Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
June 1, 2008

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The SEIU convention is under way in Puerto Rico. They could hardly have picked a better venue. Their healthcare honcho Dennis Rivera has been working in collusion with the Commonwealth government to bust the militant Puerto Rican Federation of Teachers--and make their 43,000 members Purple. Last week the teachers fighting to save their union were in New York for a solidarity press conference organized by labor supporters, including the New York State Nurses Association and California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

Andy Stern is asking the delegates to give even more centralized power to national councils that determine contract bargaining objectives and who gets organized. The few existing restraints on top down disciplining of dissident local leaders, and dissolving troublemaker locals in to bigger megabodies, would also be loosened

At one time, SEIU used to give the monetary equivalent of an affiliation fee to the Labor Party and LP gatherings were sometimes hosted at the union’s Washington headquarters. That token support was terminated some time ago. The first major union bureaucrat to endorse Obama, Stern proposes to mobilize 100,000 members in support of his campaign for the White House, including making ten million phone calls. Chairman Andy is prepared to spend another fifty million dollars to support the legislative goals of an Obama administration during its first one hundred days in office.

But the most bizarre change being offered is replacement of traditional steward and local officer roles in dealing with member questions and complaints with–Call Centers. First you should probably check out the FAQs. If still stumped dial the toll free number and select an appropriate option from the menu.

Perhaps nothing else better signifies the degeneration of business unionism than this imitation of a frustrating corporate institution masquerading as “customer service.” It is the polar opposite of adversarial, member-driven unionism, such as I was trained in in the UE.

When I was first elected a steward in a UE shop thirty some years ago it was made clear that the steward was key to what was a self-service union. The power of the members was at the point of production so that’s where you tried to take care of problems. The foremen came to learn that the organized workers controlled the flow of work. Like Pavlov’s dog, the front line bosses were conditioned to recognize that, if treated fairly, UE members put out a fair day’s work but, if messed with, productivity seemed to plummet.

There was a steward for every foreman. A good steward, backed by the members, articulated their demands and could usually get the boss to listen to reason. Grievances that didn’t get settled there, that got kicked upstairs to the mandarins of Human Resources, became much more difficult to resolve.

On Stern’s watch SEIU has increasingly settled contracts–and even “organizing” deals–on the highest levels. Stewards and local officers have been used to communicate the results of these dealings, on a need to know basis, to the dues paying ranks. Now the local officers, freed more than ever from contact with members, can be put to work on organizing, or schlepping for politicians--while faceless staffers with scripts in front of them field phone calls from the ranks.

But this corporate approach to unionism is not going unchallenged. The leaders of the 140,000 member United Healthcare Workers West have brought a Platform for Change to the convention. It includes proposals for increased union democracy, active participation by the ranks in contract and organizing campaigns, and an appeal for unity with the rest of the labor movement. And, these healthcare workers, unlike Stern, support single-payer healthcare–a crucial demand for a rejuvenated labor movement.

We’ll be watching developments at this convention closely. It’s the one remaining piece needed for our long promised article on the Stern Gang.

Solo Act
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists reached a tentative agreement this past week with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Unlike eight previous contracts, AFTRA chose to bargain alone this time instead of jointly with the Screen Actors Guild. AFTRA President Roberta Reardon called this “a pragmatic approach to collective bargaining.”

It’s been reported that the AFTRA deal is based on last year’s settlement with the Directors Guild. That’s true, as far as it goes, but not the whole story. The Directors obtained their contract in the midst of a militant strike by the Writers Guild, and it was crafted to be the basis for a deal with the Writers too, bringing an end to that walkout. Unlike most contracts today, that package did include some substantial improvements for those two crafts–and now AFTRA as well.

SAG has a membership of 122,000. AFTRA’s 70,000 members include many in radio not covered by the Hollywood deal. There are 44,000 dual members of both unions.

The ranks of these unions are not mainly rich and famous. Less than one percent are big names making millions. About five percent of SAG’s membership work enough to qualify for health insurance but earn less than 100,000 a year. The rest work irregularly; most maintain “day jobs” to get by.

In recent years the situation for journeymen actors looking for a middle class living standard has gotten worse, especially in television. They’re being squeezed out of work by the so-called “reality shows.”

There are fewer reruns, meaning less residual payments. And the formula for residuals from highly profitable home videos, such as DVDs, hasn’t changed since Beta Max was the top video format.

SAG opened negotiations with an emphasis on middle class objectives for their hard pressed ranks. They especially want to upgrade the formula for home video residuals. AFTRA’s go it alone “pragmatism,” which abandoned the home video fight, undercuts SAG’s bargaining power.

They Just Came To Work Here...
There has been an epidemic of crane accidents and fatalities over the past couple of months.

* March–Crane collapse in midtown Manhattan kills seven.

* March-- A section of a crane collapsed in Miami killing two workers and smashing a home.

* April--A construction worker died in Annapolis, Md after a section of a crane came loose as it was being dismantled.

* May 23–A crane on the construction site for a new coal fired power plant north of Kansas City toppled sideways while being lowered after a wind test, killing one worker, injuring three others.

* May 24–A Las Vegas worker was crushed while oiling a crane.

* May 24–Three workers were injured when a crane collapsed at the Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming’s Powder River basin.

* May 30–On the Upper East Side of Manhattan two workers were killed when the cab became detached from a crane, smashed in to an occupied building, and crashed more than twenty floors.

Of course, high rise construction carries inherent dangers. But there is no justification for this kind of carnage on the job. The Operating Engineers union has jurisdiction over construction crane operators so I went to their web site to see what they had to say. What they say is absolutely nothing. I did a site search for “crane safety” and found only references to training manuals.

We all know we cannot rely on today’s OSHA to keep our workplaces safe. Our unions have to be our first line of defense. There is no more important union issue than protecting the lives of workers on the job. It’s up to the labor movement to both be the voice for those who can no longer speak and to be the defenders of those who deserve to live. As our friend Anne Feeney sings--they just came to work here; they didn’t come to die.

That’s all for this week.

Unity For Mass Action Against the War
An Open, Democratic Conference To Support Demands:
Stop the War In Iraq—Bring the Troops Home Now!
Develop A Mass Action Plan To Unite Antiwar Majority
Cleveland, June 28-29
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