Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Class Politics in the USA - Interview with WSPUS and Union Activist

From the World Socialist Party of the United States MySpace page

The following is an interview conducted in May, 2006 with a WSP member - "W" - who is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the US.

R. What is the condition of the working class today? How do you see the status of people who work for a living?

W. Speaking very generally, in the early 21st Century, it's true that certain luxuries are more easily available: it seems that everybody has television, running water, electricity. Certain consumer goods are very available. Food is also widely accessible in the United States as well, unlike in other parts of the world. In some ways, particularly the American working class is in some respects, I think, sheltered from some of the more horrible aspects of global capitalism.

At the same time, plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that people are working harder and harder, the productivity of the working class continues to rise, measured by the number of goods produced and the value of services rendered, and yet real, monetary income -- the material reward for that work -- has gone down, relative to what is produced. Workers today earn less in real dollars than they did 20-30 years ago. The other thing we have seen happen, particularly in the last 50 years (not that capitalism was ever a stable system for working people anyway), is some economic shifts in North America that have led to now-familiar practices like "downsizing" and the outsourcing of higher paid, higher skilled manufacturing jobs along with a definite rise in low-income service-sector jobs in retail and wholesale. Even in healthcare, for instance, non-professional jobs like certified nursing assistant have grown much faster than registered nurse (which is a skilled, high-paying job).

So there's definitely been a lot of downward pressure on workers, and it's become more difficult, I believe, for workers in this country to organize themselves in a fashion that allows them to effectively change their conditions for the better. Simply put, in the political sphere the choices that most people feel they have are between two political parties that certainly represent the interests of the elite. I guess one could argue that the Democrats are maybe slightly better than the Republicans, but if you look at the Clinton Administration or the Congress, where for many years we had Democratic control of both the House and the Senate, things weren't really better because of that. The same pressures of capitalism came down on people: people worked harder; it became more difficult to make ends meet.

Part of what's happened, too, as a result of this, at least in the political sphere, is that many Americans have become cynical (and very rightfully so) about the political system, because fewer than half of the people in this country who could vote do vote. And then, among the people who do vote, it's very polarized between the two parties, even though the choices aren't all that clear. For instance, in the last election voters had to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry: two elite white men who by and large are going to pursue the same economic policies with the same ramifications for everyday people.

So I think the political system's not a very useful remedy for most people. It's not that we're getting a choice at the ballot box between capitalism and socialism or anything like that -- only between capitalism one way and capitalism a very slightly different way.

R. It's more a matter of philosophy than a real difference.

W. Part of my job has been to meet with a lot of people, talk to a lot of workers, and I've also found that somebody's voting habits don't necessarily translate into any kind of specific class consciousness. I've worked in the so-called "red" states -- such as Ohio, West Virginia and Georgia -- and some of the workers there who on the one hand are probably very conservative socially and still go to church and do things like that, at the same time had a pretty decent understanding of their jobs and the position of their jobs, and were pretty enthusiastic about supporting a union organization. They were trying to do something to positively affect themselves economically; they weren't trying to form a union purely for ideological reasons. They kind of got it economically that this would be a way for them to have more power. So I don't really know that there's that much of a correlation necessarily between whether or not somebody votes Democratic or Republican and the likelihood they'll have good understanding of the way the economic system is working on them (or working down on them).

R. Is it your impression that our fellow members of the working class see beyond the bread and butter stuff, or are they looking right at the immediate gains and not thinking about broader, bigger questions?

W. It depends. One thing to understand in labor and labor organizing: you're dealing with capitalism on a very daily basis. The term "daily struggle" gets tossed around a lot in journals like the Socialist Standard and the World Socialist Review. In the daily struggle you've got to worry about daily things -- how much money do I have to buy food for my family and pay my rent, and that stuff. So a lot of union efforts do go towards trying to remedy economic problems that are immediate. At the same time, I think people are more and more starting to turn around and embrace a progressive outlook. I wouldn't necessarily call it radical -- it's probably a more reformist thing. Although you will meet radical-minded people who do work in the labor movement and who have a better sense of this stuff. Some unions are embracing an agenda that's more social than socialist. People are becoming more conscious of long-term problems like healthcare, and unions are starting to endorse universal coverage and living-wage campaigns that affect workers beyond the ranks of particular unions.

