The Spark

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

In Their Continuing Attack on the Workers, the Corporations Begin to Nibble at the Unions

Jul 30, 1983

During the past few months, the corporations have continued to impose harsher and harsher concessions on the workers. Some companies that are demanding concessions for the first time, are demanding cutbacks in wages and benefits that are far bigger than earlier rounds of concessions. In the steel industry, for example, union officials approved a concessions agreement last March that immediately reduced most steelworkers’ wages and benefits by over $100.00 per week. This is a much bigger single cutback than those imposed earlier in the auto industry and many other industries. At the same time that initial concessions demands are getting bigger, many corporations that have already exacted a first round of concessions from their workers have been coming back for second or third rounds of takebacks.

As the attack on the working class progresses, the unions are themselves coming under attack.

This is not surprising, since the existence of the unions is another expense that the bourgeoisie would like to cut back on, just as high wages, vacations and health insurance programs for the workers are expenses that the bourgeoisie is trying to cut back on. And it is also not surprising, because in attacking the gains that the workers have made in the past through their struggles, it is inevitable that the bourgeoisie will also come to attack the organizations that the workers built up in the past during these struggles, that are now supposed to be the guarantee of these gains. In the present economic crisis, in order to preserve its own profits and wealth, the bourgeoisie would like to take back as much as possible of what it was forced to grant to the workers in the past. In this regard, it would be better for the bourgeoisie if it were free of the laws, government regulations, and agreements, including labor contracts, and the possibility of organization, that force it to honor promises it made in the past in order to pacify the workers.

The Unions Become a Target

It seems that at least some sections of the bourgeoisie have today decided to chip away at the unions. In the cases of some smaller, weaker unions, the attacks have sometimes been very direct and complete. Some bosses have aimed to destroy outright some unions, and in some cases they have been successful in doing this. This drive, which was spectacularly initiated by the breaking of PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), is now spreading to a number of other employers.

In June, 1982, for example, about 450 members of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers Union), and about 150 members of the Teamsters Union were told by their supervisors at the Cunningham Drug Store chain in the Detroit area not to report for work any more. Paper signs reading “Apex Drugs” were put up in the windows of Cunningham stores, and an almost completely new work force of part-time employees working for wages just above the legal minimum and with no benefits were brought in.

Cunningham’s, it turned out, had sold all its Detroit area drug stores to the newly created Apex Drugs. It just so happened that the owners of Apex were also some of the owners of Cunningham’s, and the sale of the stores to them had been financed by Cunningham’s.

By going through this little paper ownership change, the owners of Apex/Cunningham relieved themselves of the legal responsibility of dealing with the UFCW and the Teamsters and of honoring the terms of the former union contracts. The owners have succeeded, at least up until now, in slashing the wages and benefits they pay, and in ending all union organization among their employees.

In somewhat different situations from that at Cunningham’s, the bosses have aimed not so much to outright destroy the union, but rather to at least free themselves from the responsibility of honoring the terms of an existing union contract.

On April 22, 1983, for example, Wilson Foods, a major meatpacking company, filed a court petition asking to be declared officially bankrupt. The company then immediately slashed the wages and benefits of all 4,800 of its unionized workers by a whopping 40 to 50 per cent. Wages alone were cut from a base of $10.69 per hour to $6.50 per hour.

Wilson’s management said they were entitled to do this, because their bankruptcy status relieves them of the legal obligation to honor their previous labor contracts. They make it quite clear that despite their official declaration of bankruptcy, they have no intention of going out of business. They openly admit that filing for bankruptcy status was merely a maneuver to allow them unilaterally to junk their labor agreements. So far, the courts have backed them up in doing this.

Wilson, like Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) and many other meatpacking companies, is out to transform the meatpacking industry from a so-called “high-wage” industry to a low-wage industry. In some cases, this has meant that new meatpacking companies have opened new plants, or bought old ones, and fought to keep the unions out. In other cases, it has meant that established meatpacking companies have fought very hard to force existing unions to accept low wage and benefit agreements.

While the most direct and blatant attacks on the unions have generally been made at smaller companies with weaker unions, lesser demands have already been directed against the unions at some of the largest companies with the strongest unions.

