The Year in Labor – 2007: The Year of Concessions…
2007 started off on a positive note in regards to the labor movement both locally and nationally; but by year’s end, we witnessed some of the biggest setbacks in recent labor history. Here is Labor Express Radio’s analysis of the labor news highlights for the past year. Note: this is by no means a comprehensive list – please let us know what we missed by emailing us… email@example.com
2007 saw a first in Chicago’s recent labor history – the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) taking on the seemingly all powerful mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley. After years of enduring the Mayor’s anti-labor policies and an acquiescent city council, the Federation made good on its threat to make the Mayor pay at election time. The CFL, in conjunction with SEIU and a variety of community organizations, succeeded in electing over half a dozen pro labor aldermen to the Chicago City Council and defended their friends on the council who were threatened with defeat by the efforts of Chicago’s Chamber of Commerce. The elections shifted the majority on the council in favor of labor and promised to put an end to the council’s rubber stamping of the Mayor’s agenda. However, as the year came to a close, this victory for Chicago’s working people was tempered by rumors that the CFL might not pursue the struggle for a living wage ordinance, one of the major issues that the pro-labor alderman campaigned on. Many labor activists are also criticizing the CFL for agreeing to a 10 year contract between the city and its workers late in 2007. The Mayor, who is desperately seeking to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, sought the exceptionally long contract term, and the CFL insists the contract is also in the best interest of city workers. Seemingly uncomfortable with an oppositional relationship with the Mayor, it appears as if the CFL maybe bending over backwards to repair the relationship.
The aldermanic elections weren’t 2007’s only victory for labor on the local scene. After years of struggle and stolen elections, the reformers at Teamsters Local 743 were finally able to take control of their union. After the federal indictments of a number of the old guard for union election fraud, government-supervised elections last October allowed Richard Berg and the New Leadership slate to win 6 of the 7 elected positions in the union, including the President, Vice-President and Secretary Treasurer. This is a major victory not only for the members of 743, one of the country’s largest Teamsters locals, but a major step forward for reform in the Teamsters union locally and nationally. As a member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Berg has been a leader in efforts to reform the entire international and end the Hoffa style unionism that led to the disastrous UPS contract. Berg has been a progressive labor activist involved in a variety of workers’ struggles locally, nationally and even internationally, and his leadership of one of Chicago’s most important union locals, bodes well for the future of Chicago’s labor movement.
The Summer of 2007 saw the creation of the Chicago Coalition Against No-Match Letters, lead by the United Electrical workers union (UE) and the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, partly in response to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) announcement of their plan to use Social Security No-Match letters to force the firing of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of undocumented immigrant workers. Legal challenges at the national level by the AFL-CIO and the ACLU prevented the new regulations from going into effect, and local organizing, including the 1-800-Dignidad hotline number for workers dealing with a no match situation, saved the jobs of hundreds of Chicago workers who were threatened by their employers with dismissal allegedly due to no-match letters. These innovative local efforts have caught the attention of labor activists nationally and we may well see these strategies spread around the country. DHS has promised to issue revised no-match policies sometime in the spring of 2008.
On the national scene, good news came early in the year as well, with the April announcement by McDonald’s Corp. of their decision to concede to all the demands of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Now the CIW has two major victories under their belt. The coalition reached a similar agreement with Yum Brands in 2005, owners of Taco Bell, KFC, and a number of other fast food chains. The CIW wasted no time and announced in April a new campaign, this time focusing on Burger King, the last of the mega fast food chains. That campaign is still in process. The success of the CIW, and the interest it has created in both labor and student activist circles, has been one of the strongest examples of the potential of “non-traditional” labor organizing, as evidenced by the AFL-CIO and the mainstream labor movement’s increasing support for the coalition.
A new front in the “non-traditional” labor movement was announced at the first ever United States Social Forum in Atlanta Georgia last June. An important and highly successful event - significant participation by labor at the forum provided ideal ground for improved linkages between labor and other vital social struggles. As if to emphasize the importance of this relationship, and the unique forms of labor organization that can result, a gathering of domestic worker organizations from around the country at the forum lead to the creation of the first ever national domestic workers organization. Domestics, who often live as well as work in the homes of their employers, are a highly isolated and exploited group of workers. The new National Domestic Workers Alliance seeks to end that isolation and mistreatment.
