The bosses of the Con Ed electric company have put the lives of thousands of poor, elderly, and other vulnerable people at risk in the middle of a summer heat wave in New York City. They locked out 8,500 workers on July 1 when the contract with Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2 expired. Con Ed management is willing to risk a major public health catastrophe in order to carry out their union-busting attack. They cancelled workers’ health insurance right away and they are trying to slash pension and health care benefits for the long term: the lockout is one vicious part of their strategy to force the workers to surrender. Con Ed workers know they have to stand up and fight, and all workers in New York City should support this struggle!
Con Edison, like all other companies, prefers to squeeze their own workers, letting them make all the sacrifices, for the sake of more profits for the bosses. Also like other companies, Con Ed prefers to divert public attention away from what management is doing and their own privileges and prerogatives. Instead, they want to challenge the very idea that workers should have a right to good wages and benefits!
Yet if the bosses succeed in bringing down the wages and benefits of these workers, it will not benefit the workers and poor in general – about whom these bosses obviously couldn’t care less. In fact, the opposite is true: if a union like this can be pummeled to the ground, workers in other unions and non-union companies in this city are going to be in for greater attacks too.
This has already been happening for years. As unions have sunk, so have the wages and benefits of all workers and poor. The problem facing the whole working class is not fundamentally that some workers may still hold on to relatively decent jobs and benefits, but rather that all of us deserve a guaranteed job with good benefits and a living wage. Yet, a decent life for all working people is the last thing that the bosses want, as this divide-and-conquer game has been working very well for them for decades.
Indeed Con Ed’s lockout is part of a broader offensive by the whole capitalist class to drastically cut wages, benefits, and social services for all working and poor people. In general, they have gotten more aggressive because they want to make the working class pay for the economic crisis, while they gave billions of dollars in bailouts to Wall Street. The best way to resist the across-the-board assault that has been going on would be a united fightback of the entire working class. The conflict at Con Ed could end up being the spark that ignites a big fightback, even though that is the last thing the bosses want.
The workers of Con Ed play a critical role in New York City, being responsible for maintaining the city’s electrical system. Con Ed management knows they can’t keep the electricity running for too long with their unqualified and untrained scab workforce of 5,000 managers. Already, two managers have been injured. But they want to scare and strong-arm the union with the lockout tactic, in order to improve their bargaining position in negotiations.
Con Ed workers have been manning the picket lines but more can and must happen. Con Ed workers can’t afford to become isolated in this situation where the bosses have their backs against the wall. Revolutionary workers of the LRP believe it is vital for the Con Ed workers to reach out for the support of the working-class public. Management will try to use the same divide-and-conquer tactics that the capitalist class has been using in all of their attacks on workers in recent years. When they slash the wages and benefits of relatively better-off workers such as public sector workers or auto workers, they exploit the fact that millions of other workers are already suffering from low wages or unemployment and little or no health care, pensions or other benefits. That, the bosses hope, will undermine the solidarity that low-paid workers will feel with relatively better-paid union workers. Thus, workers in unions like the UWUA need to take active steps to win the support of broader layers of workers, to counteract the bosses’ divide-and-conquer game.
But the bureaucrats in the leadership of the union, like most all union bureaucrats today, have no such perspective. For them, it’s business as usual, which means conducting isolated sectoral struggles, looking for every opportunity to collaborate with management, appealing to politicians and the courts for a little help, and supporting the capitalist Democratic Party with large donations and getting out the vote. This approach seemed to work, for some layers of union workers, temporarily, in the 1950’s and 60’s when the American economy was booming after World War II. But since the 1970’s, this business unionism approach has led only to decades of slow retreat and givebacks.
The reason that the union leaders’ strategy is so limited is because they basically support the capitalist system, even though they would prefer that the bosses give at least some select groups of workers a better deal. The generally high paid union leaders have positions as go-betweens, or labor brokers. They basically act to try to get a deal from the bosses that the union members will accept, and that will keep them in their positions without rocking the boat too much. They don’t want to upset the system, so generally they do not favor the kinds of big struggles that would be necessary for their own members to get a good deal, never mind the working class in general. Whatever the meager value of their timid, narrow strategy was a long time ago, with the capitalist economic crisis hitting us all so forcefully, the bureaucrats’ approach at this time can only lead to more disaster for workers.