Major unions, too, both inside the AFL-CIO and outside it, have developed a better stance in the debate now going on about immigration. If you go back a while, even Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers was having the union call immigration officials to get illegal immigrants kicked off agricultural fields in California 30 to 40 years ago. The argument would be that the illegal immigrants are destabilizing the work [opportunities for union farm workers], and so the reaction is to get rid of 'em. But I think now, particularly in the Service Employees International Union, there's more of a tendency to embrace workers in spite of their legal status, to recognize that all workers deserve rights and the ability to fight for their rights. We represent a lot of people who work in building services and non-professional lower-income service jobs in healthcare and public services. (Many of these jobs are done by illegal immigrants, who are just as active when it comes to fighting for better wages and benefits.) We shouldn't keep splitting hairs over who's illegal and who isn't, about who gets to take part in the labor movement and who doesn't.

It's good in a way to think beyond that, to realize that capital doesn't have borders, so labor shouldn't have borders either. It doesn't really serve our interests in the long term to take a narrow, jingoistic approach like "Buy American" or "Work American." I think it's probably untenable right now, but it's very exclusive and not very open. If organized labor is in any way going to be part of a socialist movement in the future, then we need to be more open than restrictive about who takes part in it.

R. What would you say is the critical mass there? What do you think it would take in the world of capitalism at large to spark workers to think about either keeping the system or replacing it?

W. I've thought about that a lot, and at the end of all my thinking, I have a pretty ambivalent answer, in that I don't really know. It's hard to tell now because I think we're a long way off from that, practically speaking. I know it's going to take more people. More people are going to have to get organized, with an understanding that they're going to want to change the system. I think, too, in order to build a socialist movement, it can't only be through the ballot box; there has to be a component about work, about being on the job. That's everybody's experience with capitalism in a nutshell -- their experience at work. Of course, in order for anything to be successful, there has to be a real consensus. There has to be a real, conscious majority of people. That's not to say, if 30 percent of the people went out on strike tomorrow that it wouldn't be significant. It would mess things up. Maybe it might get a lot of other people thinking along [socialist lines].

R. So do you think the socialist slogan, "Workers of the world, unite!" might interest people now more than it might have back in the 60s or the 70s?

W. It may or may not; it's hard to gauge. In some ways our general political discourse has moved further away from the concept of workers uniting. On the one hand, you do have groups of working people who realize there are problems that need to be solved: their pay's going down, they can't get the stuff they need, they want to improve healthcare, they want to improve education, they want jobs to be [available], they want to be able to make a living: embracing a more social outlook on things. But on the other hand, you also have strong economic pressures that push people toward the kind of home-owner's politics, for instance, that centers around lower taxes, gated communities, and so on -- basically getting rid of any sort of social contract between human beings. In some ways it's gotten worse.

But the way to get out of this, I think -- and it's true for labor and for the WSP too -- is that we have to do a better job communicating with people and educating them. It's always frustrating. When I'm out organizing, talking to workers at their door, going into their homes and talking to them about forming a union, I can't come out and say, "Well, this is how you ought to think; this is how you ought to feel; you're getting screwed; this is what you're going to do about it." You've got to start planting the seeds; ask questions like, "Are you satisfied with your job right now? Oh, you're not? What would you like to improve?" You know, try to get people in the process of thinking critically, like, "Hey, wait a minute! My life (job) isn't that great, it should be better; what am I going to do to make it better?" [The point is] getting people to think about that. I think maybe basic union members -- people who are active at all -- because they're part of a union, an organization that's trying to fight for economic rights, think about that more than the rest of the population. You're forced to.

R. Would you say that two of the benefits of being in a union are that there's a better chance of becoming a critical thinker, and at the same time getting a sense that by joining with others you can really do something?

W. Yeah, I think there's definitely more potential for that in a union than without one. Not to say that's always how it works out. Plenty of people never seem to be able to connect the dots. I don't know quite why that is. Part of it's the fault of those of us who are left to run things on a day-to-day basis, because we can't communicate with everybody and we don't necessarily communicate effectively. In some cases, there are obviously people who will take more reactionary views on a lot of things.