Another exciting development on the national labor scene in 2007 was the emergence of the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC), the national organization formed by the California Nurses Association, as one of the most progressive and militant unions in the country. The NNOC lead important struggles against the destruction of Cook County’s health care system locally and similar attacks on public health care systems around the country. They also revitalized the struggle for single payer national health care in the United States – an issue that is likely to be a major factor in the 2008 presidential elections. They were aided in this effort by a new film from activist film maker Michael Moore on the health care insurance industry called “Sicko”, which was released in theaters last summer.
On the international scene, the dominant issue for working people around much of the world continued to be the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the U.S. Occupation of Iraq. One positive development in this regard was the demonstration of workers’ power by the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions last May. Faced with severe repression by the U.S. occupying forces and the Iraqi government, the oil workers’ strike was surprisingly successful at defeating (at least temporarily) passage of the Iraqi hydro-carbons law, which would lead to privatization of Iraq’s oil wealth. The situation in neighboring Iran was less positive for organized labor as trade unionists Mansour Osanloo and Mahmoud Salehi were placed under arrest by the theocratic repressive regime in that country. Throughout the year, despite a much touted “decline” in violence in Iraq, thousands of ordinary Iraqis lost their lives to sectarian violence, as did hundreds of Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories.
Much of the good news on the international labor scene was actually in response to renewed attacks on the workers’ movement by the ruling elites and right wing politicians. The election of the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency, who swore to dismantle much of France’s progressive social legislation, was met with major resistance by French transportation workers who nearly brought the country to a halt with their ongoing strikes. And the growing anti-immigrant climate in the United States was countered by the holding of the first Latin American Migrant Community Summit, in Morelia Mexico last May. A meeting of immigrant leaders from across the hemisphere who seek an internationalist approach to fighting both the economic and political conditions that force people to migrate as well as combat xenophobia in the countries in which they currently reside.
The challenges and dangers of corporate globalization, lead unions to take serious steps toward forming links of concrete international solidarity, whether this took the form of conferences like the AFL-CIO sponsored Global Organizing Conference which brought together union federations from around the world to begin the development of a common organizing strategy or actual organizations like the merger of the United Steelworkers with Amicus, a major UK based trade union.
Much of the bad news in regards to the labor movement nationally came in the fall. And none was more devastating or potentially disastrous in the long term for the labor movement in the United States than the concessionary contracts between the UAW and the big three U.S. automakers and the Teamsters with UPS. Almost prophetically, this fall saw the release of a new work by labor activist and historian Kim Moody. Moody’s new book - U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, The Promise of Revival from Below – takes the union officialdom to task for contributing to organized labors decline in the past few decades through its policy of diminishing workers’ militancy while seeking accommodation to the interests of capital. The concessionary contracts agreed to by the UAW and the Teamsters this past fall highlight exactly the type of destructive accommodationism that Moody blames for declining union membership and worsening living standards for U.S. workers. The UAW’s contracts with GM, Chrysler and Ford endanger their members’ health care with risky union-provided health benefit schemes that remove the responsibility for employee health care from the corporations. Even worse, two-tier wage structures, in which newly hired workers will often be paid half of what current employees receive, threatens to unravel workers’ solidarity and makes the essentially important task of organizing workers at foreign auto makers in the U.S. nearly impossible. As if to further illustrate Moody’s argument that the Change to Win unions offer little change from AFL-CIO unions like the UAW, The Teamsters contract with UPS undermines major gains won in their historic 1997 strike. The new contract especially hurts part-time workers, locking them into low wages and lengthening the years they need to work to receive benefits. Like the UAW contracts, this will prove a serious blow to workers’ solidarity and much needed new organizing efforts by the Teamsters at UPS and other companies. Both the UAW and the Teamster contracts are just another nail in the coffin of the industrial working class in the United States, which has been under assault for decades. We’ll have to see in 2008 and beyond if they turn out to be some of the final nails.
