Which Side Are You On?
by Ken Derstine
July 14, 2014
Most recent ink update at the end of the post: August 20, 2016
The union movement of today has been transformed from what the unions were when most started in the 1930’s, increasingly taking on the characteristics of company unions. Ever since the PATCO strike in 1981, when 11,000 air traffic controllers, who refused an order from the Reagan administration to return to work or be fired, were fired for going on strike, unions have been in decline due to globalization of the world economy with companies searching the globe for the cheapest workforce possible combined with a union bureaucracy willing to give away the gains of the past as long as they could keep the benefits of their connections with the Democratic Party. As a result, union membership has fallen from 28.3 percent of the workforce in 1968 to 11.3 percent today.
Recently, the increasing collaboration of the union bureaucracy with corporate and financial interests, whose interests are in direct conflict with the workforce the trade union leaders are supposed to represent, was on display at the fourth annual Clinton Global Initiative held in Denver on June 23 - 25, 2014. Former President Bill Clinton, the authorizer of bank deregulation which has unleashed unprecedented social inequality in American society, the authorizer of “welfare reform” which has devastated low income communities where jobs are hard to come by and exploded the U.S. prison population, who carried out George H.W Bush's North American Free Trade Agreement which devastated the Mexican economy and was later expanded by George W. Bush in 2005 to Central American economies to the point that children are crossing the border into the United States without an adult in a desperate attempt to escape the severe poverty that NAFTA has created in their countries…. this Bill Clinton like a benevolent Godfather has held these annual conferences to bring together corporate, financial, and labor leaders to discuss ways to advance the neoliberal agenda of the privatization of the global economy.
In a Huffington Post article after the conference, Clinton said,
At the inaugural CGI America meeting in 2011, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions committed to raising $10 billion over five years from members' pension funds to invest in infrastructure projects and energy-efficient retrofits. Since then, the AFL-CIO has engaged dozens of private and public partners, and has actually exceeded its original goal two years ahead of schedule. So far, just a small percentage of the $10.2 billion that has been allocated has been actively deployed into infrastructure projects, yet they've already created over 33,500 good jobs.”
This benign expression of neoliberal do-gooderism is a cover for the rapacious drive for profit in the corporate world, and in the financial world of banks and hedge funds, who see an untapped gold mine in the public employee pension funds built up in the last fifty years and now being used by the now retiring post-World War II generation. At the same time as Wall Street has a steady drumbeat in cities and states across the country that public employee pension funds are not sustainable (What problems they do have are due to cities and states not paying their legally mandated portion of the pension funds.), they are finding every way possible to loot these pension funds…with the cooperation of union leaders.
In video of the press conference with union leaders held at the beginning of this year's CGI conference, it can be seen that the main impetus for this initiative of using union members pension funds in risky investments for construction projects formerly financed by municipal, state, and federal governments, is Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. Joining her at the podium, with many other labor leaders in the audience, were Richard Trumka (President of the AFL-CIO), Lee Saunders (President of AFSCME), and Shaun McGarvey (Building and Construction Trades/AFL-CIO).
Weingarten had first proposed this initiative at the CGI America 2012 conference in Chicago. Weingarten had flown into Chicago on June 7, 2012, not to support the members of the Chicago Teachers Union who were on that very day voting by 98% to authorize their September strike, but to participate on a panel with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In the video of the panel Rahm Emanuel can be seen giving the example of 10,000 people applying for 75 water department jobs. He praised the unions for work rule and pay scale changes “that saved us a lot of money” and made the 75 jobs possible. Randi Weingarten concluded the panel saying, “People want to work. When labor and business work together to put people into jobs it creates great hope around the country.”
On December 13th, 2012, Weingarten held a press conference with Bill Clinton and Obama’s housing secretary Shaun Donovan to announce the NY Teachers’ Retirement Fund would invest $1 billion from the NYC teachers pension fund for Hurricane Sandy relief for the NYC area. NYC Mayor Bloomburg criticized the investment because taxpayers would have to bail out the pension fund if the investment failed. One month later the U.S. Congress allocated $50.5 billion dollars for Hurricane Sandy relief. This is another example of the highly secretive and highly dubious goings on in public pension funds.
Randi Weingarten did eventually join the CTU picket line near the end of the CTU strike in September, 2012. Whether it was to support the strike or end it has not been disclosed. The AFT had only given tepid support to the union during the strike since the AFT had not mobilized other locals around the country to support the CTU.
The CTU strike ended on September 19th, 2012. On September 22nd, Weingarten joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was on a bus tour through the Midwest to promote Race to the Top as part of the President Obama's reelection campaign. Race to the Top is an initiative that is key to corporate education reform that uses standardized tests to vilify teachers and close schools, especially in low-income areas. Weingarten has also been helping the Obama administration promote the Common Core. The Gates Foundation, the primary promoter of the Common Core, has heavily funded the AFT to promote it. Weingarten also has a more than ten year history of collaboration with the Broad Foundation, a major promoter of the privatization of public education.
