The following bulletin, slightly edited for publication, was distributed by LRP supporters and friends at the SEIU Local 32BJ strike authorization vote meeting December 1, 2011. Several thousand union members showed up for the 2pm meeting in Manhattan, creating an overflow crowd outside the Sheraton Hotel. Mass numbers of Local 32BJ workers later marched from the Sheraton on 52nd Street to Herald Square and then to Union Square, as part of a general labor march called by the Central Labor Council. The Local 32BJ contingent featured the spirited participation of large numbers of Black, Latino and immigrant workers. The contract struggle of Local 32BJ workers against the real estate bosses is now a key battle right ahead, as our bulletin explains. Its fate will affect the entire working class in New York, especially the working poor and people of color.
We invite readers and friends to contact us to receive updates on future events or to participate with us at future demonstrations and meetings.
Cleaners, porters, elevator operators and other workers who belong to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ are working harder and longer than ever but still struggling to pay their bills. Still, the bosses aren’t satisfied. With their contract with 32BJ set to expire on December 31, the real estate bosses and cleaning contractors of the Realty Advisory Board (RAB) are demanding that workers give up more of their hard-earned wages, working conditions and union rights so that they can make more profits.
Along with Wall Street’s tycoons, New York’s real estate bosses are among this city’s worst parasites. They profit not so much from building new buildings or providing services. They mostly profit from their monopoly control of property, from how much work they can squeeze from their workers and from how little they give in terms of wages and benefits.
Especially since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, the bosses have laid off untold numbers of 32BJ workers and stepped up their harassment of those who remain. Until now, 32BJ’s leaders have done almost nothing to organize a struggle against these attacks. But the RAB’s latest demands have forced 32BJ President Mike Fishman to call a meeting to ask the members to vote to authorize a strike.
We socialist workers who belong to the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), members of 32BJ and other unions, think that all workers should be ready to stand with the union leaders when they are taking steps to fight the bosses. We encourage all 32BJ members to vote “Yes” in favor of authorizing the union leadership to call a strike.
At the same time, we do not trust the Fishman leadership for a moment. They have sold us out before, and we’ll have to guard against them selling us out again.
President Fishman has not said much about what 32BJ’s contract demands are exactly. He said the new contract should maintain health and pension benefits at current levels and provide a “fair wage increase” – whatever that means. The only reason for the 32BJ leadership to not be clear with the members about what they are demanding from the bosses is so they can compromise with the bosses and not have to explain themselves to the members.
As far as what the bosses are demanding, the 32BJ November 22 press release noted:
The contract proposals made today by the city’s major building owners ... are an aggressive attempt to rollback wage and benefit standards that working men and women depend on to support their families. In particular, proposals for establishing a two-tier staff structure, aimed at creating a lower second class of workers, and for placing restrictions on the political action of union members are unacceptable.
So Fishman & Co. specifically focus on the bosses’ demand for “two tiers” within the workforce and their threats to the unions’ “political action.” Let’s look more closely at these issues.
We have to defeat the bosses’ demands for new tiers that create another underclass of workers with less wages, benefits and rights. The bosses create these lower tiers of super-exploitation at first just for new hires, but their next step is always to try to push the rest of us workers down to that level. And divisions like this among workers make it more difficult for us to unite to resist the bosses’ other attacks.
We have to defeat the bosses’ demand for a new tier of super-exploited workers, but the union leadership needs to tell us exactly what the bosses are calling for.
The fact is that there already is a multi-tier system of wages and benefits in 32BJ, where newer employees get far lower wages and benefits than higher seniority workers – and masses of new workers are kept in a so called “temporary” category for a long time, also suffering from all kinds of worse conditions. This type of super-exploitation has been in place at least since 1996 and it has been a bonanza for the RAB bosses. So it is not a matter of just “establishing” tiers, as the press release says, but making the situation worse.
It is no surprise that the RAB would want to deepen the tier system. These kinds of divisions have become commonplace in many unions, after many years of misleaders accepting concessions that only protect the higher seniority workers. But it has been particularly noteworthy in 32BJ. Divide-and-conquer weakens all of us, so it is in the interests of all 32BJ members to oppose attempts being made in the upcoming contract for a new tier structure. Taking such a stance and fighting for it seriously can also be a step toward opposing and eradicating the divisions that already exist.
Then there is the matter of “restrictions on political action.” That is actually about the ability of the union to have members contribute to particular campaigns, practically always related to the Democratic Party, with the money automatically deducted from their paychecks. We are definitely opposed to the use of workers’ money to support the Democratic Party. But workers should not allow a restriction on this by the bosses. The political activity of the union should not be hampered by the bosses.
Rather, we encourage our fellow workers to see that the unions, and indeed the working class as a whole, must break with the Democratic Party and carry out an independent fight for its interests and those of all poor and oppressed people. Deciding about the political activity of the union is a matter that must be open for discussion and debate among the rank and file, but it is not the bosses’ right.
