Workshop Talks: Rank-and-file workers will have their say

March 27, 2011

by Htun Lin

All eyes are on the massive worker protests in Madison, Wisconsin, against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to totally bust public sector unions by stripping them of collective bargaining rights. Many pundits say this is a power grab to hurt Democrats, but the demonstrations have brought out something much deeper that speaks to all workers.

As one teacher said at a Wisconsin labor rally, “For me, it’s not about the wages and benefits. I’m here because we workers need to have a say in what we do.” That expresses the gulf in thought between us workers and them—I don’t just mean the Tea Party Republican politicians or company management.

“Them” includes union bosses and even leftists who have their own master plan. They usually are fixated on collective property or on a different form of remuneration like equality of wages.

In my shop, the bosses don’t have to try to bust the union. They are happy with the union. The union is doing everything the bosses want. Here it’s called a “Labor Management Partnership” (LMP). Our union reps are now called “LMP Liaisons.” When our Chief Steward speaks, it’s about “merit pay,” calling it “performance-based bonus.”

The union’s concern is attendance and cost controls. If you get sick and go over the sick day quota, you will get written up and disciplinary action will be taken. During the hearing, it’s the union rep who tells you that you went over the quota. They tell us if we don’t go along with the program we can find work somewhere else. They tell us we don’t have a choice, we have to help the boss keep costs down.

At LMP “unit-based team” meetings, they tell us to look forward to the coming bonus, so long as we keep sick days and on-the-job injuries down, trimming Workers Compensation costs. The company is swimming in excess profit. Workers are not surprised. We’ve worked under their speed-up through short-staffing over the last decade of corporate restructuring.

A number of my peers have lost their jobs in recent months. The company is saving more money by firing people at will. Often, when my peers are charged with a trumped-up violation, the union rep and management have already met and decided their fate.

When we ask the rep to file a grievance, they don’t want to. One of my friends went to four different shop stewards to file a grievance. They all turned her down. They said the Chief Steward already told them he’s “handled it.”

SEIU and its sister unions don’t have to worry about their own survival. Like our company’s bottom line, SEIU’s membership roster is growing every day. We have bargaining rights, but I’m not sure you can call it collective bargaining.

Every time a new contract is due, they tell us “99% of you voted to ratify” the new contract. But most of us don’t remember voting. Some of us didn’t even get to hear what was in the package being offered. A lot of us feel, if it’s take it or leave it year after year, why even bother?

In the U.S. today, only 7% of the workforce in the private sector are even unionized. For too long, union bosses have congratulated themselves on getting us workers great wages and benefits.

Nobody gives us anything. We work for it. We produce all the value, contrary to the capitalists taking credit. Union bosses think their survival depends on capital’s survival. They’re trapped in that kind of thinking. But they also try to drill into the heads of us rank and file that our survival too depends on capitalism.

They have it all wrong. We know better. It’s capitalism’s survival that depends on us! We know that an alternative to all the recurrent crises and miseries under capitalism begins with us.

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