Labor Today: New Strengths, New Challenges

 
February 6, 2003

A lot has happened in the world since the last time we had a major discussion of the labor movement in the National Board. In preparation for our National Convention in 2001, we had quite an extensive and lively discussion of a new Labor Program for our Party.

Since then George W. Bush and the Supreme Court stole the presidency and rightwing terrorists changed the face of America with their terrible acts of 9.11. Now the Bush administration plans to embroil us in a war with Iraq.

Then, in the mid term elections, with buckets of money, scare tactics, phony appeals to patriotism, and the continued racist suppression of the vote the hard right, anti-labor gang of Republicans now have control of all major branches of government.

It’s really quite amazing. In one of the worst anti-labor climates since the 1950’s McCarthy period, you might expect labor to be in full retreat. George Bush and corporate America have unleashed the most vicious anti-labor offensives most of us have ever seen in our lives. Their weapons are slash and burn pensions and healthcare plans, wages and safety rules, privatization, bankruptcy and layoffs. Make no mistake about it these are not natural disasters or acts of nature. These are conscious actions of a capitalist class in global pursuit of maximum profits. These things don’t just happen. Millions do not have to go without pensions and healthcare. People do not have to die for lack of prescription drugs.

Instead of retreat, though battered and bloody, remarkably, labor is still unbowed and even breaking new ground.

Anti-War

The most startling example is the tremendous growth of anti-war sentiment in labor. Many of us are veterans of the anti-war movement in labor during the Vietnam war. We know what it took to get our local unions to even question that war. George Meany threatened central labor councils that dared pass anti-war resolutions with immediate expulsion from the AFL-CIO.

Today all across the country, major central labor councils are adopting excellent anti-war resolutions. So are dozens and dozens of local unions. Industrial unions, public worker unions, building trade unions, are all challenging Bush’s war drive. It is breathtaking.

Labor organizations like Jobs w/ Justice, Pride at Work, and CLUW are making the case that Bush’s war is to defend corporate profits and to ‘wag the dog’ at home and to deflect outrage at his ‘steal from the working class and give to the rich’ economic policies.

This new labor for peace thrust says a great deal about the deepening of trade union and even class-consciousness in important sections of labor. War and peace are seen as class questions. The broad left initiatives on peace in labor have helped move the mainstream of labor in a more progressive direction. This peace sentiment, combined with the anti-globalization sentiment in labor are the beginnings of anti-imperialist consciousness that goes beyond trade unionism.

Contracts and Bargaining

In recent critical contract struggles, labor unity, international labor solidarity, labor/community alliances and good solid rank and file tactics have defended workers well, and in some cases even won important gains.

Just to mention a few: The West Coast longshore negotiations were a tremendous victory for the whole labor movement. These workers stood up against a powerful employer’s assault, Bush’s use of Taft-Hartley for the first time in 30 years, and a relentless media campaign to portray them as high paid, greedy workers who posed a threat to national security. The ILWU had to negotiate under the implied threat of the USA Patriot Act and port security, and the Bush administration’s threat to intervene every step of the way.

The longshore workers held the line on healthcare, one of their main concerns, and on contracting out and to preserve their jurisdiction in the face of new technology. They forged new alliances with other transportation unions and new international labor ties in the global economy.

The New York transit negotiations also saw an all out attack on labor. Transit workers faced hostile Republican administrations in both the city and state. Here the workers were threatened with vicious New York state anti-labor laws that could have meant steep fines and arrests for striking. In addition the new rank and file leadership had to fight off racist attacks, not only from Republican’s and the media, but also, unfortunately, from within their own union. But again, wise coalition tactics, reliance on the rank and file, and broad labor and community unity not only preserved their union conditions but even won some important gains under seemingly impossible conditions. Once again healthcare was the central issue.

Sometimes victory is just hanging on to continue the fight as a union. The steelworkers at AK steel fought for three years. They were locked out for refusing to tolerate contracting out and forced 12-hour days. The Steelworkers union threw all its might into the struggle. They used smart political tactics to challenge AK at every turn. They rallied the labor movement and community support in impressive numbers and they never gave up.

They’re continuing the fight as AK steel maneuvers. AK is firing activists and forcing union workers to accept scabs staying in the plant. Likewise the Salt miners in Cleveland fought a strike/lockout situation to a temporary victory that gets them back in the door. Now they have to fight an inside/outside battle including political action to try and preserve their union.