Bad contracts were a local concern for union members here in Chicago as well. One of Chicago’s largest unions, the 37,000 member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) under the leadership of Marilyn Stewart, who was re-elected in May, reached an agreement with the city on a new 5 year contract in August. The contract is a mixed bag that, according to critics, did not live up to the promises made by Stewart’s United Progressive Caucus in the union elections. Stewart was first elected president of the union in 2004, largely due to member’s frustration with a bad contract negotiated by the former union president Deborah Lynch in 2003. The shortfalls of that contract, were still an issue in the 2007 union elections, and the UPC made promises that if given the opportunity to negotiate a new contract, they would be able to win 7-8% salary increases, reduced class sizes, and better protections for new probationary teachers (PATs). Instead, the new contract included only 4% increases, no class size reductions, and PATs continue to be largely at-will employees without grievance rights. One of the UPC’s biggest criticisms of the last contract was its length (4 years), and they promised a shorter contract term. Instead the new contract term is even longer than the last. There are also concerns about the health care package and increasing co-pays. Even more worrisome is the lack of any language in the new contract opposing the continuation of Renaissance 2010 – the plan to privatize 10% of Chicago’s public schools. After leading the fight in Chicago against this massive public sector privatization scheme in previous years, the CTU has been very quite on the issue as of late, and Stewart is agreeable to the possible expansion of charter schools in Chicago, which threaten undermine the whole principal of a public education system.
The record on labor law reform (or deform is perhaps more fitting) in 2007 was also disappointing and dangerous to organized labor’s future. The number one political agenda item for the AFL-CIO in 2007 was passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, labor law reform that would have improved some of the more egregious aspects of current law which is very much stacked against workers who wish to form unions. A key element is the expansion of the right to use “card check” as an organizing tool in the face of the broken, NLRB election system. Despite a Democratic majority in the Congress, Republican opposition made passage of the Act into law impossible this year. We will have to wait for the 2008 elections to see were the Act goes from here. What did happen in 2007 was a major step in the other direction with the Bush-appointed NLRB undermining the entire card check principal, in place since passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1937. A ruling of the NLRB in September allows a minority of workers to push for decertification, immediately following union recognition through card check – potentially eliminating one of the few ways workers have been able to pursue successful organizing campaigns for the past decade. The end result could be a major decline in new union members in the coming year.
The year ended with a final disappointment on the international front that spoke volumes about the supposedly “pro-labor” Democratic presidential nomination top contenders. The Democratic controlled Congress voted to approve passage of the U.S./Peru Free Trade Agreement in December. Two of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, Clinton and Obama, expressed support for the agreement, and then skipped the vote on the bill. Edwards was the only one of the top three nomination contenders who expressed opposition to this extension of NAFTA to another country in the western hemisphere. One wonders how steadfast Obama or Clinton will be in ending the neo-liberal race to the bottom, regardless of their rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Probably the ugliest event for the labor movement in the United States and Mexico in 2007, was the brutal murdered of Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) organizer, Santiago Rafael Cruz at the FLOC offices in Monterrey Mexico in April. Santiago, a young Mexican immigrant farm worker, was part of an exciting, innovative organizing strategy of FLOC that involves maintaining contacts with farm worker communities on both sides of the border. The price Santiago paid for this real, concrete internationalism (which the labor movement desperately needs) was to be tied up and have his head bashed into the floor. FLOC members believe the perpetrators were thugs connected to the labor recruiters in Mexico who make big money ripping off desperate H1-A and H2-B migrant workers. But the violence has in no why silenced the brave, determined FLOC organizers I met during my visit to the newly named Santiago Rafael Cruz Justice Center in Monterrey last summer. It has rather re-confirmed the importance of their efforts. FLOC is following up its historic 2004 victory, in which they won a first contract for farm workers with the North Carolina Growers Association, with a new campaign to organize farm workers at RJ Reynolds Tobacco. A campaign we will be sure to report on in 2008.
2007 was also a very ugly year for miners both here in the United States and around the world. In August six miners and three would-be rescuers lost their lives at the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in Utah. The disaster reminded many of the Sago mine disaster in 2006, when a dozen miners were killed and once again called the attention of the media to the terrible record of the Bush Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration in regards to enforcing mine safety regulations. In total 33 miners died in mining accidents in the United States in 2007, which sadly was actually an improvement over the previous year. The news was even worse internationally. In March, a methane gas explosion at a Coal Mine in Siberia killed 108 Russian Miners. The worst situation was in China were over three thousand miners lost their lives in numerous mine accidents in 2007.
Another example of real ugliness was the Bush Administration’s new get tough attitude toward undocumented immigrant workers. With so called “immigration reform” at a stand still and the Republican party divided between racist demagogues who want to deport 12 million immigrants and the corporate elite who want to continue to exploit them in the current fashion or through expanded guest worker programs, the administration decided to appease the xenophobic element of its base by increasing the number of major workplace raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE, formerly the INS). The raids resulted, as usual, in breaking up families, often dividing parents from their children, when kids returned from school to find no parents at home and no idea what had happened to them. The increase in raids, and the new policy of incarcerating the undocumented, sometimes for long periods of time, and sometimes jailing entire families, has also lead to the creation of massive new concentration camps - oops, we meant “detention facilities” - especially in Texas.