A concrete example of the narrow approach the misleaders are taking so far in the Con Ed struggle is the plight of the T&T Janitorial Services workers, the office cleaners at Con Ed headquarters. They are non-union, but some of them were trying to organize a campaign to unionize their workforce. Twelve of them were fired for their unionization attempt just two days before the Con Ed lockout. The T&T workers have been actively supporting the Con Ed workers and participating in the Con Ed picket lines during the lockout. The UWUA leadership should be supporting the T&T workers in return, by adding the demand for recognition of the office cleaners’ unionization to their own demands in the Con Ed contract struggle. But the UWUA bureaucrats have shown no signs of thinking in terms of such basic solidarity.
Another urgent need is for all of the powerful unions in New York City, especially the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and SEIU which includes 1199 and 32BJ, as well as DC 37, CWA and others, to put their full weight behind the Con Ed workers’ struggle. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) went through a struggle similar to that of the Con Ed workers last year with an unsuccessful strike against Verizon. The failure was in large part due to the isolation of the strike and the unwillingness of their union to make the case to the general working-class public on why a fightback was necessary. This doesn’t need to happen again. All unions need to mobilize their members and put their resources into the struggle against Con Ed on a vastly more massive scale than the limited mobilizations and solidarity statements they have produced so far. A serious mobilization utilizing the resources of all the unions, and also calling upon other social justice organizations for support, could build a massive demonstration in New York City and bring HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of workers and youth onto the streets in support of the Con Ed workers, and the right of all of us to work with decent pay and benefits. Workers can raise motions in their unions and find other ways to put pressure on their leaders to do that.
Another way for the UWUA to win broader working-class public support is to make better service and more affordable rates for customers part of their contract demands. Electricity rates in New York City have skyrocketed in recent years, and a study last year showed that New Yorkers pay double the national average for electricity. Management encourages the false public impression that workers’ wages and benefits are the cause of the high rates. The union could show this is false by adding the demand for a moratorium on rate hikes to their contract proposal.
It is a scandal that utilities like electricity are owned by private for-profit companies like Con Ed. This lockout in the middle of a heat wave shows how dangerous it is to society to have an essential public service run by a privately owned company. Everyone can see that Con Ed management is putting its own drive for higher profits ahead of the public interest. Workers will have to consider the demand for nationalization of electric service and all public utilities. The electric grid in New York City and nationwide is obsolete and cannot even reliably meet the needs of the capitalists, much less the needs of workers and poor people. But Con Ed and the rest of the nation’s private electric companies will not invest in upgrading the electric grid because it is not profitable for them to do so.
The demand for nationalization of public utilities points to bigger questions about how society needs to be run. The plain truth is that the existence of capitalism is incompatible with the maintenance of public safety in modern society. Over time, revolutionary workers and youth of the LRP hope to convince more people that the only alternative that will work for all of us is a society run by the working class itself — where the workers collectively own and operate all of the means of production. But the capitalists who enjoy enormous wealth from their private ownership and private profits will never give up those class privileges without a fight. The workers’ current leaders, the pro-capitalist union bureaucrats of today, are not up for the task of even defending the contracts of small numbers of workers, never mind fighting for the total overturn of an inhumane capitalist society that enforces misery on the masses of working and poor people here and abroad . It will take a new leadership, a revolutionary party leadership, to organize and lead the struggle that workers need — in the unions, among the broader working class, and in poor and oppressed communities. It will be proven through the struggles ahead that what is needed to solve the international crisis that capitalism has created is a socialist revolution made by the working class in alliance with poor and oppressed people.
We appeal to workers who agree with our ideas about how to fight the Con Ed bosses to get in touch with us, so we can find ways to collaborate in order to strengthen the struggle. We also appeal to workers who are already convinced about the need to break with the failed strategies of the pro-capitalist leaders to contact us to discuss how we can best build the beginnings of the revolutionary party that is so desperately needed.