As promised, here is a very, very rough draft of the Labor Express Radio analysis of the top labor news stories of 2008. Please excuse what I am sure a hundreds of typos, misspellings and grammar errors. I hope to get a final draft up in a week. This one is also missing the concluding summary. Feel free to comment, make suggestions, or trash the whole thing…
The Year in Labor – 2008: A Year of Crisis
In our round up of the top labor news stories of 2007, we decided to call 2007 the “year of concessions.” There is no better title for 2008 than the “year of crisis.” We are all familiar with the clichéd adage that the Greek origin of the word crisis refers to a decision or judgment, or the even more clichéd claim that the Chinese character for crisis translates as danger + opportunity (a claim that is apparently wrong it turns out, but I will leave that to the linguists). Perhaps this bit of pop wisdom was never more perfect a description for the state of world affairs. The danger part is easy to identify. By the end of 08, nearly every economist, regardless of political persuasion, seemed to agree, we had entered the deepest recession since the 1930s. Lets examine a few of the statistics: Well over 2 million jobs were lost in the United States in 2008, the biggest loss since 1945. The decline in service sector jobs was the largest ever recorded. The unemployment rate reached 7% by December (over 10 million people), still much lower than the post Great Depression high of 10.8% in 1982, but was forecast to cross the 10% threshold in 2009 and the underemployment rate is already 12.5%. Over 4 million people were collecting unemployment benefits by December, the largest number since 1982. The Dow Jones industrial average saw its biggest decline since 1931 and the S & P 500 index saw its largest drop since its creation in 1957. Interests rates are at 0% for the first time since 1941. In October consumer prices dropped more in one month than at anytime since 1938. Permits for new home construction were at their lowest level since 1960. Retailers reported their weakest holiday season sales in 40 years. Most economists argue that the length of the recession will exceed that of both 1973-75 and 1981-82, the longest recessions so far since the Great Depression. Gross Domestic Product is expected to remain in negative territory throughout the new year. And some would call this an optimistic predication, predicated on serious Keynesian style government action by the Obama administration, something we should be careful not to assume to easily (especially when one considers the economic team Obama has assembled). Of course, that’s all just about the United States, what about the rest of the world? According to the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) the world is “battling the worst financial crisis in 70 years.” And China, still the world’s fastest growing economy (and one of the few major economies still growing at this point) is not growing fast enough to avoid exploding unemployment rates. 10 million migrant laborers, the backbone of China’s production for export sector, have lost their jobs in the last year. Many say a social explosion in China is just around the corner. Paul Krugman, this year’s Noble prize winner for economics and the new economist darling of the mainstream media, put it most bluntly when he stated in an op-ed in the New York Times on January 4th… “Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.”
So what about the opportunity side? The economic crisis has all but obliterated the ruling neo-liberal economic ideology, in place since the beginning of the Reagan administration. A product of free market ideologues like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan and the 1973 world economic crisis, this ideology promoted massive privatization, de-regulation, de-funding of government, anti-progressive taxation (tax cuts for the wealth and a shift of the tax burden to the working class), corporate globalization, and union busting. The ideology was adopted by both major political parties in the United States. Clinton was as much a neo-liberal as Reagan & the two Bushes. Indeed some of the neo-liberals “crowning achievements” like NAFTA and welfare deform were passed during the Clinton administration. How fast the world can change. It seemed as if within a blink of an eye the mainstream press and politicians were calling all of this destructive economic policy of the last 30+ years into question as the financial crisis exploded in October. It is as if the veil had been lifted and an incubus on the minds of a generation had been removed. The only similar event of the past half century was the collapse of so called “Communism” in Eastern Europe, which similar marked the death of a failed ideology. This paradigm shift creates fantastic openings for a new working class politics and fundamental socio-economic transformation. Coupled with the even more dire ecological crisis, the other major generational turning point we currently face, objective conditions are now forcing bold action upon humanity. Whether the world can meet this challenge and whether the outcome will result in a advance for human civilization globally, is still very much a question however; and it all depends on whether social movements, including labor, seize on this historic opportunity.