Yet it has to be pointed out that SEIU Local 32BJ leaders are making a very big deal over whether or not they will automatically be able to get this money from workers to support political campaigns. The fact that the union is focusing on this difference with the bosses, shows how upside-down its priorities are. It is no accident.
Like many bosses, Fishman & Co are big supporters of the Democratic Party, as is the whole SEIU. The Democratic Party has shoveled money to the realty and Wall Street parasites and cut services and benefits to the workers. And in so many ways in the past few years, the Democratic Party has confirmed that it is no friend of the working class. It has gone along with budget cuts in various states and on the Federal level, budget cuts that hurt the working class and the poor the most. President Obama has also overseen a great escalation in the deportation of immigrant workers. These are just some examples of the injustices perpetuated by the capitalist Democratic Party, along with the Republican Party.
Already an early announcement came from SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, in a conference call to reporters, regarding the SEIU endorsement of President Obama for re-election in 2012. This announcement was carried widely on TV stations, after President Kay was among those arrested for civil disobedience on the Brooklyn Bridge at a march by labor unions and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) on November 17. While Kay could have taken advantage of the publicity to bring up the fact that Local 32BJ and workers in other member locals of the SEIU were under the gun, and to make a wide appeal for a big workers’ struggle, instead she used the opportunity to endorse Obama.
The highest paid full-time worker members of 32BJ earn a base salary of $47,000 a year, while thousands of members bring home far less. Meanwhile President Fishman and NY Metro Area Leader Héctor Figueroa both enjoy salaries of over $200,000 a year (with dozens of other officials claiming $100,000+ salaries.)(www.UnionReports.gov) Clearly, Fishman, Figueroa & Co. think that they are entitled to a better life on the backs of our hard work – just like the bosses. This is hardly the only example of our union leaders sharing the viewpoint of our bosses.
To be sure, Fishman and Figueroa can sound like they care about us workers and that they are angry at the bosses. But every now and then, the truth slips out. Consider how President Fishman described the 32BJ leadership’s perspective to Crain’s Business Daily just a couple of weeks ago:
We want to see development. We’d say we’re good partners with [the RAB], but we also represent the interests of our members. (Crain’s Business Daily, November 14, 2011
Wait a minute! Our union leaders are supposed to represent the members against the RAB. The real estate capitalists and cleaning contractors don’t create jobs, they cut jobs whenever they can, and they only keep workers on the job so that they can exploit them. Profit is their only motive. There is no common interest between workers and bosses. But Fishman admitted that he partners with the bosses and represents the bosses’ interests! This is a truth that union bureaucrats are rarely stupid and careless enough to admit. Fishman, however, let the cat out of the bag, and we can thank him for revealing a secret that all workers need to learn.
That Fishman and his fellow bureaucrats think their job is to represent the interests of the bosses and the workers expresses their special position as deal-makers between workers and the capitalists. To stay in their position, the union bureaucrats must keep the capitalists on top and satisfied with their profit-making, and keep workers accepting to stay on bottom, believing that we’ve got the best possible deal under the circumstances.
Workers need leaders who know that their responsibility is to organize a struggle against the bosses’ exploitation and oppression. That means a leadership that encourages workers to empower themselves in the workplace and inside the union.
But 32BJ’s leaders run the union in a very undemocratic way. Shop stewards are not elected (as they are in other unions) but are appointed from the top down, and workers who are critical of the leadership are prevented from serving, no matter how many of their co-workers support them. Likewise with union delegates. Rather than organizing a strong union presence in the workplace to defend workers against their bosses’ harassment, the union leaders expect workers to call in their concerns, as if they have a consumer complaint in need of service rather than a boss that needs to be confronted by a union-organized fightback. Instead of monthly meetings like most unions have, we are gathered to meet only twice a year and rarely given a chance to debate or vote on anything.
If we’re going to organize a winning strike against the RAB bosses’ demands for givebacks, we’re going to have to start to overturn this state of affairs where we workers are kept in the dark and without democratic control of our union.
The working class is stirring around the world. Governments are tottering and falling. Here in the U.S. the struggle is nowhere near as intense, but things are starting to move here, too. People are starting to see through capitalist brain-washing and intimidation: Occupy Wall Street, though not a working-class movement, has inspired workers and has forced the unions to get involved in demonstrations that they had not had the motivation to do on their own.
Workers and others see that the Wall Street parasites are a real enemy of working people and youth. The realty moguls are a closely related bunch, and there is every reason why a struggle against them could become immensely popular. Anyone who stands up for workers’ rights will win the admiration and sympathy of other workers, and have a great chance to spread a struggle to other sectors of the population that are exploited and oppressed.
In fact, the building workers of 32BJ are well placed to aid the struggle of all workers, while defending themselves. As the largest private-sector union in New York, 32BJ can forge unity in action with other private sector unions and workers as well as the public work forces, such as TWU Local 100. Largely of immigrant background, 32BJ workers can reach out to Black and Latino people in New York who are under the gun. With the possibility of making a fight against real estate bosses, who are often the hated enemies of all workers, and with the potential of paralyzing businesses, building workers can defend their living standards and significantly move forward the struggle of the working class.
