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Splitting Headaches and Labor Pains

by Tory Becker torybecker@mindspring.com

I HAVE BEEN A nurse and more recently a nurse practitioner for twenty-two years. I have worked in hospitals and clinics in various settings. One thing has always been clear in spite of the fairly extensive required education, imbued with the prerequisite mind washing about "professionalism", I was first and always a worker. I was subject to the whims of capricious bosses.

I quickly learned that my personal survival, not to mention the survival of nursing as a whole was dependent on joining with other hospital workers, to fight the endless insidious health care hierarchy, the hospital corporations, the scourge of managed care seeking to make money off the misery of illness. I became active in unions. I was a shop steward and was elected to the executive board of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 616. I was involved in the battle to keep the Alameda County Medical Center open and public. I was part of the contract bargaining team. More recently in a newer job, I have become a shop steward for American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local 1206.

The best and worst of activism are in unions.

In SEIU local 616 I found unique connections, friendship, strength solidarity with many workers on a back drop of endless intrigue and arguing, people stole elections, manipulated Robot's Rules of order and reworked the bylaws every six months to someone's advantage. Executive directors worked in a murky world of corruption and private agendas. Contract bargaining was fraught with extracurricular meetings by union officials with county mangers without rank-and-file knowledge or input. The occasional intimate euphoric feeling of worker solidarity made it worth it.

AFGE local 1206 is a fledgling union trying to bounce back from a series of presidents who stole the people's dues. Union meetings are held on V-tel ( televison screen) covering an area from Oakland to Redding. Federal workers cannot strike so all representation is done through a system of grievance arbitration and ultimately lobbying in congress. AFGE has an enormous parallel bureaucracy to the federal government, over involved in partnership and lobbying and under involved in organizing and radical politics, all pretty pathetic given the tragic push by the bush administration to privatize and union bust federal employees.

But still I feel safer in a union than not. Bosses are more than a little nervous about their presence in any work site. No matter how disorganized, sleazy, or undemocratic the union, the benefits are better and it is harder to get fired. (Something important for my eccentric outspoken self). We need strong democratic unions. There is safety in numbers in the adversarial- corporate- money-making off the backs of workers- workplace.

When the Change-to-Win Coalition (CTWC) broke from the AFL-CIO in July right before the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, claiming a newer more radical approach with an emphasis on organizing un-unionized workers, I was pretty skeptical and not sure of the wisdom of a divided labor movement. From the perspective of a rank-and-file worker it looked like the clash of the power hungry labor Titans. Service Employees International Union (SEIU), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Unite-HERE,( the needle trades and hotel workers), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW ), Laborers international, The United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) , and the United Farm Workers (UFW) have joined CTWC. At least three of these unions have officially disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO - the IBT, SEIU and UFCW.

There is no doubt that the AFL-CIO has become nearly obsolete a massively top down undemocratic hierarchy preoccupied with endless influence peddling politics with the democratic party (clearly they have failed on that front). After WWII unions represented 35% of workers. Today only 12% of workers are in unions, and only 8% in the private sector. Many unions still in the existing AFL-CIO also think that there needs to be a push for organizing.

Andy Stern president of SEIU began this transition a year before when he announced his Unite to Win program at the SEIU convention in San Francisco, the key strategic and most controversial point was a proposal to merge union locals across industry lines, so that workers of one type would no longer be organized into different locals but would be in one big union. Stern feels that this would make unions more au courant and better able to deal with giant multi-national corporations. Members of small but functioning locals do not want to be merged into one large megalith of a union with no hope of rank and file democratic participation. It also encourages competition and a sectarian approach to organizing with workers identifying with industry groups rather than with a united working class.

Stern has also been a proponent of labor -management partnerships, such as the Kaiser- SEIU partnership. Sal Roselli president of United Health care Workers West formerly SEIU local 250 feels that the contract for health care workers is one of the best private sector contracts because of the partnership. There is another side to this. Workers have lost power on the job often finding their union unsympathetic to workplace problems because of collaboration with kaiser management. This partnership with kaiser may explain SEIU's lack of any real participation in the movement to win a single-payer universal health care plan. SEIU agreed to kaiser paying bonuses to call center workers for turning patients away from seeking access to their health care providers.