In keeping with the tradition begun last year, we will discuss the top “good” labor news stories of the past year – locally, nationally and globally - and than move on to the bad and the ugly. To start of with, despite the economic crisis organized labor gained rather than lost ground last year. For the second year in a row (and for only the second year since the 1970’s) the ranks of organized labor grew by a small amount. This is surprising given the massive job losses sustained in 2008. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in the United States increased by 428,000 to 16.1 million, raising the percentage of the workforce that is organized into unions from 12.1 percent to 12.4 percent in 2008. As small a percentage change as this is, it indicates an important turn around for the labor movement after decades of steady decline. Recent studies have continued to show increasingly favorable attitudes toward unions among the American public.
Though the majority of the increase in union membership came from adding members to existing locals, there were important new organizing victories in 2008. SEIU continued to be the fastest growing union in the country, adding well over a hundred thousand members to it’s roles in 2008. In Massachusetts, SEIU District 1199 signed a first contract for 25,000 home care workers, raising worker’s wages by nearly two dollars an hour over the course of the 3 year contract. This builds on similar successes organizing home care workers in the Midwest in recent years, which has added tens of thousands of new members to the union. In November, the Teamsters declared 2008 their best year in new organizing for the International in decades. The Teamster’s added 40,000 workers to their membership roles including 12,000 workers in the UPS Freight division, 8,600 United Airlines Mechanics, 8,700 school bus and transit workers, and 3,200 workers at Canadian National Rail. Even the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) gained new members with their organizing of Starbucks workers, amongst warehouse workers in New York city and with independent truck drivers in North Carolina and Virginia. The organizing among the truckers lead to the establishment of United Truckers Cooperative IWW IU 530 in December, Eastern North Carolina’s first truckers’ union. The truckers held their first work stoppage in early December in order to pressure the employers to recognize the new union and received support from UE, the Steelworkers, IAM, and many community allies. New Starbucks worker organizing at the Mall of the Americas and in Minneapolis resulted in a number of work stoppages demanding changes to the companies’ procedures for laying off employees and for increased security at the store. Starbucks workers also won a number of NLRB cases in 2008 and held their first ever global day of action on July 5th.
Our top positive local labor news story of 2008 was one that took on national significance and generated international support and attention. When the workers at Republic Windows and Doors announced their decision to occupy their factory until they received the severance due them on Friday Dec. 5th, they became a part of a very few workers in the United States who found the courage to employ a militant direct action tactic largely abandon by the U.S. labor movement after the 1930’s (nearly everyone, many labor historians included, thought that it was the first such action since the 30’s but friend and freelance journalist Kari Lyderson later uncovered two previous examples of workers deciding to occupy their factory - see the following link for more… http://mhpbooks.com/mobylives/?p=1892#more-1892 ).
Their bold use of direct action won them quick results. After occupying the factory for six days, Bank of America, the company’s primary financier, agreed to a 1.5 million dollar loan to company management with the agreement that management use the funds to pay the workers the 60 days of severance guaranteed them under the federal WARN Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act). Much of the community support this labor action generated was as a result of the union’s quick decision to pressure Bank of America directly. As a recipient of $25 billion dollars in federal bailout funds, many workers asked why their tax money was being used to prop up a company that was refusing a local manufacture the credit they needed to fufill their legal obligation to their workers. “You got bailed out, we got soldout”, one of the more popular slogans the workers chanted during the occupation struck a chord with workers across the country who questioned what had been done with the 700 billion dollars of TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) money agreed to by the congress and the white house in October.
Our top national labor news story in the good category was also labor action of historic significance. The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) marked Mayday 2008 with the first political strike in U.S. history. The union closed every major port on the West Coast May 1st in protest of the ongoing war in Iraq. Strikes to enforce political demands are common in much of the rest of the world, but as with most other issues regarding the labor movement, the U.S. lags behind the rest the world in using its economic muscle to achieve political goals. As far as I know this the first political strike in our nation’s history and certainly the only such action taken by labor to protest a war (please feel free to correct by adding a comment to this post if I am wrong on this point).
