Starting July 1, members of Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2 were on the picket lines and at protests – fighting back against an outrageous lockout imposed by the Con Ed bosses. On July 26 the union leaders agreed to a tentative contract. They called on members to approve a proposal that would give up defined benefit pensions for new hires. This is a horrible betrayal of the struggle that will leave the union divided. New hires will get the shaft while the CEO of Con Ed has a pension worth millions? Apparently that is okay with Local 1-2 President Harry Farrell who had the gall to say that the contract “is a fair, equitable and decent return on the fruits of our labor”! What an outrage!
If accepted, this contract will give the next generation of workers the “gift” of being a lower tier of workers with a very insecure future. The union will be more divided. And this will be the “gift” that keeps on giving: It will end up damaging the whole union, not just new hires.
Adding insult to injury, for a week since the union leaders announced the tentative deal, they have kept the members uninformed about when the full contract and text of any related agreements will be made available. No explanation has been sent to the members as to what is holding up this process and causing the delay in organizing a mass meeting to discuss the deal and conduct a vote!
The members of Local 1-2 fought hard against the lockout. They knew it was designed to beat down the union into submission on the pension issue. They understood very well that this second tier would be a serious contract concession – and that it was exactly what the bosses wanted. “We Are One!” was a popular slogan during the weeks out and it expressed the members’ opposition to Con Ed’s divide and conquer strategy.
But the leadership of Local 1-2 caved in to the pressure of management and Governor Cuomo. They signed off on a bad deal damaging their own union, while squandering the potential for a broader fightback as well. Now they are calling this defeat a victory and asking the membership to go along with it.
During the lockout the workers won substantial sympathy from the working class public. Many other workers, under worse conditions, have already seen their pensions decimated. But all workers are eager to see a way to stand up to the bosses – after so many years of layoffs, cutbacks, and other mounting hardships.
The “American Dream” once referred to the idea that a man or woman who works hard would be rewarded with a rising standard of living for themselves and for their family. It was always a myth for people of color and low wage workers. But the downhill slide has now become the miserable reality for the vast majority of the working class. Even people who haven’t been that hard hit yet personally have to worry about whether or not children brought into this world will have much of a future at all.
A pathetic example of where this acceptance of different pension tiers can end up is demonstrated by the situation in public sector unions in New York. Having agreed to a second tier of pensions many years back, the leadership of the state unions, PEF and CSEA, then went on to concede more tiers. Until recently the workers in these unions were divided up into five tiers of pensions! Then in came Governor Andrew Cuomo who bullied the already severely weakened unions into taking more contract concessions of all sorts. After that, Cuomo came up with the creation of a Tier 6 (!) pension level, affecting all future workers.
Many unions are already divided by multiple tier contracts, and are in far worse shape than Local 1-2 is in today. But make no mistake. As Con Ed sees that the Local is going to capitulate, they will definitely not stop with two tier pensions. They will keep on coming back to take more and more.
Life on the job is going to be worse if this contract goes through; the bosses always take advantage of a defeat. In union after union workers have seen their union’s capacity to defend their rights go down the drain – after they accepted concessions that divided the union and changed the balance of forces between the workers and the bosses.
Many Local 1-2 members do not like the pension sellout, but they cannot see rejecting the contract offer at this point. After all, a strategy of just continuing to stay out, whether on a lockout or on a strike, would obviously not reap a better result. If a no vote is intended to actually defeat Con Ed’s concession demands, it would have to mean advancing a dramatically new strategy for the struggle.
To start with, Local 1-2 workers who want to fight back must demand that their own union leaders reject the deal. As long as they are in office, the union tops must be taught that the members will not just accept whatever they dole out. A no vote can begin to send that message to the union tops. And members should insist that Local 1-2 fight to mobilize for the kind of all-out battle that was needed from the start, which will begin to send out a different message to other union leaders, and encourage the ranks as well!
