3 Huge Wins for Labor Show the Power of the Rank-and-File

Jane Slaughter

Some 39,000 Verizon strikers walked off the job April 13, beginning the largest U.S. strike in half a decade. (Stand Up to Verizon / Flickr)

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Labor Notes

Three big wins for work­ers in the last nine months arrived where you might least expect them: in the old, blue-col­lar econ­o­my. That’s the econ­o­my where unions are down to 6.7 per­cent, where wins are rare and work­ers are sup­posed to be on their way out.

Yet at Chrysler, Ver­i­zon, and a huge Team­ster pen­sion fund, thou­sands of union mem­bers mobi­lized to put a stick in management’s eye. Hun­dreds of thou­sands will see the benefit.

Vic­to­ry #1: Last Sep­tem­ber 40,000 Chrysler work­ers turned down a two-tier con­tract by a vote of near­ly 2 to 1. Despite ear­li­er promis­es to bring a big chunk of Tier 2 work­ers up to Tier 1 wages, Unit­ed Auto Work­ers bar­gain­ers had agreed to let the hat­ed two-tier sys­tem con­tin­ue indefinitely.

By that time Tier 2 rep­re­sent­ed 45 per­cent of the work­force, and UAW Pres­i­dent Den­nis Williams told local union offi­cials, End­ing two-tier is bull­shit.” But the vote forced union bar­gain­ers to return to the table and nego­ti­ate a path to stan­dard wages for all Tier 2 members.

Vic­to­ry #2: In May, retired Team­sters in 25 states saw the fruits of two years of orga­niz­ing when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment reject­ed the Cen­tral States Pen­sion Fund’s plan to slash ben­e­fits for cur­rent retirees by 50 to 60 per­cent. More than 400,000 Team­sters, retirees, and their fam­i­lies were grant­ed a reprieve.

And Vic­to­ry #3: On June 1, 39,000 Ver­i­zon work­ers end­ed a 45-day strike that forced the preda­to­ry com­pa­ny to back down from out­sourc­ing call cen­ter jobs, forc­ing trans­fers to oth­er states, and harass­ing and micro­manag­ing tech­ni­cians. The com­pa­ny raised wages and pen­sions and its execs were left scratch­ing their heads, won­der­ing what went wrong with their overreach.

What did go wrong with cor­po­rate plans to extract even more con­ces­sions? What enabled our side to kick some ass this year?

The three cas­es share one com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic: grass­roots action by tens of thou­sands of rank-and-file mem­bers. Not clever PR cam­paigns, not pound­ing the bar­gain­ing table or lob­by­ing, not pho­to ops, but get­ting in someone’s face, in numbers.

In each case, the wins were par­tial. The Chrysler con­tract includes ugly pit­falls, includ­ing more use of temps. The Team­ster pen­sion fund’s short­falls are still there and need a fed­er­al bailout — a tall order. Ver­i­zon work­ers gave up a lot on health care costs.

Still, these work­ers can be proud of what they blocked and what they won — in two cas­es against the wish­es of their nation­al unions.

HOW’D THEY DO IT?

Let’s look at the fac­tors that go into win­ning a labor fight:

  • the union’s leverage
  • its opponent’s abil­i­ty and will­ing­ness to fight
  • management’s abil­i­ty to meet the union’s demands
  • tac­tics and strategies
  • pub­lic support
  • uni­ty with­in the union
  • degree of mobilization

These fac­tors var­ied. At Chrysler and Ver­i­zon, the com­pa­nies were mak­ing mon­ey and did not need con­ces­sions — a fact that cer­tain­ly helped union bar­gain­ers. The Cen­tral States Pen­sion Fund, on the oth­er hand, is in seri­ous finan­cial trou­ble, owing to the 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis and the union’s deci­sion to let giant UPS leave the fund.

What about union uni­ty? In the UAW and the Team­sters, the rank and fil­ers and retirees were defy­ing their nation­al unions. Team­ster brass ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed the pen­sion cuts. They were dragged kick­ing and scream­ing to weigh in rhetor­i­cal­ly on the work­ers’ side.

At Ver­i­zon, in con­trast, the fight was orga­nized by union lead­ers, includ­ing sev­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers (CWA) locals led by reform­ers. Clear­ly, the unions’ resources, from staff time to strike pay, made an enor­mous dif­fer­ence in rank and fil­ers’ abil­i­ty to wage a fight.

BIG MIS­MATCH

As to lever­age: Team­ster retirees had no lever­age with their com­pa­nies, since they had no labor to with­hold. Their only sway over union offi­cials was to make them look bad to active mem­bers who could still vote. (Top Team­ster offi­cers are elect­ed by the rank and file.) They had to make their case to a sin­gle appoint­ed gov­ern­ment offi­cial, who had the pow­er to push the cuts for­ward or turn them down.

Chrysler work­ers would have had lever­age galore if lead­ers had been will­ing to strike — the com­pa­ny was pump­ing out vehi­cles and prof­its — but lead­ers were not will­ing. Work­ers had only the right to an informed vote, which had been estab­lished in pre­vi­ous rounds of nego­ti­a­tions by legions of oth­er protesters.

Ver­i­zon work­ers had pow­er against their immense­ly prof­itable employ­er and used it well. The com­pa­ny was not able to keep up the work with untrained scabs.