The part of being in a union is that you should be actively in a position where you're trying to change stuff -- and change it for the better, and do it in an economic way, not just some ideological or rhetorical way. It's like we're going to take an action to increase our pay, or we're going to file a grievance as a group against our boss who's discriminating against one of our co-workers. It's definitely the idea that as individuals we're not that powerful, but if we're in it together and organized as a group, we can accomplish things we can't accomplish as individuals.

And when you're in a union, of course, you pay dues, and that's not just to pay staffers; that's to have resources available. We live in a capitalist system right now, and the bosses and our employers have a lot of money. And the other thing about a union: unlike other social change organizations that exist, there's a more stable base of revenue that you can use to fight back. I know people who work for reformist organizations out there, who are trying to fight for various [pieces of] legislation, and part of the problem non-profit organizations have is, they don't have any money. And when you're fundraising and concerned to make payroll at the end of the month as an organization, when do you actually have the time for any kind of struggle? The thing about unions is, when you have a stable dues base, you can use your power better, I think, than any other organization can.

That said, American unions in particular have to develop a much more critical analysis of the political system and get away from this idea that we have to support the lesser of two evils. Organized labor's been throwing a lot of support behind Democrats who don't give a shit about workers, and who frankly don't give a shit about organized labor either. We have to think, OK, if we can master some power on the job, how can we use that to make better changes on the job -- or to really change society?

R. What sort of role would you say labor organizing plays, in political and economic terms, in the context of the society that we now have?

W. First of all, on the political side of things, organized labor in this country has very roughly 15 million members. That's only about 13 percent of the working population, of people who would otherwise be eligible to form a union, and that's spread out of course among a variety of unions. You've got some relatively large ones, like the National Education Association (the largest union in the country with about 2.7 million members, most of whom are public school teachers -- overwhelmingly they're public school teachers or other school employees).

The union I work for, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has 1.8 million members. It split from the AFL-CIO last summer and is the fastest-growing union in the country. We try to organize public sector workers, like state employees, healthcare workers, human service workers and janitors. Those are the big sectors of the Union; and in any of those sectors, we probably represent only a very small percentage of the overall population. Of course, in New York City we have a critical mass of healthcare workers: hospital and nursing home employees; in states like Massachusetts and Maine, we represent almost all of the state workers. So we do have density in certain areas, but it's not uniform.

A lot of the rhetoric around our leaving the Labor Federation is that it did not use its resources well enough to do a couple of things: one was to hold politicians more accountable -- and that's a pretty convoluted thing. The second point was that the AFL and most of the unions in the AFL were not doing enough to organize workers. And that's by and large true: the overall density of union workers has declined; the sheer number of union workers has declined. Meanwhile, parts of the job market are expanding, some more rapidly than others; and as we know, the capitalist system is not going to pay workers a suitable amount of money on its own. It's not on its own going to give people the tools they need to live.

And so the Change to Win Coalition -- made up of SEIU, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE (which is the Garment and Hotel Workers Union), the Carpenters Union and the Laborers Union -- said, OK, we're going to do something about it; we're going to take the money we would have given to the AFL-CIO (which comes out to like $30 to $60 million) and we're going to spend that money on organizing, and as organizations ourselves we're going to spend more of our own resources on organizing. What that means in SEIU is that the International Union (the U.S. and Canada) spends more than half of the money it gets from affiliates on organizing the workers, and then every local union throughout the country is expected to spend 20 percent of its resources on organizing.

At the same time, just throwing money at something isn't the end-all and be-all: there needs to be a better mobilization, a better communication among members. It's often said the best organizers are members of the union, and I think that's probably true in most cases. There could be a better use of resources and mobilizing with what we already have. It's going to take time, but hopefully the new members who come in through organizing efforts will be able to participate and really make the decisions. I think if the emphasis is on communication and education, and doing things to create power for working people, then that's something I think workers would want to be a part of -- rather than just saying, OK, it's up to the top leaders of the union to make all the decisions.