The few protests that occurred during the lockout brought out other workers and were encouraging experiences. But the turnout represented only a small indication of what could and should have been. In New York, there are protests here and there of various types from time to time, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of people. But this is a city of many millions of people. Union leaders just show up at one or two protests with only a handful of members, then take the platform to make a speech. Is that enough? No, it has to be something truly massive to frighten the bosses and politicians into paying serious attention to our demands.
But how can this be done? In addition to fighting hard on the pension issue, the LRP says that the union should build an alliance with the rest of the working class and poor people in New York – by fighting for other measures that would benefit everyone. For example, as we suggested in our previous bulletin distributed during the lockout, “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 the contract demands.” (Defeat the Bosses with Working-Class Solidarity! Defend Con Ed Workers!)
This kind of approach would begin to show that the unions have the power not only to defend their own, but also to fight for the needs of workers and poor people at large.
The union has to make the case to the general working-class public for why a full fightback is necessary – and why it is in the interests of all workers to actively support it. In fact, when the unions actually unleash the power that they really have, they can not only defend existing pensions but they can begin to fight for more measures that address what we all need to live decently – including Jobs For All at a Living Wage! and a Guaranteed Pension for all workers, private sector and public sector.
As revolutionary workers, we believe that a powerful movement to fight for such class-wide demands will have to develop. When such a movement does arise, it will be able to start to win very necessary changes. Such tactics like general strikes, which occur frequently in a number of other countries, will occur here too and go a long way to shake up the political scene in the United States. Workers will come to realize what tremendous power our class has.
Revolutionary workers who support the LRP recognize that our vision of a large class struggle seems very distant today, but a study of the history of struggles in this country shows that things can change very rapidly. We also explain that as long as capitalism exists, no matter what, the bosses will always be looking to go back on the offensive – due to the inherent need of the capitalist system to exploit the working class as much as possible to make profits. We believe that big class struggles are on the horizon which will change the way many workers think politically. A socialist revolution will prove necessary to win all the changes we need on a full and permanent basis.
The union leaders wish to avoid the kind of mass mobilization that we advocate, even just to win a decent contract. Instead, they prefer cozy backroom negotiations with Governor Cuomo and Con Ed management. The UWUA officials, like all the top union leaders in this country, are tied into the capitalist system hook, line and sinker. They are used to wheeling and dealing with management and capitalist politicians, functioning as labor brokers or go-betweens, basically aiding the capitalist class by helping to keep the working class under control. The role they play serves to enhance their own status in society above that of the ranks of labor.
The labor union bureaucrats believe in the capitalist system. Under capitalism the mass of workers create all the wealth that is then enjoyed greatly by the ruling class which extracts all the profits. There are reformers who would prefer to see some changes favorable to the unions but not at the expense of rocking the boat too much. Thus, in general, the pro-capitalist union leaders try to get a deal from the bosses that the union members will accept, and that will also keep them comfy in their well-established positions. In the U.S. these do-little union leaders have moved far away from the practice of ever mounting any kind of real resistance. One can wonder if it is even possible to get them to carry out any serious militant action.
But they can be pushed into action. A rising movement of the ranks of workers can make the union leaders fear that they will get kicked out of office if they don’t act on demands to organize a fightback against the bosses. And the empowering experience of struggle will encourage more workers to think about what sort of strategy and political perspective is needed for a leadership to truly represent the workers’ interests. The LRP is always open about our belief that a revolutionary party leadership will prove to be the real alternative, because in our view any leadership which supports capitalism will end up betraying the cause of the working class.
Governor Cuomo is a Democrat, and the Con Ed deal is another example of the bankruptcy of the union bureaucracy’s longstanding political support for the Democratic Party. Cuomo ran for governor two years ago on an anti-union program that openly called for slashing public sector workers’ benefits, but the UWUA endorsed him anyway. Then they allowed Cuomo to oversee negotiations – almost a guarantee that a bad pension deal would be the outcome. After all, he is well known to be so hostile to the idea that workers deserve a decent guaranteed pension that they can count on for life.