We should also note the Carousel laundry worker’s victory near Chicago. It took coalition building, political action and the stubborn determination of these Mexican immigrant women to persevere and win union recognition and a contract. These women personify the pro-union, pro-worker militancy that most immigrants bring to the working class. Other examples from home health care organizing on the West Coast to transit workers in New York and janitors and hotel workers all in between show the vital role immigrant workers play in labor.

This weekend we will undoubtedly hear many other examples of victories won and battles continued. Under tough, almost impossible circumstances, labor militancy at the contract table continues to defy the odds.

Political Independence

In the 2002 elections labor continued to increase it’s political independence and ability to mobilize working families. After over-fulfilling the target of electing 2000 union members to office by the year 2000, labor embarked on ‘Target 5000’ to double the number of unionists elected by the 2004 elections.

They are well on their way. And it is not just the numbers, but the caliber. A much-underrated achievement of labor in 2002 was the election of paper worker Mike Michaud to Congress in Maine. Michaud, a PACE member, built a model coalition that championed not only labor rights, but healthcare, environmental issues, and saving jobs.

The labor movement also extended it’s coalition ties, especially with civil rights and women’s organizations in the elections. These ties are becoming the bedrock of the kind of all people’s coalition it will take to beat Bush in 2004 and to slow down the ultra-right meantime. Labor is rapidly shedding any go it alone ideas in all areas of struggle.

Labor/community coalitions also elected ILA leader Tony Hill to the Florida State Senate. Hill was a leader of the opposition to the Bush theft of the elections in Florida and of the opposition to Jeb Bush’s attack on affirmative action in the State. And the steelworkers right here in the Gary area elected Local 1010 financial secretary Mary Elgin to topple a corrupt political machine in Lake County. Mary is a steelworker and CBTU activist who was a former chair of the USWA District 31 Women’s caucus.

The experience of the Working Families party in New York and their efforts around the Mayoral candidacy of Carl McCall also deepen labor’s political independence. The Working Families experience is helping to keep some broader issues of political independence alive and discussed in important labor circles.

Lastly labor continues to perfect its ability to turn out working families in elections. In many areas there is no serious ‘get out the vote’ effort without labor. The 2002 elections were no exceptions. Despite the narrow Republican victories, labor and labor-community coalitions were the key to many of those progressive candidates that did win.

Civil Rights

Labor continues to deepen it’s commitment to civil rights and to civil liberties. The AFL-CIO issued a blistering attack on the Bush administration for it’s intervention against affirmative action in the University of Michigan case before the Supreme Court. They said in part. ‘Our [US] history of regrettable and deplorable segregation and discrimination, which in many areas continues today, makes it impossible to build diverse institutions and achieve a diverse society with true equality unless we make conscious and deliberate efforts to do so. That’s what affirmative action is all about, and that is why it remains an essential tool if we are to win our longstanding fight for equality.’

And there is evidence that labor is applying those same standards to the house of labor. Many unions have beefed up and paid more attention to their civil rights committees and minority workers caucuses. Unions are sponsoring more civil rights conferences and dedicating more staff and resources to civil rights issues.

As we all know the AFL-CIO has incorporated, what they call the constituency groups, CLUW, CBTU, LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work and the APRI into the structure of the labor movement. Many Central labor bodies have included slots on their executive boards and official committees to include civil rights and constituency groups in leadership. While there is still much to be done, the struggle is at a higher level.

Labor continues to champion immigrant workers. The AFL-CIO and many national unions, most notably HERE, are continuing the fight to legalize, or grant complete amnesty, to immigrant workers. A sterling example is the Hotel worker led fight in Minneapolis last year where trade unionist from all over the city came ready to put their bodies on the line to stop the INS from raiding and jailing immigrant workers. Their action backed off the employers and the INS.

Additionally labor has begun to stir on questions of civil liberties. Several central labor councils and some local and national unions have condemned the USA Patriot Act and the police state measures taken in the name of ‘Homeland’ security. Labor in many areas has been outspoken in opposition to mass roundups and attacks on Muslim and Mid Eastern people in the name of fighting terrorism. Many see clearly that the war on terrorism is being used by Bush and hard right Republicans as a smokescreen for attacking labor as well as minorities. But it is uneven and much more educational work is needed.