The other concern that's been put out there by various people is more scary: the Change To Win Coalition is a highly centralized federation that's very top-down. It has to be careful about not becoming undemocratic. SEIU's President, Andy Stern, is the architect of the Change To Win Coalition and kind of a visionary, frankly. He's also been really instrumental in making sure the union is spending its resources on growth and organizing and winning economic power. But at the same time SEIU has also cut deals with various employers. It's good for a union to be able to make demands on an employer and make them change. But [you've got to ask] could we end up cutting deals with employers that maybe don't meet all the concerns of the workers? That can happen, too.

What all this means is that, in certain contexts with certain employers, where we're well organized, our union -- as well as other unions in the same situation -- can be very effective. It still holds true, in 2006, that a unionized worker makes one-third more money than a non-union worker doing the same type of job. It's also true that 90 percent of union workers have access to healthcare plans, while only 60 percent of non-union workers do. A union worker's much more likely to have access to a defined benefit pension than a non-union worker.

So unions, I think, at least in a purely economic sense, do still play an important role for many, many workers out there. The problem is that, without density, how relevant can organizations be that only represent 13 percent of the working class -- not only nationally, but globally as well? SEIU is in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico -- and that's the extent of our real global reach. We started to expand and work with unions in other parts of the world, because, frankly, some of the employers that exist in the United States exist elsewhere, and if we're going to organize in the U.S. or North America, we need to be able to coordinate our efforts with workers in other parts of the world, like in England or Poland or France -- wherever they may be. We've started working with unions in India and Australia now, as well.

R. Do you think that will prosper, as late as it's coming?

W. Well, I want to hope it's not too late to do something. To give up on organized labor as a whole would be to give up on any kind of potential to change anything. As socialists we know that as long as capitalism continues, the pressure to accumulate capital -- to make profits -- necessarily comes at the expense of workers and their families. And as long as there are pressures coming down on workers, some of them are going to fight back. The problem is that, with such low density, it's hard to fight back. Plus, in the U.S., it's become very difficult (not impossible) for workers to form a union in the traditional way that we've had since the 30s: to come together and petition the National Labor Relations Board (I'm talking about the private sector), using the traditional channels of filing a petition for a union election and then being able to hold it together. The National Labor Relations Board is not fair and does not really give both sides [equal time]; for a group of workers to successfully organize a union, they have to be very well organized amongst one another, they have to trust one another, they have to communicate well with one another, and basically they have to be able to hold it together in order to win just the election. And then of course beyond that, they have to be able to hold it together to win the contract or the improvements they want to win: better pay, better benefits, better working conditions -- whatever.

R. So you think organizing globally is the key to the future?

W. I think so. Capital long ago figured out how to go global. You go to any country in the world and you're going to find a lot of the same brands, the same companies, the same employers. I'm not just saying that's true for manufacturing, like Sony TVs made in Malaysia, or whatever. You've also got service-level employers like Aramark, Sodexho, Securitas, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's. They're everywhere. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of healthcare companies -- hospitals -- went global. Capital is global. And when they can, capitalists are always going to look for other parts of the world to do business in, to open up markets, to find cheaper labor forces. When we talk about organizing workers and trying to help workers have the tools to make their lives better, I don't think we can say, morally/ethically speaking, that this is only for people in North America and not for people in other parts of the world. It's like we say in the WSP: you can't have socialism in one country. By the same token, I don't think we can have a viable labor movement that's restricted to only one part of the world.

Even on a practical level, [isolating ourselves] doesn't make sense. I think [organizing on a global scale] is going to be difficult, too, because systems of labor relations are different in other parts of the world. We've got to be careful, if we want a global movement, about what sort of assumptions we bring to the table as Westerners -- even if we think of ourselves as internationalists and globally-minded, fair-minded people. You can't be totally cultural-imperialist on people, either.