Tied with the ILWU’s Mayday action in this category is the victory of the 5,000 workers at the Smithfield meat packing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. This was a victory over 15 years in the making. UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) began their efforts to organize what is the world’s largest hog processing plant back in the early 1990’s. But the company used an assortment of illegal tactics including intimidation, firings, and even physical violence to ensure that two previous union elections resulted in failure. Both elections were declared void by the NLRB in a 2006 ruling. Rather than give up the fight, UFCW launched one of the best corporate campaigns (see below for definition) ever attempted. The Justice@Smithfield campaign enlisted the support of community allies across the country and generated serious consumer pressure on the company. The response of management was to threaten a RICO lawsuit claiming that the corporate campaign was a form of racketeering! Had the lawsuit succeeded, it would have been a serious below to union/community alliances and to the free speech rights of labor and community activists alike. However, in October, a settlement was reached between the company and he union that ended the lawsuit and set the stage for an election in December. On the evening of December 11th, a day after the Republic Windows workers announced their victory, news of a victory for the UFCW in the election began to leak into the press. In the end it was a close vote, 2,041 in favor of the union and 1,879 against. But this is hardly surprising, given the heavy hand tactics employed by the company for a decade in half, especially their efforts to pit African-American workers against Latinos, including immigration raids in 2007. But these efforts ultimately failed, as evidenced by the joint efforts of Black and Latino pro-union workers to force the company to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for the first time in 2008. The union proved in the end that by uniting workers across racial lines and enlisting the support on allies in the neighboring community and around the country, even the must recalcitrant employers, in perhaps the nation’s most notoriously anti-union states, could be defeated.
They were many other important victories for the labor movement nationally in 2008. It was a great year for the CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) who had two victories in one year! In May, after a year long campaign, the fast food giant Burger King joined McDonald’s and Taco Bell (Yum Brands) in agreeing to the CIW’s demands to end slavery in Florida’s growing fields, pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked directly to the workers and abide by a code of conduct that includes negotiating with the CIW on working conditions. It was a relatively quick victory compared to the over three campaign targeting Taco Bell and was proof to the CIW’s skill at mobilizing student and community support around the country. But the following victory over Subway in December was achieved in truly record time. The CIW had just announced and not even real began a new “Truth Tour” on the East Coast targeting Subway, when the company announced it’s decision to sign an agreement with the workers on December 2nd. The CIW’s nearly unprecedented success over the past few years continues to highlight the potential of new, non-traditional forms of labor organizing and the importance of turning labor struggles into social justice movements with broad community support.
Another example of the potential power of non-traditional labor organizing was demonstrated by a group of Indian guest workers from the Gulf coast this year. These workers, employees of Signal International, a marine construction company, were living in conditions barely removed from modern day slavery. Largely confined to company grounds, living in windowless metal shacks, the workers had been recruited in India with false promises of high pay and even the possibility of permanent residency. They had paid recruiters tens of thousands of dollars in fees to obtain their jobs, putting their families in debt. One worker was so depressed by his living conditions and the debt that made quitting his job impossible that he attempt suicide. These guest workers had to escape their prison/workplace in the night. But with the assistance of the MIRA (Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance) and the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, they began to organize to prevent their deportation and change guest worker laws so that workers could not be similarly exploited in the future. Their march from the Gulf Coast to Washington D.C. in March, and a 29 day hunger strike in June, brought attention to their plight and promises from politicians that they would not be deported and that reforms to the guest worker system would be investigated.