Growth of Labor coalitions

In this last period we have seen tremendous growth in Jobs w/ Justice and other labor/community coalitions. Some, like JwJ, has become a formal part of labor’s structure in many areas. The AFL-CIO has been more willing than ever to participate in broader coalition’s like the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, and in coalitions around environmental issues like preventing oil and gas drilling in the Alaska wilderness.

A most important strategic development is that increasingly labor sees itself, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement as the cornerstone of a mass coalition that can beat Bush. We have to help develop and accelerate this idea both in labor and in the broader social movements.

International Ties

Even as we speak, Linda Chavez Thompson is leading an AFL-CIO delegation to the World Social Forum in Port Allegro, Brazil. They are joining hundreds of other Americans from all kinds of social movements in what has become a world gathering of anti-capitalist globalization. Last year there were 50,000 participants, this year, especially with Lula’s victory, will be even larger.

This is an important example of the changes in labor on international affairs. In the first place it is recognition that US labor has common interests with social movements outside of labor. Secondly, the AFL-CIO’s participation means rubbing shoulders with left currents, not only in labor, but world anti-war activists, world anti-imperialist forces and world anti-globalization forces.

We’ve already noted the international solidarity built around the ILWU on the West Coast. Similar international efforts have been an important part in recent victories in steel, in rubber and in electrical. Here too, individual unions, along with the AFL-CIO forged new ties with workers of the world. There are still problems though, including the use of government money to interfere in other countries. The worst of this treachery was halted with the Sweeney leadership, but the problem still remains.

Even so there is progress. When the AFL-CIO’s aid to a narrow group of company unionists in Venezuela was exposed last year during the coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez, there was loud protest in some parts of labor, including from a couple of central labor councils. One upshot is that if you search the AFL-CIO web site for Venezuela you will find nothing today. In this current crisis you don’t see AFL-CIO leaders speaking out as they did last time in support of the anti-Chavez big business forces.

Most important is that the AFL-CIO and almost all of labor are totally united against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). This will be one of the main points at the Brazil forum. Comrades in the leadership of the Brazilian trade unions, for example, tell us they have good ties with US labor in opposition to FTAA. They expect great international unity between North and South American labor in opposition to FTAA. This is ‘workers of the world unite’ born out of common struggles and common interests. This is also a good foundation for broader anti-imperialism.

Rank and File thought patterns

It would be a mistake to think that the continuing changes in labor are mainly concentrated in the leadership and top levels of the unions. You do sometimes hear this from some union staff and officials. One of the most important things we can do this weekend is talk about what is happening down below in the ranks, on the shop floor, in the work place, and in the union halls.

There are some dramatic indications of anger and a willingness to fight down below. In the first place, as already mentioned it was the solidarity and militancy of the rank and file that led to the contract victories, outlined earlier. There are other indications. Think of the Machinists at United Airlines voting to reject concessions late last year. Think of the tremendous pressure on them from the company and the government. Still they rejected concessions twice.

Or take a look at the historic two day strike against GE over healthcare last week. It’s the first company-wide strike in more than 30 years. It was a warning strike in preparation for negotiations later this year. Both the UE and the IUE-CWA, the two unions involved reported nearly 100% participation in this unprecedented display of union solidarity and resolve. Both unions expect healthcare cuts to be the major issues in this years contract.

It’s hard to quantify the anger and frustration of the hundreds of thousands of steelworkers who are losing their pensions, their healthcare and their jobs. The steelworkers are tapping into that anger and organizing it to fight for pension reform and to protect the pension rights of it’s members.

What is happening in steel is just the tip of the iceberg of a new intensification of capitalist globalization and restructuring. We need to work with the Economics commission and others to study this new round of global restructuring. There is no doubt that it will impact on the composition of labor and on the international capitalist division of labor. In my opinion deindustrialization and the ‘race to the bottom’ for all the worlds working class and people will be accelerated without sustained united struggle against it.

Again on the peace issue, what is the rank and file thinking about a go-it-alone war against Iraq? More than a few local union officers and staffers, talked to for this report, expressed surprise at the response they have gotten on the possibility of war. Several were very concerned about reactions to introducing anti-war resolutions in their locals. They were almost universally surprised at the high level of discussion and positive response. In many cases these are locals that have never passed a ‘political’ resolution before.