What the three fights had in com­mon was a big mis­match between what work­ers had been promised — a secure pen­sion, a decent wage, a life­long career with sur­viv­able work­ing con­di­tions — and what they were now told was all they could get. Right­eous indig­na­tion was a potent moti­va­tor — plus, for the Team­sters, fear of abject poverty.

At Ver­i­zon, where vir­tu­al­ly all strik­ers had 15 years’ senior­i­ty and up, work­ers resent­ed the company’s greed and its push to get rid of an expe­ri­enced work­force. One Man­hat­tan field tech said, They’re say­ing, You’re not worth what you were worth last contract.’”

POW­ER IN NUMBERS

Work­ers in all three fights turned out big num­bers for what­ev­er they did.

At Chrysler, that meant mobi­liz­ing quick­ly for a no” vote. Fired-up rank and fil­ers, many of them new to orga­niz­ing, gen­er­at­ed tac­tics, con­fi­dence, and excite­ment through Face­book dis­cus­sion groups.

Mem­bers showed up at con­tract infor­ma­tion meet­ings and bad­gered the offi­cials sent to sell the deal. They made No More Tiers” T‑shirts and wore them into the plants. A few dozen work­ers who hap­pen to work near the UAW’s Inter­na­tion­al head­quar­ters even held a vote-no ral­ly there.

Work­ers stud­ied the 456-page pro­pos­al and found con­ces­sions not men­tioned in the union’s cheery high­lights” brochure. They pub­li­cized those to win big no” votes among those des­tined for a new Tier 3.

Mean­while, Team­ster retirees formed local com­mit­tees that met month­ly and steadi­ly grew. Alex Adams of Cleve­land describes a very depress­ing day” in Wash­ing­ton in 2013, lis­ten­ing to high-paid Pen­sion Fund offi­cials tes­ti­fy to Con­gress on the need for cuts.

When he and his four friends got home, he said, we formed our com­mit­tee, put the word out, went to the retiree clubs, and we had anoth­er meet­ing that was over 150 peo­ple — and it just start­ed build­ing from there.”

GREW AND GREW

Com­mit­tees to Pro­tect Pen­sions” grew in 20 cities, along with 60 Face­book pages. Retirees found meet­ing space at din­ers, union halls, the local Amer­i­can Legion. They held let­ter-writ­ing dri­ves, vis­it­ed con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives — even pick­et­ed a news­pa­per to get a reporter’s attention.

Mass meet­ings of 300, 500, 800, 1,200 were held from Mil­wau­kee to Kansas City. At some, the government’s Spe­cial Mas­ter” got an ear­ful about what the cuts would mean. Help­ing the work were Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union and the Pen­sion Rights Center.

In April 2,000 from 20 states ral­lied in Wash­ing­ton. A Hous­ton local sent a bus­load of retirees and their spous­es 1,400 miles to attend. There were peo­ple there with walk­ers, with canes, with oxy­gen bot­tles,” said North Car­oli­na retiree Brad Coleswor­thy. You have nev­er seen such emo­tion, such broth­er­hood and togetherness.”

Ver­i­zon work­ers, too, turned out in big num­bers: 500 and 800 greet­ed the CEO and CFO, respec­tive­ly, when they appeared at con­fer­ences. The Good Morn­ing Amer­i­ca” show host­ed 250 strik­ers in their red T‑shirts. Oth­ers were greet­ed as heroes at a Bernie Sanders rally.

STOP THE WORK

But the strik­ers also did the tra­di­tion­al thing a strike is sup­posed to do — stop work from get­ting done. Hurt profits.

Many strikes these days are pub­lic­i­ty strikes” — one day on the pick­et line. But the phone work­ers put up rov­ing pick­ets: they harassed scabs and man­agers to make it hard or impos­si­ble for them to install and repair (which they were no good at in any case).

When Ver­i­zon board­ed scabs at hotels that it used as dis­patch cen­ters, strik­ers orga­nized wee-hours wake-up calls” out­side. To build sol­i­dar­i­ty and pub­lic­i­ty, locals recruit­ed oth­er unions and com­mu­ni­ty groups to adopt Ver­i­zon retail stores to picket.

Mean­while CWA mem­bers, though not their fel­low strik­ers in the Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), had a strike fund behind them, with ben­e­fits of $200-$300 a week and a promise to pay med­ical bills once the com­pa­ny cut off insurance.

As the strike wore on, ana­lysts pre­dict­ed hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in lost prof­its. Ver­i­zon caved.

RIGHT­EOUS ANGER

Most of the pub­lic­i­ty unions get these days says exist­ing mem­bers are dinosaurs, con­ces­sions are inevitable, and the labor move­ment is on its way out. Some say our best hope is to focus on those who bare­ly have any­thing yet — fast-food work­ers and Uber dri­vers — though it’s not clear why they’d want to hop onto a sink­ing ship.

But these three bat­tles show the raw mate­r­i­al is still there for big fights led by labor’s tra­di­tion­al mem­bers. Too often, union lead­ers squan­der it. Or ignore it.

Still, the right­eous indig­na­tion flares up when the boss­es come after what took gen­er­a­tions to win — the anger and the will­ing­ness to act on your own behalf.

Unions should use this pow­er. That’s how you build the kind of move­ment that can inspire more work­ers to join.

Alexan­dra Brad­bury and Dan DiMag­gio con­tributed report­ing to this article.

The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca are a spon­sor of In These Times, and our edi­to­r­i­al staff are rep­re­sent­ed by them. Fis­cal spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Jane Slaugh­ter works for Labor Notes in Detroit.
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