They were a number of strike victories in 2008. In February, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) ended their strike which had begun in November of 2007. The WGA claimed victory as the union made in-roads to having members paid for use their material in new forms media, especially the internet. The entertainment industry had not been compensating writers fairly, or at all in many cases, for the use on their material on the web. The level of public support the union received during the strike was an indication of the growing pro-union sentiment in the country. The IAM (International Association of Machinists) also declared victory with the conclusion of their 57 day strike in November at Boeing. Boeing had made over 4 billion in profits in the year prior to the expiration of the union’s contract in September, but was demanding concessions from the workers in a new contract. The union’s major concerns were the increasing pace of out sourcing by Boeing, and cut backs in the health care and pension plans. The union was able to defeat the benefits cuts, but was not able to fully prevent further outsourcing.
Of course most unions devoted a substantial amount of their resources in 2008 trying to ensure Obama’s election victory. Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win spent record amounts of money on the election campaign. The AFL-CIO spent over $53 million on the election and Change To Win, which had argued that one of their reasons for the split in 2005 was the AFL’s spending of too much money on candidates who didn’t deliver, spent over $20 million. They were rewarded by a comfortable victory for Obama and a near landslide in gains for the Democrats in Congress. By most accounts we should now have the most labor friendly government this country has seen in decades, but it remains to be seen how many of the promises made by the Democrats are actually kept. Things started to look grim in this regard as early as December, when the announcement of Obama’s cabinet picks seemed to indicate a return to the neo-liberal friendly policies of the Clinton administration. But there was another benefit that resulted from union efforts to elect Barack Obama. Despite rhetorical commitment to issues of civil rights by most unions since the 1960’s and substantial efforts to change the racial dynamics of this nation by a few unions during that time, many white working class people in the United States have yet to abandon their personal prejudices and very few understand the depths of institutional racism. Concern’s by union leaders that racism amongst the white working class would frustrate Obama’s chances of an election victory, encouraged a number of them to launch a tough and sincere dialogue on race within the union movement. No one encouraged this more that Rich Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who extorted union members to challenge the racist notions of their co-workers. We can only hope that this does not remain merely an effort of one election cycle, but evolves into a sustained commitment to member education on issues of race in America.
On the International scene, the continued connection between the Olympics and the exploitation of low wage workers, was as bad as ever, and could have easily made it on to our list of “ugly” news stories in 2008, but the level of public and media attention generated by the Play Fair 2008 Coalition turned the games into an opportunity to challenge the contracting policies of the IOC. Made up of the The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker’s Federation (ITGLWF), the Play Fair Coalition raised more awareness about the exploitation the workers who produce the official Olympic merchandise than during any other previous Olympic games. The tremendous media attention focused on China throughout the Summer, lead to a least a few major news stories describing the horrible working conditions under which most Chinese workers labor.
Clearly the economic crisis was the dominate negative labor news story of 2008 on the local, national and international levels. And this crisis had many faces. It began with the bursting of the housing bubble. This came as little surprise to anyone like myself who witnessed the massive conversion of working class neighborhoods and old industrial properties into high end condos over the past decade. Residents of Chicago near south side, such as myself, knew the bottom had to fall out of the widely speculative housing market at sometime. But naturally it was the Alan Greenspans of the world, blinded by their fanatical commitment to free market fundamentalism who continued to deny that there was a bubble right up to the collapse. For some working people the housing market collapse was somewhat of a relief. Pilsen is final feeling some let up in the unceasing war of gentrification, with projects like “Centro 18” now seemingly dead in the water. But for millions of working class people, the mortgage crisis has resulted in the lost of their homes, the primary source of wealth for most of the working class. Many, the victims of predatory lenders of the private less regulated housing market (not the government housing loan programs as argued by some on the right) where encouraged to believe in a paper prosperity and by homes well beyond what they could actually afford.
