7/26/08

Collectivist explains unionism, strikes

Why solidarity is worth lost paychecks

As the word gets out that 9000 Verizon workers unionized with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers across Southern New England have voted overwhelmingly to go on strike next Friday unless the company meets their contract demands, it seems a propitious moment to say a few words about why it's important for working people to support strikes and other labor actions.

A few decades ago it would have seemed strange to have to discuss this issue, but in an era when just over 10 percent of the American workforce are union members, and a vanishingly small percentage of those members are under 30 years old, it's worth doing.

There's a basic fact about a capitalist economy that rarely gets mentioned in the mainstream media ... and sorry if we get kind of schoolmarmish here ... a few people own a lot of stuff, a somewhat larger but still small percentage own some stuff, and most people don't own much stuff. What do we mean by "stuff" here? Corporations and everything they control, mainly. The main productive organizations of our society, all the materials and infrastructure that go into building the things these organizations make, and all the money they stockpile and play with in the stock market and a myriad of other ways.

The few people that own all this stuff also exercise a great deal of control over our political system - by fair means and foul. They also control the non-profit sector through saving taxes by pumping a percentage of their profits to foundations (that they also control) that fund non-profit organizations. Like Open Media Boston. (D'oh!)

Since a few people control the means of producing most things, and most people don't own them (or only own bits and pieces of them), most people then have to sell their labor to make a living. That is, most people work for wages, and in fact, most people make these wages working for a corporation. A significant but smaller number of people work for the government and non-profit sector. When the economy does well, most everyone has a job and feel fairly good about things. When the economy goes down, prices go up, more and more people don't have jobs, and more people don't feel so good about things.

As the economy goes up and down, the people that own things want to keep making money. No matter what. So they are always looking for ways to lay off workers at will in the event they need to save money on labor costs. And to keep salaries and benefits as low as possible at all times for the same reason. Now naturally, it is in the interest of workers to have the highest possible salaries and benefits and to keep their jobs for their entire working life. So there is a built-in, never-ending tension between workers and owners. Owners want the freedom to use workers as widgets - to be bought as cheaply as possible and disposed of as needed. Workers want the opposite.

But unless workers organize together in collective democratic organizations called unions - and get that union legally recognized by the corporate-controlled government, fighting through an increasingly byzantine set of laws designed to stop them from doing that, and get a contract signed between their union and their company (or government or non-profit) - they have no ground to stand on in a fight with the owners. This is why workers form unions to begin with. To be able to say "Hey, owners, we are not widgets to be bought and sold. We are people, and you will treat us as such."

Now unions are not perfect by any means. But they are the main bulwark workers have against job instability, job loss, and poverty. They are also the main lobby workers have in the government for things that benefit all people like Social Security, Medicare, and the minimum wage. Plus the main groups fighting for things we don't have, but should. Like a single-payer national health care system or a cradle-to-grave living wage irrespective of employment status.

Unions have a lot of ways to fight for job stability, better wages and benefits and societal programs that benefit everyone, but the most powerful weapon they have historically used is withholding their labor - striking - until their demands are met. These days it can be frighteningly easy for owners to end-run strikes, bring "replacement workers" (better known to workers as scabs), and fire all the original workers. But not so easy that unions won't still strike when they are pushed far enough.

So one of the most important things that workers of all kinds can do for other workers when they are striking is called "solidarity." Showing solidarity means lots of things, but at base it means not getting pissed off if you are inconvenienced because striking workers make your life somewhat difficult for a while.

Like in the current situation. Let's say the 9000 Verizon workers go on strike next Friday. Managers and temps will be asked to step in and do their jobs. This will, of course, not work - because some of the striking workers do very dangerous work like repairing downed phone lines that untrained people simply can't do. Also, because it's difficult to replace that many skilled workers quickly. This is one of the reasons why Verizon workers haven't already lost their unions like workers in so many other sectors have. They are very skilled, and not easily replaced.

So their might be problems with phone service after a few days of a telephone workers strike. This being the 21st century there might also be problems with (horrors!) DSL lines and other information services that a giant telecom like Verizon provides.

The advice we can give you from Open Media Boston if that happens. Deal with it. Suck it up. Know that every victory for a union in this day and age is a victory for all working people.

Better yet, if it comes to a strike, help out the Verizon workers. Go join a rally or a picket line - and bring some cash to donate to the strike fund while you're at it. Help the union lobby government officials to support the union rather than attacking it. Pass resolutions in your own community or religious organization to support the strike.

Show solidarity, and like good karma it will come back to you one day. Maybe you'll decide to try to organize fellow workers at your workplace into a union one day (here's hoping). Maybe you'll even go out on strike. Then where are you going to turn for help? To other unions. And you know what? They'll back you up. The best of them and even some of the worst of them will. They're good at that. They know the score.

Who knows? If this kind of attitude spreads around among working people some more in the years to come we could see a resurgent labor movement winning some big gains. But for now, here's what ... if the Verizon workers go out on strike next week, support them. Try solidarity on for size. You might find you like it.

We know it sounds a bit corny and old-fashioned. But just this kind of corniness built the labor movements that allowed the children of peasants and serfs from all over the world to become university professors and doctors and journalists (couldn't resist that one), and yes, telephone linesmen. With good wages, and benefits and job security. So, think it over. Side with the owners, who, trust us, do not have your back? Or with the unions.

We'll stand with the unions. But you all already knew that.

Now where do you stand?

(openmediaboston.org)

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