The raids have also been a blow to important union organizing efforts, as demonstrated by the raid at Smithfield meat packing in North Carolina last January. The United Food and Commercial Workers have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to unionize the meatpackers at Smithfield foods in a struggle that has united immigrant Latino, black and white workers. The tremendous militancy and energy of the immigrant workers had helped the UFCW and their fellow employees make great strides in that campaign in the past couple years. But the raid threatened to intimidate immigrant workers into silence and diminish their public labor activism. Company officials and even members of the National Labor Relations Board have made threats against immigrant workers in the past, indicating that ICE could be called in if they persisted in their organizing efforts. It seems as if they made good on these threats in 2007. In another example of ICE interfering with workers efforts to organize, in December, company managers at Fresh Direct, an online grocery delivery warehouse in New York, told their 900 mostly immigrant employees that ICE officials would be reviewing the workers’ employment verification documents. They did so two weeks before an election to determine if the workers would be represented by Local 805 of the Teamsters. Roughly a hundred workers quit immediately following the announcement, and hundreds more did not show up for the election, fearing they would be detained by ICE agents. As you might expect, those who did show up voted against union representation.
But these attempts to use ICE to intimidate immigrant workers into silence have not been universally successful, as the example of the aforementioned efforts to combat no-match letters in Chicago demonstrates. The UFCW Justice at Smithfield campaign continues despite the fear generated by ICE, and it continues to be one of the most high profile labor struggles around the country with widespread support from labor activists, student groups and faith communities. When no-match letters were used to try to intimidate immigrant workers at the Cygnus soap factory on Chicago’s Southside in August, the result was one of the most inspiring labor actions in local labor news in 2007. 120 workers walked off the job despite the lack of union representation in one of the most impressive spontaneous worker-led strikes Chicago has witnessed in years. The strike lasted two weeks and resulted in the company backing off its threat to use no-match letters as an excuse to fire workers who were demanding better working conditions, better wages and a move from temporary to regular full time status.
Efforts to organize undocumented immigrants and guest workers on the Gulf coast met with increasing success in 2007 as well. The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA!) and the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice (NOWJC), helped uncover the case of 290 Indian guest workers at the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi who had been tricked with the promise of high paying jobs by labor recruiters in India, but were instead making wages that barely covered the debt they had incurred to the recruiters and were forcibly confined in windowless metal shacks on company grounds when not working. When the workers complained to management about their living conditions, they were threatened with dismissal and deportation. Though a number of the workers were dismissed, MIRA! and NOWJC were able to get them released from their confinement on company grounds, prevent their deportation and found them housing and support in the local community.
2007 was a tough year for labor, with numerous defeats and setbacks, some of which will have devastating repercussions for years to come. But as the year drew to a close, the most highly publicized labor action of recent years offered, perhaps, a fresh perspective on the possibilities for 2008. The strike by the Writers Guild of America had the general public talking about unions, strikes and workers’ rights on a scale rarely seen in this country. Perhaps, sadly, it takes a threat to their television viewing habits to catch the attention of the majority of the U.S. population and the mainstream media. What is more important however, is the substantial public support for the striking writers, with polls consistently showing near 70% in favor of the writers and less than 10% sympathetic to the studio bosses. This is very much in line with recent studies that indicate the American public’s favorable view of unions is at a high not seen since the late 1970s. Can this mass support for organized labor be turned into more successful organizing campaigns and labor victories in 2008? It has already seemed to have some impact on the presidential campaign where union support has been desperately sought, even by some of the Republican candidates. But whether this positive public image can be turned into solid grass roots support will depend much I think, on whether organized labor can move beyond the demoralizing defensive strategy it has pursued for decades and take the offense. If the WGA strike is a success, maybe it can be a lesson to labor leaders who seem allergic to strikes. The CIW has already proven what creative militant tactics can achieve. But the great leap backwards by the UAW and the Teamsters does not offer one much hope as to which direction the union officialdom plans to take organized labor. Once again, as always, it will be up to the rank-and-file to put the movement back into the labor movement.