But it wasn’t only working class homeowners who made financial miscalculations. Much more devastating to the economy as a whole were the lending institutions, the banks, the people who are suppose to be in the know, who in the end apparently knew very little about the speculative, economic mirage they had been maintaining for years. In the atmosphere of nearly zero regulation promoted by the neo-liberals in government in both Republican and Democratic administrations since the 1980’s, these “economic geniuses” built a false prosperity on paper profits, and a bankrupt ideology. The financial crisis of the fall of 2008, is what work up the country and the mainstream press to what many working class people were all to aware of already – that we were in the midst of what economist Jack Rasmus has called an “Epic Recession”, the likes of which few of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. Of course in classic capitalist style, the banks quickly received a bailout paid for out of the pockets of the working class – socialism for the haves, paid for by the have nots or “socialize the risk and privatize the profits” as some have referred to it. And in true neo-liberal fashion, the funds were provided with few strings attached and quickly vanished down the sink hole of incompetently managed failing banks.
The economic crisis quickly moved from the financial sector into the real economy, with real impacts on working peoples lives. Another nail in the coffin of the barely surviving industrial sector in the United States. One of the first U.S. industries to feel the effects was auto. Of course the industry had been in crisis long before 2008, the victim of perhaps the most short sighted and incompetent management of an industrial sector in the world for the past 25 years or more. The industry was paying the price for its commitment to poor quality, low gas mileage and resistance to innovation. Of course management had simply made up for their poor choices in the past few decades by making their workers pay for their losses in the form of concessions at the bargaining table. But the 2008 financial crisis made the possibility of a collapse of the U.S. auto industry a real possibility. Of course, it should come as no surprise that when the industry appealed to the government for its own bailout, a bailout that could save millions of working people the jobs, many of which still paid relatively well despite years of concessions, it found things much more difficult than had the banks. Southern conservative congress people, beholden to foreign auto manufacturers had little desire to prevent the disappearance of the U.S. auto industry. And even some Democrats seemed quite willing to use the industries bailout request to call for even more concessions from the UAW! The UAW leadership, sensing the real possibility of the death of the union if the industry collapsed, and already wedded to the strategy of concessions for the past few decades, was quick to give in. The bridge loan package finally implemented by the Bush administration in its final days, called for the U.S. auto workers to drop their wages to the point at which they would reach parity with their no-union counterparts in the transplants.
Hope for democratic reform in SEIU quickly turned to despair in 2008. Progressives in the labor movement have watched with increasing concern over the past several years as SEIU President Andy Stern has moved SEIU away from what many considered the shining light of the U.S. labor movement, a beacon on a hill to those who supported organizing of the unorganized and a commitment to immigrants rights, into one of the most centralized and bureaucratic unions in the country. Hopes for change were raised when Sal Rosselli, the president of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), a local of SEIU in California, lead an insurrection against Stern’s approach to the union. UHW did it’s best to mobilize it forces to challenge Stern and company at the unions convention in Puerto Rico in May. But hopelessly outnumbered, the UHW reformers could do little more than air their views. By the end of the year, it was clear that Stern was going to use a re-organization of the health care locals in California to dissolve UHW and banish the reformers from the organization.
Labor lost some important fights on the picket line in 2008. A three month strike by the UAW at American Axle last Spring, had raised the hopes of many that the union was finally drawing a line in the sand. Despite years of concessions, some hoped that the UAW had woken up and had decided enough was enough. But when the strike was called of in May, the union agreed to a new contract that slashed wages nearly in half and end pensions for new hires. The Congress Hotel strike in Chicago is certainly not lost, and UNITE-HERE Local 1 had some major successes turning away some of the hotel’s biggest customers this year, including auditions for the T.V. program, “America’s Next Top Model”, but the strike became the longest on-going strike in the country last Summer. The union has shown great creativity and the workers have received solid, sustained support from pretty much every labor, community and social justice organization in Chicago, but the almost incomprehensible intransigence of the hotel’s owners seem to indicate that there is a good chance we will be “celebrating”/protesting the strike entering its 6th year this June.
