wages, benefits, and working conditions for teachers? In a time when the railroads have been facing financial crisis and reorganization all over the country, what will an arbitrator conclude other than the need to cut back on operation costs, including more sacrifices by the engineers?

It is necessary for the workers to mobilize all their troops, to unite their forces. But it is exactly this the union officials don’t even try to do. They don’t try to convince the workers of the necessity to do this. They don’t even say a word to the workers about the problem. Of course it is not necessarily sure, even if the union officials addressed the question this way, that a fight could succeed or even that the workers would be ready to engage in such a battle. But it is always possible at least to say what you think needs to be done. And if the union officials really thought a wider fight of the working class was necessary, they would certainly say this to the workers. They could certainly say openly what the current situation is, with all the risks the workers confront. They could explain what needs to be done if the workers are to have a chance to defend their livelihood. All of this they could put honestly before the workers, so the workers could clearly decide whether or not they are ready to engage in the fight. The fact that the union officials do not even do this is proof that they do not want to make a fight against concessions.

Today the unions may lead strikes, but when they do, it is a defensive response. They may call strikes when they feel there is nothing else they can do. But the choice they pose in front of the workers is really no choice at all. They tell the workers either they must accept concessions or they must go out on strike with no prospect of winning. When they talk of such a strike, it just leads the workers a little more into a dead end.

The Prospect Given by the Unions Is Not the Only One

What the trade unions propose for the working class is not, however, the only option open. Without the will of the union officials, or even against them, a group of workers could engage in a battle which opens up prospects for the working class.

Today we can see that possibility in the situation around the Chrysler contract. The workers at Chrysler, if they engage in a militant, determined fight today, have the possibility to pull around them other sections of the working class. In many places, we hear other workers saying that the Chrysler workers should have voted down the concessions, that other workers need to do the same. Today we know that other workers are watching the development at Chrysler. More or less, they see in the Chrysler workers the expression of their own situation.

Given this mood in the working class, it is possible that if the Chrysler workers engage in a battle, even without a wider perspective beyond their own immediate fight, other workers could nonetheless see this fight as their own fight. Much more so, if the Chrysler workers begin to make conscious appeals to these other workers. If they ask for support, if they explain to the other workers that all workers’ fights should be one and the same, they could pull around them the forces of the working class. A social movement such as this could pose a real threat to the bosses – not just those at Chrysler, but to all the bosses and to the government. It is a fight like this which has the possibility to change something for the working class. If we doubt such a possibility, we need only to recall that this is exactly what happened in the 1936 when the GM workers decided to wage a fight.

If the working class is to move forward, it will depend on what the workers themselves decide, on what prospects they give themselves, on their determination to break with the perspective the unions have given them.