For example, we saw this at Caterpillar Tractor Company, which is the largest manufacturer of earth-moving equipment in the world, controlling at least one-third of the international market for the products it sells. It carries on most of its production here in the U.S., employing about 35,000 production workers before layoffs began a couple years ago. In 1982, it exported about 2.5 billion dollars worth of equipment. It has paid wages and benefits to its workers that are a little higher than those paid to most workers in the big auto plants.

Workers at Caterpillar went out on the longest company-wide strike that their union – the UAW (United Automobile Workers Union) – has ever led. One of the reasons for this 205-day strike was an attempt by Caterpillar to substantially reduce the wages and benefits of its present employees, and cut back still further on the wages and benefits of any new employees it hired. But at the same time, Caterpillar proposed to reduce the amount of time that union shop stewards are allowed to take off from their jobs to handle grievances, and to eliminate the super-seniority that union representatives have enjoyed. (They are the last to be laid off from their departments.)

The final agreement ending this 7-month strike granted most of the economic concessions that the company wanted, but maintained all of the rights and privileges that union representatives had previously enjoyed. Needless to say, this settlement was not accepted happily by many workers, as evidenced by the one-third of the workers who voted against the agreement.

Finally, even General Motors, the largest industrial corporation in the country, has started once again to indicate that it might like to get rid of the UAW in at least some of its plants. GM concluded an agreement in February, 1983, with Toyota of Japan to produce jointly a new small car at the closed down GM assembly plant at Fremont, California. Initially, GM and Toyota officials said that UAW represented workers who had been laid off earlier from this plant would not necessarily be called back when the plant re-opened. They hinted that maybe the UAW wouldn’t be welcome at this plant at all.

This is not the first time in recent years that GM officials have expressed such sentiments. When GM was expanding its production facilities in Southern states, GM officials also publicly toyed with the idea of trying to exclude the UAW from its new plants. GM backed off from its so-called “Southern strategy”, as it may well do in relation to its new venture with Toyota. But the very fact that such threats against the UAW are made in the first place shows the direction that GM would like to go.

THE POLICY OF THE UNIONS

In the face of the growing attacks on the working class and now, in some cases, on the workers’ organizations, too, what has been the response of the unions?

Over the last several years, the union bureaucracies have generally cooperated with the bosses in getting the workers to accept concessions. In the early stages of the concessions drive, the union bureaucrats may have believed that they would escape direct attacks by the corporations, since they had seemed for a long time to be indispensable to the bosses. But now, as the concession drive continues, it is becoming clear that the unions, and therefore necessarily even the union bureaucrats themselves, are not exempt from corporate attack – even if they continue to cooperate with the bosses and say “yes” every time the bosses want more take backs from the workers.

The union bureaucracies move one step closer to committing political and social suicide every time they urge workers to accept concessions. The only thing that can stop the concessions drive and the growing attacks on the unions is a mass mobilization of the workers in the defense of their own interests.

Yet it is precisely against any kind of workers’ mobilization that the union officials have worked. The union officials have argued first that the workers must accept concessions, because they cannot have better wages and benefits until the bosses are earning higher profits. By accepting concessions, these officials argue, the workers will help to restore the bosses’ profits, and thus make better wages and benefits possible once again at some point in the future.

Even when bosses who have been demanding concessions are in a profitable situation, the union officials have still urged the workers to go along. They have argued that because of the economic crisis, it is a bad time to strike: since the bosses aren’t crying for production, the workers have no economic leverage which would force the bosses to accede to the workers’ demands.

These arguments are false. The corporations have made it abundantly clear that high profits will not necessarily be invested in ways that benefit the workers. Almost immediately after getting big concessions from its workers, U.S. Steel Corporation announced that it intended to import steel slabs, and completely shut down its primary steel-making operations at its Fairless Workers in Pennsylvania. And of course, it wasn’t very long before that, that U.S. Steel bought up Marathon Oil Company for over 6 billion dollars.