Organized labor also sustained serious losses on the organizing front. The most important local example was the defeat of IBEW Local 21’s efforts to organize workers at Comcast. In June, by a narrow vote of 99 to 79, workers at the South Chicago division of Comcast decided not to become a union shop. This was a big blow to a multi-year organizing drive that had received considerable community support. It was another example of how under current labor law, the cards are stacked against workers. Management used regular captive audience meetings, in which union supporters were segregated from the co-workers, to issue a variety of threats and to intimidate workers into opposing unionization. Union supporters vow to continue their efforts to organize Comcast, despite regular retaliation and harassment from management through schedule changes, and a variety of disciplinary measures.
Prehaps the saddest losses of 2008 were the loss of two of labor’s most ancient and treasured supporters. First in May came the news of the passing of folk singer, organizer, poet, storyteller, educator, and long, long time Wobbly, Utah Philips. Utah was a powerful symbol of the labor movement at its best and provided a link to the past history of our union for “younger” Wobblies such as myself. His fame as a folk singer brought the spirit and the message of the IWW to many who would have perhaps otherwise never known much about this unique labor organization and it’s important role in American history. He will be sorely missed by many. Our grief of the loss of Utah, was compounded 10 fold in October when Studs Terkel passed away. Studs passing felt to many of us as if an era in our city and nation’s history was slipping away, at a time when the memory of that era is perhaps needed more than it has been in decades. Studs was the memory of the New Deal and the CIO; of a Chicago of huger marchers and radical working class theater. He was also the conscience of our city and our country in the long dark decades of neo-liberal, capitalist triumphalism – the Regan, Clinton and Bush years. How ironic than that Studs passing would come at a time when that dark period in our history and its twisted values, so foreign to Studs experience and beliefs, would now appear to be meeting its own demise.
On the international level, the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq was an ever present and primary concern for the working people of both nations. Despite the opposition to the war by a solid majority of Americans, the Democrats elected to Congress in 2006, largely on an anti-war platform, made no head way on ending the war. And the emerging trade union movement in Iraq continued to be a victim of the anti-labor policies of the U.S. occupying forces and their puppet government in Baghdad. Especially under threat were Iraqi journalists, jailed for short periods for criticizing the Iraqi government under new laws which attempt to muzzle the media. In February the President of the Iraqi Union of Journalists was murdered and an attempt on the life of his successor was made in September. The Oil Workers Union was also a major target of government repression. On the positive side, Iraqis opposition to the hydro-carbons law the Bush administration was anxious to shove down their throats prevented the privatization of Iraq’s oil resources for another year. Also of note was the increasingly sharp war of the conservative government of the less than legitimate Mexican president Felipe Calderon against that nation’s working class. Much has been made of Calderon’s supposed war on the drug cartels, but the mainstream press has spent much less time covering his assault on Mexican workers. The government continued to arrest leaders of the Mexican mine workers union in their ongoing effort to impose new leadership on the union in opposition to the will of the union’s membership. The governments efforts to push forward a partial privatization of PEMEX, the state oil company was also meet with fierce resistance by Mexican workers. The Mexican state of Oaxaca continued to especially dangerous for activist. Two independent radio producers were murdered there in April. A farmer organizer from Chihuahua and an environmental activist from the state of Mexico were also murdered in 2008.
