Dec 9, 2019
A federal jury in Seattle ordered the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) to pay 94 million dollars to an employer—a judgment that, if upheld, would bankrupt the union. Less than two weeks later in Detroit, a federal prosecutor speculated that the UAW (United Auto Workers) might be subjected to “federal oversight”—an action that, if carried out, could limit the ability of union members to control their own union and its actions.
Two vastly different cases, two different ends of the country, but one common thread: the federal government is grabbing pretexts to hem in the unions—and the workers whose organizations they are.
● The West Coast verdict concerns job actions carried out by the ILWU in Portland, Oregon seven years ago. Facing an employer who used subcontractors to cut jobs and wages, union militants acted to protect their jobs. They worked “according to rule,” following all safety regulations and contract provisions. It was a well-organized slowdown—and all perfectly “legal.”
EXCEPT—the jury took the employer’s side against the union. No wonder! A Labor Department lawyer was the trial’s star witness, bringing the full weight of government to bear on the side of the employers. The job actions were “secondary boycotts,” claimed the Labor Department legal hack—two employers were involved. Yes, there were two employers. Just as there are today in most workplaces, where there are two, or three or even four employers directing a single workforce within the same four walls.
The warning directed to unions is clear: Don’t try to fight the sub-contracting or any of the other schemes to cut jobs or cut wages. Don’t try to fight to stop the loss of members’ jobs. If a union does, it’s at risk of losing all its funds.
● The federal threat to take over the UAW was based—supposedly—on corruption among top UAW officials. Were there some UAW officials who took union dues money for their own benefit? Undoubtedly. But don’t try to tell us that the target of the feds is corruption. The federal government, the big banks and industries are rife with corruption. Corruption is the every-day habit of the workers’ class enemies. And there is no place for it in the workers’ own organizations. But the only ones who can get rid of corruption in ways that serve the workers’ interests are the workers themselves.
Look what happened to the Teamsters under 20 years of federal “oversight.” Claiming it was getting rid of corruption, the Labor Department oversaw the election of Ron Carey as president in 1991, and the reelection in 1996. In 1997, Carey led a nationwide strike of UPS, the first important strike to take on the issue of part-time, temporary work. Though the strikers by no means got all they deserved, it was an important show of force, and successfully pushed back against the hiring of part-time workers at lower pay.
Almost immediately, the government removed Carey from office and banned him from the union for life, accused of “election corruption.” Though he was later acquitted by a jury of all charges, the lifetime ban stayed in place.
The clear statement was made: Don’t fight over that issue. And it wasn’t long after that UPS imposed the hiring of a lower-paid, part-time workforce.
So, no, don’t believe the government wants to root out corruption from the unions. It wants to take them over, so they can’t fight.
The court case in Seattle and the threat of government take-over in Detroit seem to be miles apart. In reality, they share a common aim: to prevent workers from using their own organizations to mobilize for a fight.
Against job cuts in Portland or against the attempt to make auto a low-wage industry, the workers can stop both attacks—by extending the fights they have already started.