We need to explore this theme today. What is really going on in the ranks? We need to assess this question in thinking about recruiting, building the left and perfecting tactics of left/center unity and action.

Organizing the unorganized

The first plank in our party’s last labor program, adopted at the convention, was, ‘The need for a much larger trade union movement.’ This is a question that continues to haunt labor. In spite of a near universal understanding of the need to make organizing the centerpiece of labor’s agenda labor is still going backwards, percentage wise. Last year it looks like there was an increase of a bit more than 230,000 members according to AFL-CIO figures. But this is not a net increase. With layoffs and shutdowns this will more than likely mean a further decline in union membership and density.

(By the way, we need to authorize the Labor Commission to update and re-issue our labor program.)

Yet the AFL-CIO and most of the labor leadership is still struggling to come up with new solutions for organizing. This past month they convened the first ever national conference on organizing in DC. It is important that the searching for answers to this stubborn problem stays in the forefront of labor’s agenda.

What Labor’s up against

Now for the bad news. Like I said, labor is facing the most hostile, anti-union offensive since the bad old days of the McCarthy period. On top of that a prolonged capitalist crisis continues to lay waste to jobs, communities and futures. Insecurity and fear stalk most workers. Global capitalist restructuring is devastating the economies of many industrial countries.

Now, the reckless financial policies of the Bush administration, it’s insane tax transfer of enormous wealth to the super rich and monopoly corporations, it’s huge military build up, are resulting in the most severe crisis for local and state governments in decades. Now, new thousands will be laid off in the public sector. They will join the nearly a million and half who have lost their jobs in the last year and a half a very large proportion who are manufacturing workers.

It is hard to exaggerate the devastation in steel communities. People are forced to make choices between mortgages and health care Cobra payments. Retirees will die for lack of healthcare and prescriptions. So many pension plans are in trouble woefully under funded. GM, IBM and others have huge pension liabilities. Three major steel pension plans have now been taken over by the governments Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). This means hundreds of thousands without healthcare and greatly reduced benefits. Some experts believe that a few more big plans dropped on the PBGC could break the bank. The PBGC now covers 44 million people with failed pension plans.

It is also hard to overstate the healthcare crisis for labor and the people. Most unions expect healthcare issues to top the bargaining charts for the foreseeable future. Already in the last year and a half close to 2 million have been added to the 41 million who do not have any kind of healthcare coverage.

In the midst of this terrible economy the Bush gang has unleashed a hurricane of anti-labor offensives. Bush announced plans to privatize a million federal jobs. And his new Homeland Security agency will deny union rights to many thousands more. The administration has announced legislation and executive orders to force ridiculous but costly new reporting regulations on labor that can cost unions millions of dollars and tie them up in all kinds of useless red tape.

The bad economy is not an act of nature. It is a crisis created by the acts of a capitalist class in full pursuit of maximum profits. Part and parcel is a renewed crisis of inequality and discrimination against the racially and nationally oppressed. Inequality and discrimination are not the ‘natural’ by-product of a sinking economy not at all. Inequality and discrimination are the result of actions by the capitalist class. The Trent Lott incident was not just one idiots nostalgia for the good old days of segregation it was a truthful moment that exposed the true nature of the hard right’s program. Trent Lott isn’t the leader in attacking affirmative action. Dismantling affirmative actions is the official program of the Bush administration.

It is Bush policies that have widened the wage gap between Black, Brown and white workers, and between men and women. Take a look at Bush’s new proposals for welfare the centerpiece is more mandatory work time. In effect this forces people to work for less than minimum wages and puts welfare recipients into competition with local public workers. These are often union jobs. These are clear racist policies that drive down all wages and further open up the wage gap.

This economic crisis, especially as it affects manufacturing industries, once again aggravates the last hired, first fired syndrome. Plus the special attacks on public workers has a sharp racist edge that will discriminate against Black, Latino and other oppressed people and women.

So far this report has been an estimate of where things are at with labor and some of the challenges ahead. Though long it is not complete, nor rounded enough and that is one of the reasons we have meetings like this so the discussion can round out our estimates. But if that were all we did then we wouldn’t be getting very far. We have to also take a look at what we can do. What is our role and how can we leave here with some agreement on direction and even concrete action.