The was plenty of ugly in 2008. We can start with the ongoing struggle of the Frightliner Five (or Cleveland Five), which ever name you chose to us. This is one of those stories that really makes fear for the future of the U.S. labor movement. The great achiles heel of the American labor movement for the past 70 years has been its inability to organize workers in the South. Yes, unions like SEIU have had great success in places like Texas recently, but many forget that before manufacturing moved abroad for cheap labor, it moved South to avoid unions. And much of that manufacturing remains their. Indeed in some sectors it has grown. The prime example is the growth of the auto industry “transplants” in last few decades. These are foreign owned auto manufacturers who have set up operations in the U.S., all non union. It is a gapping wound that is bleeding the UAW dry. The auto industry bailout agreed to be former President Bush included stipulations that the UAW allow workers wages to sink to the level of these non union transplants. The union future survival has depended for years and continues to depend on organizing these plants. So you would think that the UAW would celebrate the likes of Robert Whiteside, Allen Bradley, Franklin Torrence, Glenna Swinford, and David Crisco. These tough, committed individuals are five of the best union activist/organizers I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Long time employees of the Freightliner truck manufacturing plant in Cleveland, North Carolina, these five, with the aid of many of their co-workers lead a successful organizing drive in 2002. The creation of UAW Local 3520 in North Carolina, one of the most anti-union states in the nation, in the heart of the South, was a major victory. But when these same individuals tried to fight a concessionary contract in 2007, UAW leadership which seems to know no other form of collective bargaining other than concessions, allowed the workers to be fired and than promptly tried to revoke their union membership. The Freightliner Five spent all of last year fighting both the company and the union to get their jobs back and to maintain the membership in the UAW. As of last November, Glenna & Franklin had been able to win their arbitration hearing in regards to their termination, but Robert, Allen and David to continue to battle both the company and the union in their struggle for justice.
Perhaps the ugliest story last year to receive major main stream press attention was the attempt by conservatives to smear ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) as if it was an organization created to carry out vote fraud on behalf of Democratic candidates. With the Republican Party in shambles last fall, after the economic crisis revealed once and for all the bankruptcy of the economic policies they had pushed since Reagan, conservatives started to grasp at straws in their attempt to prevent their inevitable defeat at the polls in November. What is most ironic is that the news of ACORN’s alleged fraudulent voter registrations came only days after news reports that real allegations of voter suppression by Republicans in the last few elections cycles, especially in Ohio in 2004, had been proven true. But these attempts by Bush proponents to disenfranchise mostly working class people of color, was pushed off the headlines by allegations that amounted to trying to blame the entire organization (ACORN) for the actions of a few of their paid canvass staff. Lost in the reporting was the fact that it was ACORN quality control that original caught the invalid registrations and notified authorities. More importantly, the reporting said little about ACORN’s real work which is to empower working class communities around the country make important changes that improve the quality of life for all. Efforts such as living wage campaigns, more equitable public school funding, and laws against predatory lenders. Instead of being lauded for their work to register hundreds of thousands of new working class voters, conservatives tried to strike fear in the hearts of any organization that would try to mobilize the masses to make their voice heard at the polls.
Another real low point for organized labor last year was the skirmish between SEIU and NNOC (National Nurses Organizing Committee). I will leave out for now who is to blame for what, but the fight between the too unions did little to advance the interest of the nurses in Ohio they were trying to organize. The appearance that SEIU was making deals behind the backs of workers at Catholic Healthcare Partners hospitals, whether true or not, lead further credence to fears among progressives in the labor movement over the direction in which Andy Stern was taking the union. But the attempts of NNOC to interfere in an upcoming union election muddy the waters a bit for those who increasingly saw NNOC as the progressive alternative. The real low point in this saga was SEIU’s use of members in what I can only describe as a thuggish manner to disrupt the Labor Notes convention in Detroit last April. The ultimate victims were the SEIU members who were lied to by their leaders when they were bused in and ordered to disrupt the convention proceedings without being informed what the event was about, the Labor Notes participants who were injured and hospitalized because of the brutish behavior of a few of those members and most of all SEIU Local 79 member David Smith, who collapsed outside the hotel following SEIU’s action and later died of heart failure.
But that was nothing compared to the behavior of SEIU in regards to the teachers in Puerto Rico. The Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR) is a classic militant, fighting union, the type of which you can find all across Latin America. FMPR has lead the struggle for decent pay and improved working conditions for Puerto Rican teachers for 42 years, battling a hostile, anti-labor government out to destroy the organization for the past years. In January of last year the government decertified the FMPR when it boldly challenged the anti-labor ban on strikes by public sector employees. Why, in the midst of this valiant fight by the working people of Puerto Rico would SEIU leader Dennis Rivera try to cut a deal with the governor of Puerto Rico to replace the FMPR with an SEIU affiliate? I am still trying to figure this one out. But Puerto Rican teachers weren’t fooled by what is probably the worst case of “labor imperialism” in many years, and voted down SEIU’s attempt to raid their union. Too bad that tens of millions of SEIU members dollars were spent in this attempt to suppress militant, democratic unionism in the U.S. colony.