To win this struggle, 32BJ workers need to know exactly what they are fighting for and how they are going to win. They need to be able to have their say and democratically control the struggle. And they need to see that they can win the support of the labor movement and the broader working class.
So far, the union has said that it will not let the bosses push back our pay, benefits and rights on the job. Good! But militant workers must hold our leaders to this. Especially if we strike, we must not return to work without an agreement that includes:
A winning strike will need strong worker leaders in every building. The Fishman leadership is proposing that there be created Contract Action Teams (CATs) in every building and strike captains appointed to be responsible for groups of 20-40 buildings representing 300-400 workers. These structures will be much stronger if workers use CAT meetings to elect workers they know and trust as strike captains in every building rather than having them appointed from the top. CAT meetings in each building can then be used to regularly discuss how the strike is going and how it can be strengthened. And elected strike captains can come together to discuss how the struggle can best go forward.
The December 10 training session that the Local is going to conduct for strike captains and CATS must also be a place to discuss and decide on a powerful strategy for the strike, and to demand and get more information and support from the union leaders.
In these ways, rather than workers just being left in the dark, powerless over the course of the struggle, they will be able to stay informed and have their say on the next steps. And these will be important steps in building new, democratic structures and accountability in our union.
If we go on strike but the bosses’ operations are allowed to go on uninterrupted, we risk a drawn out struggle that can weaken strikers’ resolve. To avoid this danger, we suggest that a policy of mass, militant picket lines to keep out any scabs will be necessary from the start.
With over 22,000 members spread out over many different buildings, often with a dozen or fewer workers, pickets will be most effective if we mass at key buildings like Rockefeller Center, the Empire State and MetLife buildings.
Our strength in numbers can be bolstered by appeals to union workers in particular not to cross picket lines, like Teamster UPS workers.
New York’s subway and bus workers in TWU Local 100 have a contract that expires shortly after 32BJs. If we are forced to strike, they should be encouraged to join us in shutting the city down – to defeat not just the RAB bosses’ attacks on us, but the MTA’s and politicians’ threats and attacks on them as well. United on strike, 32BJ and transit workers could be on the way to winning an amazing victory and turning around the class struggle in New York!
Capitalism is plunging deeper into crisis here and abroad. In Europe and North America, the ruling classes are attacking workers with layoffs, wage and benefit cuts, and even elimination of collective bargaining. Services and benefits that the workers and poor depend on – from heating subsidies to health care – are being severely undermined. Even major social programs like Social Security and Medicare are slated for the chopping block soon. And in the “third world,” the countries super-exploited by imperialist capitalism, hundreds of millions face horrifying conditions of mass unemployment and starvation.
Capitalism was once a progressive economic system that developed the forces of economic production to previously unheard-of levels. But now it is in the depths of decay, and can no longer offer the promise of a decent life (let alone a better life) to the working people of the world.
But capitalism has laid the basis for its own replacement. By developing a world economy with great productive powers, capitalism has created the technological basis for producing an abundance of everything humanity needs. The problem is that ownership of the economy remains in the hands of the capitalists who limit production to only what will profit them.
But capitalism has also created a vast working class that has the knowledge and organization to run society in the interests of all, not the tiny minority of profiteers and their hangers-on. There no longer need be a class society of exploiters and exploited. A world of plenty and freedom is possible.
To end capitalism, the working class will have to rise up, overthrow the capitalists and seize governmental power for themselves. Then we can start building a classless, socialist society – a world of abundance and freedom for all.
Is such a revolution possible? As the capitalists’ attacks intensify, ever greater mass struggles by the workers and oppressed people are inevitable. Powerful resistance can hold off the attacks for a time, and even win gains. It can also bring down oppressive governments, as we have seen this year in Egypt and Greece, for example. But the working class has to create its own governments, not refurbished capitalist regimes. To do this, workers need to regain a sense of the tremendous power and capacity of our class. Strikes, workplace occupations, mass solidarity and even general strikes are what we need to beat back the attacks and develop working-class power and consciousness.
We revolutionaries recognize that most workers today in this country do not share a revolutionary perspective. We stand with all those who are fighting the capitalist attacks and expect that the intensifying class struggle will prove to many that socialist revolution is necessary.
In the U.S., decades of betrayals by union leaders and the Democratic Party politicians they support have weakened the working class. Workers need a new leadership that stands for their interests, not for the survival of the capitalist system that exploits and oppresses us. The most far-seeing, class-conscious workers need to join together to build a revolutionary political party of the working class. Only such a leadership, because it always opposes capitalism and always stands on the side of the working class, can be relied upon to show the way forward in the struggles ahead and not sell out and betray.
If you are interested in these ideas and in building such a party, contact us and let’s work together. There is no time to waste!