What now?

What we can do, a direction to our labor work, might first begin with an estimate of our strengths and weaknesses in labor. Briefly and simply put, we are too few. We are especially too few on the shop floor and in the workplace.

While we haven’t had a membership registration since the convention, we still can have a pretty good estimate of our strength in the workplace. Retirees make up a fairly large section of our trade unionists. This is a real strength. Our trade union retirees are among the most active people in the party. They can and do have tremendous influence in union circles. Still they are not in touch with shop workers and workplace sentiment on a daily basis. It is often difficult for them to influence or really know first hand what the rank and file are saying and thinking.

We also have quite a few members who are staff and union organizers. They work long hard hours and make great contributions to the struggles of the working class and labor. We sure could use more members in this category. But again, many in these situations are not in workplace and shop floor trenches. Union staff, in unelected positions, are often limited in how much they can influence policy and rank and file sentiment.

I don’t think it is controversial to say that rank and file union comrades and those elected to union office are best placed for our labor work. These are the comrades who can have the most stable base and influence in labor. Let’s not put too fine a point on it though we need all the labor comrades we can get which gets me to industrial and trade union concentration our most important labor policy.

We need to recruit in the workplace and we really haven’t figured out how to do it yet. We have had this under discussion for a while. We discussed it when we had the National Committee meeting on the clubs last year. But we didn’t follow through enough. This is not a problem for the Labor Commission, though we certainly have a role. Rather it takes a commitment of the whole party that we pursue, at all levels of our work, the ways and means to recruit in the workplace and union halls.

I think Ohio will talk about their worker’s school experience. It’s a good beginning and we need more of them. We also tossed around the idea of worker and trade union discussion groups in Washington state because it was obvious that unionists we talked to wanted more political discussions. I think we have to think through some specific proposals for an industrial concentration component to our recruiting drive and our PWW circulation drive. By the way we really hope some brainstorming and concrete ideas for follow up will come out of this meeting. Recruiting in the workplace is a bottom line issue for us.

Focus

It is my opinion, from a lot of discussion in many of our key districts in the last few years, that most, if not all, of our trade union comrades are deeply dug into struggles on the ground. We have comrades leading bargaining fights, fighting plant closings, fighting on healthcare issues, fighting on pension and retirement issues, developing peace initiatives, involved in labor’s independent political action, leading rank and file formations, working on union committees and in central labor councils. Any fight labor has, if we have comrades there, mostly they are in the thick of it.

In fact some comrades are so deeply involved in their trade union work that they don’t have time for party meetings and party work. We have to look at this phenomenon. I don’t think we can blame the trade union comrades alone. We have to ask: is the party giving them what they need? Do we have the problem of too many trade union comrades in clubs and collectives where their union work is never discussed? Don’t we need more meetings in the party that deal with trade union work i.e.: district labor commissions, district board discussions, trade union or shop clubs? I think that’s part of the problem.

But I’m not sure there are any simple organizational adjustments alone that solve the problem. Instead maybe the problem is also that we (the party as a whole) don’t provide a center of gravity and a clear direction to what we want to accomplish in our trade union work. Maybe it isn’t clear to comrades what the party wants them to do in labor besides just be the best, most effective fighters for the unions that they can be. Of course we want that being the best, most unifying, most effective fighters for the union is the foundation of our work.

Of course we also want to be the best fighters because, as Marx and Engel’s said speaking of Communists, ‘They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.’ In other words we fight these battles because they are the necessary class struggle issues of the day for the survival and gains of the working class.

Our ABC’s tell us that the class struggle can begin and be centered in trade union struggles, but it cannot be won there alone. So maybe, part of what is missing in our trade union work is a sense of direction and coordination of what we are trying to do. Without being sectarian and narrow, we are trying to help move things to a higher level of struggle. We’re not trying to childishly up the ante, or be more radical than anyone else. We are trying to see a bit farther down the road. It ain’t always easy.

To fulfill our role and to provide more of what our trade union comrades need from the party, I think we have to think about how to give more of an overall direction and focus to our work. As a party we have to analyze and assess the movement at any given time and figure out what are the key battles, the key issues, the key ideas that need to be developed and brought forward in the class struggle. And again our estimates have to be grounded in the real world what are workers thinking, what are trade union leaders thinking, what fights are actually taking place.