At both the 2012 and 2014 CGI conference, Randi Weingarten praised a program called “Reconnecting McDowell” in McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell County in the 1950’s had a population of 100,000 and was a prominent coal mining community. Today its population is 25,000, most of whom are in severe poverty. Forty-six percent of children in the county do not live with a biological parent, according to the school district. Their mothers and fathers are in jail, are dead or have left them to be raised by relatives. 72% of its students come from economically distressed families.
This business project is using millions of dollars of union dues to create a few thousand low paying jobs in collaboration with the state and county. With “Reconnecting McDowell” the AFT has joined with about 100 businesses to invest in infrastructure projects in the county.
The AFT collaboration goes so far (see last few paragraphs) as to include support, through Reconnecting McDowell, for Teach for America teachers whom corporate education reformers have been using to replace laid off or departing teachers all over the country. This includes a Teacher Village for low income housing in McDowell County for the transient, low paid teacher force being created, the latest method by corporate education reformers to undermine teacher unions and lower educators’ living standards. What would Florence Reece and the coal miners in the 1930’s think of this? They could tell you a whole lot about how oppressive company housing is!
In 1931, as labor unrest was spreading under the gruesome conditions of the 1930’s worldwide economic depression, a song was written that became an anthem of the working people who were rising up against the living conditions they were living under. Which Side Are You On? was written by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. The UMW was waging bitter and violent struggle with the mine owners that came to be called the Harlan County War. Florence Reese and her children had been terrorized one night by the Harlan County police who had been hired by mine owners to search for her husband. After the ordeal she wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On? with the melody coming from a traditional Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low”.
The labor struggles of the 1930’s were bitter and hard fought and eventually lead to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935. Political activists and militant trade unionists had been able to win three major strikes in 1934: the Minneapolis Teamsters strike, the West Coast Longshore Strike, and the Toledo Auto-Lite strike.
The CIO split from the conservative American Federation of Labor which represented only craft workers, and started industrial unions such as the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (IUE) in 1936, the United Auto Workers in 1936 after a forty-four day sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan in 1937, and a collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Steel in 1937 (which came after the Memorial Day Massacre where police killed ten and seriously wounded dozens of striking workers at Republic Steel).
Soon after its formation, the CIO leadership joined the New Deal Coalition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal was the response to fears of corporate and financial leaders that the strikes would turn into a political struggle to fundamentally change the economic structure of U.S. society. This was to lead to major reforms in 1935-1936 such as Social Security, the Wagner Act which initially protected labor unions, the Works Progress Administration which provided employment to unemployed workers, the United States Fair Housing Authority and Farm Security Administration in 1937, and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which set maximum hours and minimum wages for most categories of workers.
An important law was the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that outlawed company unions making it illegal for companies to create unions to control their workforce. This was a reaction to the growth of fascism in Germany where independent unions were made illegal soon after the Nazi Party came to power. Many authoritarian regimes today have company or state unions for this purpose.
During and after World War II the unions became progressively more bureaucratized with a high paid leadership that was increasingly separate from the rank-and-file. Its political influence increased when the CIO merged with the AFL in 1955.
Public employee unions were formed beginning in the 1950’s. First came city workers in the late ’50’s, and then in the ’60’s and 70’s unions organized for teachers, clerks, fireman, police, municipal transportation workers and others. In the social ferment of the 1960's, teachers, city workers, and other public employees engaged in strikes, sometimes in definance of no strike laws which lead to jailing of strikers. Workers living standards were gradually improved and the programs of the New Deal were expanded under the Johnson administration to include Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and the launching of a War of Poverty to relieve inequality. This War on Poverty grew out of the civil rights struggles of the ’60’s, but was to be short-lived as the cost of the Vietnam War came to dominate the federal budget. The trade union bureaucracy was a staunch defender of the Vietnam War and has been a supporter of the military buildup and endless wars ever since.
All of the social advances of the New Deal and the Great Society are now under assault from right-wing forces who have developed a free market mythology to protect the huge amount of wealth they have accumulated since banking deregulation in the ’90's which began under the Clinton adminstration. The attack on workers having the right to organize unions and collectively bargain is also increasingly under assault.
The social crisis for millions of Americans makes clear that things cannot continue as in the past. The trade unions being concerned only with the wages and working conditions of their rank and file is no longer the way to protect the workforce. The unions must become a force for social justice for society as a whole.
Giving charity or investing pension funds in business ventures through collaboration with business and government to create a few thousands jobs from the dues and pensions of union members is not the solution. What is needed is for labor, and working people as a whole, to support a declaration of our political independence from both parties of the 1%. A political party is needed that will run on a program of free, equitable education for all from preschool through college, single payer health care through Medicare for all, and a jobs program to work towards 100% employment and the provision of a social safety net to provide for the basic necessities of life - food and shelter - to those who are unemployed.
So, which side are you on?
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