It may have seemed in possible that the Bush administration could become anymore ugly than it had been for the past 7 years, but in 2008 in response to anti-immigrant forces within the Republican Party, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) launched a series of workplace raids that broke records. And they used the law in devious ways in order to limit undocumented immigrants right to a fair hearing before deportation. Workplace raids had been on the increase for sometime before the start of 2008, abd these raids had seemed at times to target plants undergoing union organizing campaigns such as at Smithfield in North Carolina. But in May of 2008, ICE set a record, arresting and eventually deporting 400 undocumented immigrants working at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville Iowa. ICE left in its wake broken, divided families and a small town economy in shambles. But ICE was not content with its historic actions in Postville. They succeeded in breaking their record once again in August when 595 immigrant workers were arrested during a raid at Howard Industries, an electrical equipment factory in Laurel, Mississippi. Hundreds of thousands of other immigrant workers were arrested in smaller, less visible raids around the country. Recent reports indicate that a largely number of those deported were separated from children and other family members who are legal residents. And the numbers of whole families in detention facilities continued to grow. 2008 was perhaps the worst year for immigrant workers in decades.
2008 also threatened to be the worst year for labor/community coalitions in recent memory. This because of the racketeering lawsuit filed by the owners of Smithfield against the Justice@Smithfield campaign. Had the case succeeded, it could have seriously hampered efforts by community groups to build solidarity campaigns around union organizing drives or contract fights. It would have been frontal assault on free speech rights for working class organizations. The lawsuit, which was filed in October of 2007, argued that protest by community allies of the UFCW outside grocery stores which sold Smithfield products, literature produced by the Justice@Smithfield campaign which educated the public about poor working conditions in Smithfield plants, and leafleting by union supporters outside public appearance of celebrity chef Paula Deen who shills for Smithfield, amounted to extortion. The case was scheduled to go to trail last Fall, but was called off after the company agreed to a settlement which included the union election held last December in which the union was victorious. But the danger presented by big corporations trying to use the RICO Act to muzzle unions and their community allies is still a serious concern.
On the international scene, the news of the ugly reality of the suppression of labor rights through judicial and extrajudicial killings, imprisonment and other forms of intimidation was as bad as ever. Colombia continued to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. By November 43 Colombian union activist had been murdered, up from the numbers in 2007. And those responsible for the murders continued to go unpunished for their crimes. But their were other countries completing with Colombia for the ugliest record on labor rights last year. The Philippines has been Colombia’s closest competitor in recent years, but with only a few reported assassinations of labor leaders in 2008 it maybe slipping out of second place. Another Latin American nation and a country with a notorious human rights record in previous decades was back on the scene. Guatemalans got a blast from the past with five trade unionist murdered there last year. Iran was committed to staying in the race for the second worst place to be a trade unionist. In 2008 Iran added a number of new names to it’s list of trade unionist jailed because of their work on behalf of their fellow workers and allegations of torture of those detained continued. A number of these individuals were whipped as a part of their legal sentence at least one, Farzad Kamangar, a Kurd and a member of the teachers union, was scheduled for execution. Zimbabwe was another show case in brutality directed at the labor movement. Dozens of trade union activists were jailed and beaten by government forces in Mugabe’s general crack down on the democracy movement last year. In Burma, another close competitor for the second place position of worst labor rights violator, nearly all trade union activity was suppressed with imprisonment for those who dared attempt to organize. And lets not forget China in which hundreds of worker activists remained in prison as punish for their organizing activity.
Summation: COMING SOON...