One of our problems is that there are so many critical issues. We have a broad program of action and struggle. It is comprehensive. But not every part of it is always in the forefront of struggle at any given moment so we have to make judgments on priorities and focus. I don’t think we have done a good job on this.

Before speaking about what some focus for our trade union work might be, I want to say a bit about what focus and priorities are not. Suppose we say, for example, we need to focus on further developing the anti-war sentiment in labor and labor’s ties with the broader peace coalitions. Does that mean dropping other struggles we are involved in? Of course not. Does it mean that other things are not as important? Of course not. What it does mean is that as a whole party and as individual Communist trade unionists we need to take a look at how our day to day work and struggles relate to the fight for peace.

Also there are some key issues and fights that have to be a part of everything we do, no matter our particular focus at a particular time. Thus for example, the fight against racism and for unity and equality is always a principled component of our work. This is also true in trying to develop the anti-war movement in labor. At every turn Communists will consider and develop ways to link equality and unity to all the vital struggles of the day. For us it is an overriding principal.

An example is the Cesar Chavez holiday movement. Chavez is labor’s own. Fighting for his holiday puts labor squarely in the camp of all oppressed workers against racism and for equality and it helps broaden the all people’s coalition. Chavez is labor and his holiday will highlight the role and appreciation of immigrant and Mexican American workers.

I can think of several other immediate and important issues that need attention. Issues that should be worked into all of our focus and priorities.

We need a Solidarity Day style march on Washington this fall 2004 will be the elections and then would probably more difficult. We played a role in helping, with others, to initiate the first Solidarity Day. I think this is one of those issues that can unite all of the focus issues and more. I think part of our brain storming should be how to help get a new solidarity day off the ground.

Another example is the fight for public education. It is critical for the working class. Part of the economic crisis is the assault on our schools and our children. Labor was the backbone of winning public education in this country in the first place and we must defend it now.

Some focus

In preparation for this report the labor commission had some wide ranging discussions in several districts We also had a very successful telephone conference call where a large group of party trade unionists participated. In all of those discussions the question of how to arrive at some issues to prioritize and focus on, came to the fore.

I don’t think focus is choosing from a list of important issues on the basis of an abstract notion of how important an issue is or can become. Take for example organizing the unorganized. A critical issue for labor. Can we, with our limited numbers, and considering where we are deployed in labor, have very much impact on this very critical issue. I don’t think so. Of course we should participate in the discussions, we should develop our thinking, and we should try and influence mass organizing in any way we can. But truthfully we have very little to work with. So a focus on organizing the unorganized would probably be very frustrating and not be of much help to the labor movement. Our arguments here are not going to carry a lot of weight right now, no matter how good they are.

Peace

This is quite different than a focus on building labor for peace. We’ve already spoken about how this issue is sweeping the labor movement. Here, even small as we are, we have great opportunities to influence unions and members. We already have. We have great possibilities to develop labor-peace movement ties by promoting speakers and demonstrations etc. In this case our role can be much greater than our numbers because peace sentiment is growing in unprecedented ways. And because a deep distrust of Bush and the hard right Republicans is sweeping through the working class.

A focus on peace will also open the door to recruiting unionists. War and peace, much like a strike situation, raise fundamental questions in peoples minds and open doors for a different kind of advanced political discussion.

Obviously I think peace should be a main focus of our trade union work right now. We need to think through how we get all of our local unions on record against intervention. How will we help organize labor participation in the critical February 15th demonstrations in New York and San Francisco? How will we bring trade unionists into the broader peace activities?

Healthcare

Another area that demands our focus is healthcare. Everyone we talked to in labor raised healthcare. The healthcare crisis is hitting the working class like a tornado retirees, contracts, families, prescription drugs. It hits with a special racist edge. Many unions, including most industrial unions are on record for some kind of national health care or single payer system. The AFL-CIO in several states is championing a ‘pay to play’ concept in state legislatures that basically makes big business buy into a fund to provide coverage for everyone in the state.

This is a crisis that won’t go away and which the working class and the trade union movement will increasingly act on for survival. We certainly cannot predict the exact form this struggle will take in a bigger picture sense. It may be a campaign for national health care, it could be that the ‘pay to play’ idea will catch on like the living wage campaign did. But we, even with our scattered and small forces can jump into the middle of this struggle with some hope of helping and influencing it’s direction, It is just too overwhelming a crisis for the working class. I would say healthcare today is like the unemployment and social security issues were during the Great Depression.