The union leaders’ loyalty to the capitalist class and its politicians, not the working class, was particularly demonstrated by the sickening praise showered on the anti-worker Governor Cuomo after the tentative deal was cut. (See UWUA Local 1-2 Update Tentative Agreement (PDF).)
The Democrats and Republicans are both political parties which represent the interests of the capitalist class. The Democrats try to present an image of being on the side of workers and the oppressed, including people of color and immigrants. But their aim is to keep workers and oppressed communities subordinated and not let them get out of hand and threaten the existence of capitalism. The relationship between Democratic Party politicians and the union bureaucrats is a particularly important aspect of how the capitalist class aims to prevent a rebellion against their system.
We do hope that workers in UWUA Local 1-2 will seriously consider our proposals for re-igniting the struggle against Con Ed bosses. Get in touch with us so that we can find ways for workers from different sectors to coordinate efforts in this direction. Even a significant minority opposition to the contract can make a difference. Most workers are obviously not yet convinced of our vision of socialism as the alternative to the misery of capitalism. But this is no obstacle to uniting together and agreeing to fight for the common good, opposing this contract deal, strengthening the unions, defending the whole working class – and learning from the experiences ahead to see who is right.
At the same time we also do urge those workers who already see the need for a new political outlook to contact us. Let’s discuss how we can begin to build the working class revolutionary party leadership that our class so desperately needs. Left to their own devices, the current misleaders of the unions will continue endlessly with the charade of endorsing Democratic Party politicians (and some Republicans) who turn around and predictably betray their election promises time and again. As the economic crisis continues, at home and around the world, it is time to build the revolutionary socialist alternative.
Capitalism is based on private profit, and capitalists make that profit by the wealth created by the working class. Given the fundamental exploitation suffered by the working class, the ruling class always lives in fear of rebellion by the workers and oppressed They try to hide it, but the bosses fear the united resistance of the masses. And so they do everything in their power to divide workers, of which the matter of multiple tier contracts which we discussed in this bulletin is just one small example.
The system always whips up racism and anti-immigrant chauvinism to divide workers by color, nationality, and religion. It promotes the idea that the U.S. is a superior country and tells American workers to believe in the inferiority of others.
These and other vicious divide-and-conquer techniques are being escalated because of the economic crisis. Yet there is still a great likelihood that the American working class will rebel because of the worsening conditions, as has happened in countries in the Middle East and Europe in the past few years.
Capitalism is now not only a rotten inhumane system; it has become a very unnecessary system. Long in decline, it wastes human and technological potential, instead plunging humanity into depressions, mass unemployment, poverty, and bloody wars. The conclusion of the LRP is this: To get rid of all these horrors we will have to get rid of imperialism and capitalism and build a new socialist society. Instead of the means of production being privately owned and devoted to producing profits, they must be collectively owned by the workers and devoted to producing to meet human need. The revolutionary goal is the achievement of a socialist world, where imperialist war and racism can become relics of the past. In a world where there is enough for everyone, there will be no need to fight over jobs or resources. Join with us to build the workers’ revolutionary party to make the socialist revolution.
This bulletin was published by The League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), an internationalist revolutionary socialist organization. Our group includes union and non-union workers and youth in New York. We actively supported the picket lines and protests of Local 1-2 during the lockout. And we have engaged in political discussions and activities with our fellow workers in UWUA and elsewhere about how to develop a fighting strategy to defend all of us from the attacks on our jobs, incomes and vital services. We also say that the crisis we face is caused by the capitalist system itself. The only answer is socialist revolution. We strive to build a revolutionary opposition within the unions – as part of the effort to building a revolutionary party leadership for the whole working class. For more information about our organization and our views, please check out the rest of this website: LRP homepage.