R. How is organized labor taking advantage of the Internet?

W. Most unions have Web sites; not to say that there's full potential out there [yet], but it's good, and there has definitely been a real growth of on-line campaigning. That's good because it allows people to take part in campaigns when we're not all physically in the same location. But at the same time, I must say, for organizing purposes, when it comes to organizing workers, the Internet is not anything. At this point, it's just not a replacement for communication between humans. Talking to workers on the phone is OK, but if you're going to organize your union successfully, I still think you need to have workers meeting, planning and agreeing with one another about how they're going to change things. You can't do it over the phone, and you definitely can't do it through email. At some point, even though this is the 21st Century, people still need to come together and communicate with each other if they want to change things.

R. How would you compare the possibilities of organizing the workplace now with, say, 80 or 90 years ago?

W. Prior to the 1930s, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and some level of Federal enforcement under the Roosevelt Administration, it was very difficult, more difficult [than today] for workers to organize unions. If you go back and read, say, histories of the Industrial Workers of the World at that time, or of the Knights of Labor before them in the 1880s, workers in this country or indeed anywhere in the world had no right to collective bargaining; they had no real right to free speech. But workers constantly tried to organize: whether it was the strike in the Lawrence textile mills in 1912 or in Patterson, or the various struggles that miners got into in the east -- West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania -- or out west in Colorado, Montana and those places, railroad employees, loggers in the IWW, and so on.

If you go back 80 or 90 years ago, on the other hand, from what I've read, I think it's safe to say there was probably a higher level of class consciousness among workers; but at the same time the repercussions of trying to form a union were really severe. You had the National Guards show up; you had the Pinkertons and Baldwin-Phelps agents showing up, shooting people and killing them, burning down their houses. Labor leaders like Big Bill Hayward were deported to the Soviet Union. The repercussions for workers were swift and severe from both the government and employers themselves.

Today, [in contrast], as a union organizer, I must say I've never felt threatened personally with violence; bosses and governments today don't fight workers through violent means so much. Although it's different in some cases: if you look at the struggles that farm workers continue getting into, or illegal immigrants who are here, the stakes are a bit higher, and I think there is more violence used against them in the physical sense than there is against your typical hospital employee.

R. Do you think that if workers were to try to regain the position they had going into the second world war, they would stand to face as much violence from the capitalist class as they had before?

W. Potentially, yeah. I don't know that violence is going to be perpetrated in the same way, though; I don't know if we're going to have National Guardsmen with bayonets out there, but the resistance will be stiff. We could have a crackdown on civil liberties; there could be mass lockouts or layoffs or deportation of immigrants. There are all sorts of potential ways to undermine [a movement].

R. The whole union movement could become "terrorists."

W. They (the capitalist class) have lots of legal tricks. As I've already said, it's already difficult to form a union using the National Labor Relations Board system. They could undermine collective bargaining; there are all sorts of things they could try. And if that didn't work, they could bring out the Army again -- that could happen.

R. There is a point of comparison here with what goes on in comparison with the countries of Latin America. If you read through the histories of the 70s and around that period, it sounds very similar to what used to happen to unions in this country. Not quite as bloody and gory, maybe, but…

W. Right. I'll give you an example of today. On a couple of occasions I've met union activists from Colombia, who are actually here being sponsored by American unions as refugees, essentially, because in Colombia right now, rank and file union activists are routinely getting jailed, beaten or killed. So there is a reality in Colombia and certainly in other parts of the world, where workers are fighting for pretty basic economic rights -- the right to be able to congregate and fight for better conditions, however modest or radical their demands may be. The apparatus of the state and of business does come down hard on people. I don't think we American workers generally see that. But at the same time, maybe not physically, there is a certain violence done to somebody when their economic livelihood is taken away from them for trying to improve it, when they get fired from their jobs or whatever. It happens all the time in this country. That's economic warfare against a person.

R. Capital's weak point is the workplace.

W. Absolutely. There is a weakness, if workers take a notion -- I think there's an old Joe Hill quote, something like: we can stop all the machines and make the world stand still. And that's still true. With low density and stuff, [it's true] we're a long way from making that happen. But there are definitely vulnerabilities out there. There's always that potential, and I think what we've got to be working towards (not just in the unions but in the socialist movement, too) is people figuring out how we're going to get people together to use that power that is potentially there to make revolutionary changes, to get rid of this system that creates divisions between people economically and socially, and try to actually build a new society rather than [just keep patching up the old one all the time].


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