In addition to believing in labor-management partnerships Andy Stern also thinks that unions have to support business's need for outsourcing. Rather than fighting contracting out he thinks the unions should retrain workers who lose their jobs. He thinks that unions should be helping business. In other examples of management partnerships SEIU's California state council of service employees worked with nursing homes owners to successfully block a nursing residents bill of rights which would have protected nursing home patients and improved working conditions for health care workers

The Teamsters another of the the big players in the Change to Win Coalition also are not a paragon of progressive labor organizing. They were expelled from AFL-CIO in 1957 for corruption. Examples are plentiful, ranging from Dave Beck, a Teamsters president who went to prison for misappropriating union money, to the infamous Jimmy Hoffa Sr. The Teamsters were known for two practices in particular - "raiding," or organizing within other jurisdictions, and "sweetheart" contracts, which are contracts signed directly between the union and management, without allowing the workers to choose their representation, or vote on the contract. Both of these policies brought about a bloody conflict with the United Farm Workers in California in 1973-5, when the Teamsters signed sweetheart contracts with grape growers who had previously been under contract with the UFW. The Teamsters also undermined UFW organizing efforts in lettuce and oranges.

To be fair, the Teamsters had historically represented workers in food processing plants. Deeg, for example, in 1969, worked in a Birdseye broccoli packing plant outside of Portland Oregon. "After I was hired by the personnel office, I was told to go down the hall and sign up at the union office, which I did. I asked who the union representatives were. I was told that the "floor ladies" [the direct supervisors] were our shop stewards, and the local president was the general foreman. We made 10 cents an hour less than the non-union shop down the road."

After years of struggle within the Teamsters union, Ron Carey, a former United Parcel Service (UPS) driver and rank and file activist, won their first direct secret-ballot election for national union president in 1991. In 1996, he defeated James P. Hoffa, Jr. and then proceeded to lead the union to victory in a major UPS strike in 1997. Carey was removed from office in 1998 by the Internal Review Board (IRB), after allegations that his campaign had engaged in illegal campaign finance activities. Carey himself was acquitted of criminal charges in 2001. Hoffa has declared that one of his goals is to develop friendly relationships with the republican party.

There is also the fear that the new Change To Win Coalition rather actually organizing new workers will conduct raids on other unionized workers. One of the most notorious on this is the United Brotherhood of Carpenters who has sent announcing letters to the sheet methal unions that the union is no longer abiding by no raiding agreements. UBC has set up centers in Las Vegas for the training of sheet metal and iron workers. The Carpenters union has set up large consolidated district councils with little chance at rank and file participation or democracy

I talked with my friend Irma who works as a LVN at Highland Hospital and is a political activist and shop steward in UHW formerly local 250. She rushed into a Vote Health meeting from a shop steward meeting looking somewhat delirious and said "I've joined the mafia now. I have to learn how to make cement boots". She had come from a meeting where rank and file were debating the new CTWC. She said that rank and file were never included in the decision-making to form this new labor entity. She was completely against it because "I think worker strength is in numbers. Now we will be split losing our solidarity. There must be a better way to resolve a personal battle between Stern and Sweeney. SEIU is becoming like the Teamsters now, the mob". Irma says that she thinks about 60% of the existing stewards in her union are against the split.

A strong labor movement has never been more needed by people in this country. We are facing the destruction of not only union pension funds, but an attack on social security and medicare. The unions, for all their flaws, are our strongest force, directly representing over ten million members. And yet for decades it has been clear that organized labor needs changes. Union members are often alienated from their unions, finding it impossible to obtain representation, or affect the union's agenda. National union leaders have salaries and homes that mirror the CEO's of the corporations far more than they reflect the lives of the people they represent. Few people ever mention union democracy.

The big change in labor has to come from the ground up. In the 1930's communists, anarchists, and other progressives forced changes on organized labor by founding industrial unions, and developing new tactics, such as the sit-ins. The change to win coalition appears to be the same old stuff - birds of a feather refusing to flock together until they have a new pecking order.


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