One last thing on healthcare. We need to get the party on the same page with approach and with estimates of the different movements in healthcare. There are several major coalitions that include labor. We would like to propose that the National Board and the Health commission soon have a meeting leading towards organizing a party wide conference on healthcare issues.

Economic Crisis

We also have to look at how to focus on the economic crisis. It has so many sides to it. The fiscal crisis for the cities and states is going to result in a massive new round of layoffs and a related crisis is services.

Unemployment is already of crisis proportions and getting worse. Bush’s phony stimulus plan and tax cuts are nothing but reverse Robin Hood and will only intensify the crisis. Again there is no precise way to know exactly how this fight will develop. My personal opinion is that unemployment issues will soon break through as the flashpoint but that’s nothing we can decide in advance.

Right now the fight is centered on defeating the Bush ‘tax give away to the rich’ plan. Yesterday, with the full support of the AFL-CIO, the Democrats released a counter tax and stimulus package that includes a $300 rebate for working families and a $40 billion package of aid for local and state governments.

I want to draw everyone’s attention to the AFL-CIO’s economic stimulus plan. It is very comprehensive with many aspects of their earlier ‘Blueprint for America’ economic plan, and is worth studying.

Labor has not yet turned it’s attention to a jobs bill. We have to learn from our past experience great work and effort, even broad outreach doesn’t always guarantee that issues will fly the way we want them to. We did great work on both the Martinez jobs bill and on the Kucinich infrastructure bill. We even garnered great support in parts of the labor movement, but in the end neither bill really won the support of the broader labor movement.

I think we would have to admit, that at least in the beginning, we somewhat missed the importance of the living wage campaigns. They did take off and succeed. Though later we adjusted and did make a contribution. Some living wage ordinances are still being won. But I don’t think that our conclusion should be that we wasted our time or failed in our jobs bill work. We built important and invaluable ties with many in labor. Nor should we conclude that a jobs bill won’t fly now. Times are completely different and we just can’t know what exactly on the economic front will emerge as the key battle.

The current economic crisis, like peace and healthcare, is a storm breaking on the backs of the working class and the people. It must be addressed for our very survival. We have to help find the popular handles that can help move labor and the all people’s coalition into more fightback.

Distrust of Bush is growing. His economic policies are seen as for the rich and the corporations. I think the mood of people and labor is such that quickly a focal point for the economic struggle will emerge maybe, even with our limited forces, we can help shape that struggle. I think we should make the effort.

In conclusion. There are a lot of important issues not dealt with yet here. Issue we have to plan for, and try and find ways to help with, and to take initiatives. Again focus does not mean dropping other struggles or even other initiatives. Building the party, building labor coalition ties, building left-center unity and action, building and strengthening the broader left in labor, and building a much bigger party in the labor movement and in the working class as a whole are indispensable elements of our work and of the class struggle.

Now we come to the most important part of the meeting discussion – rounding out our estimates and thinking through our direction. On this report I want to say, as always, it is only a beginning point for the real work we have to do here today. Your work. But I would like to thank everyone who participated in the collective effort of pulling it together the labor exec, all those who participated in the preparatory meetings, all those who took time to send in written ideas and suggestions.

Anyway some suggestions for the discussion. How do the estimates of the report compare to your experiences and work? What important trends are not discussed or given enough attention in the report? What are the main things we need to take into account in arriving at a direction and focus for our trade union work? How can the labor commission be more helpful to our trade union comrades and to the party’s work as a whole?

Further do you have suggestions or ideas on how to help promote an industrial concentration aspect to our national recruiting drive and PWW fund and circulation drive? How about specific ideas and proposals on how we can help develop the healthcare and economic fightback aspects of our work in labor?

You look around this room at all the active trade unionists and it has to inspire confidence. We are a cross section of the working class and trade union movement Black, Brown and white, native and immigrants, young and old, men and women, skilled and unskilled, elected leaders and rank and file activists. We have great contributions to make in the class struggles ahead and in ending this rotten system that puts profits before people.

So with that I’ll quit Let’s get on with the discussion. Thanks!

PDF version of ‘Labor Today’

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