Both the auto and steel companies, as well as many others, have announced plans to modernize their plants, not for the purpose of expanding production, and thereby employing more workers in the process, but rather in order to streamline their present production, and lay off yet thousands of more workers in the process.

It is also false that the workers cannot fight back effectively in a period of economic recession. During the 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression with its high unemployment, the workers waged broad, militant struggles involving workers from many plants in many industries, drawing the unemployed and the small farmers into their fight. It was virtually the entire American working class which was mobilized. It was precisely because the workers fought in this way, that it was possible for them to build most of the big industrial unions.

Of course, in a period such as the present, if the workers’ struggles are limited to just one plant, or to just one company, or even to just one industry, then it is almost certain that they will lose. In a time like this, it is true that a corporatist struggle of the workers gives them little economic leverage. And such narrow struggles pose no real social threat to the bourgeoisie. They are merely token struggles, just symbolic gestures of defiance, even if such struggles go on for weeks or months at a time, at great cost to the workers.

Yet this kind of limited, narrow struggle, is the only type of fight which the union officials propose today. And they propose even these very limited struggles only if they are forced into it by the bosses. Confronting Caterpillar’s demands, for example, that threatened the privileges of union representatives, the UAW leaders felt forced to organize a strike. But they limited this strike to only the workers of Caterpillar, despite the fact that big concessions were being demanded and won by other heavy equipment and farm implement manufacturers, and despite the fact that most of the whole UAW was facing exactly the same kind of concessions. That is, when there were many other workers with the same interests, the same reason to fight, the UAW officials restricted the fight to the narrowest bounds possible.

Caterpillar had prepared for this strike for over six months by producing and shipping out an extra 300 million dollars worth of equipment to its dealers. Thousands more tractors had been jammed into storage lots at Caterpillar plants.

During most of the strike, Caterpillar dealers lost almost no sales, because of their ability to draw from this huge stockpile of equipment. The average Caterpillar striker on the other hand, lost somewhere between $15,000 and $18,000 in wages and benefits.

At Wilson Foods, the UFCW officials organized a strike six weeks after Wilson threw out the union contract. And, as at Caterpillar, this strike is limited to only Wilson workers, despite the attacks being made on all workers in the meatpacking industry.

At Apex/Cunningham Drug Stores, the UFCW is maintaining token picketing and calling on consumers to boycott the stores. But it is now over a year since the workers were fired. UFCW officials are hoping that the union will win an NLRB suit it has filed against the legality of the ownership maneuver that the Cunningham bosses pulled off that allowed them to escape their legal responsibility to honor the union contract.

But how many more years will it take to finally resolve this suit? And what will become of Cunningham’s former workers and their union in the meantime?

All these strikes illustrate the same stance on the part of the union bureaucracy: to keep the strikes as isolated and limited as possible, and to respect the legal rules of the game.

Yet as the bosses continue their drive for bigger and bigger concessions, they are throwing all the old rules of the game out the window. These old rules were appropriate for the bosses during a period of economic expansion, when they could afford to give the workers some crumbs in order to maintain labor peace. In such a period, the class collaborationist policies of the union officials allowed them to appear to be everyone’s friend: they could appear to be helping the bosses by keeping the workers from demanding too much; and they could appear to be helping the workers by keeping the crumbs from the bosses flowing.

But today, the period has changed. The bosses wish to take back the gains they granted to the workers in the past. Today for the union officials to continue their class collaborationist policies, they can only go along with the bosses’ attacks on the working class, and therefore help the bosses to weaken the working class. But as the working class grows weaker, the bosses feel less and less the need even to keep the unions around at all. After all, they chose to deal with the unions in the first place, only because the working class was strong and fighting at the time. The weaker the working class, and the less it is fighting back, the less the bosses see a need for the union officials.

When the workers finally begin to fight back as a class against the poverty and despair that the bourgeoisie has been forcing on them, we can be sure that it will be without the help, and against the wishes, of all the class collaborationist union officials, who would rather commit political and social suicide, than take the responsibility for mobilizing the working class against the bourgeoisie. It’s for this reason, that in order to make this fight, and really to preserve its gains that the workers will have to push aside and reject the leaders who propose class collaborationist policies to them.