Speaker urges labor wake-up call

Jane Slaughter of Detroit, Mich., co-founder of Labor Notes newspaper and former auto worker, was on campus Monday to speak on “Labor in an Age of Corporate Disgrace.”

The avowed socialist focused on what she saw as a lack of energetic activity on behalf of workers by existing labor organizations.

“We need to create some power on the shop floor,” she said. “We need to ask ourselves, can I get four people to go with me to the supervisor and say, ‘this is not right?'”

She saw a small surge of pro-labor energy this year that seemingly lost much of its steam.

“In the year 2002, corporate CEOs were seen as people who cheated the nation,” she said. “But I’m not sure it’s a historic movement. In Europe, governments would be falling, but it’s not happening here.”

She said she and others were hoping corporate scandals would lead to a mass union-organizing campaign. But, she said, it has not materialized.

She complimented the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, for activating a little-known branch known as the office of investment. It helped Enron employees get the pay they were entitled to after the company went under. It also has a program that aims to increase labor’s influence on the membership of corporate boards of directors.

She traced the current lack of energy to a philosophy that has seemed to infect the organized labor movement in recent years.

“The reason labor has not been able to capitalize on the Enron experience is a basic flaw in philosophy,” she said. She blamed the leaders of “big labor.”

“They are militant to get the union,” she said, referring to organizing drives. “Then they want things to settle down. They prefer labor peace.” The philosophy, she said, is that union leaders believe that if the company prospers, the workers will prosper, too.

She gave as an example the drives to organize hospital workers.

“The organizers said hospital workers do not like conflict. Tell the hospital workers conflicts will cease once the union gets in.” She saw that as an ineffective tactic to secure better working conditions for hospital workers.

Too often, she implied, unions send in organizing specialists, and when they succeed in organizing a union, they leave town, leaving the union without vigorous follow-through leadership.

In 1995, she said, it seemed the AFL-CIO was being led by new voices in the labor movement. The successful United Parcel Service strike of 1997 seemed to give credence to this new direction. There was a feeling that this success would make other people want a union.

“But it was not the turning point,” she said. “Leaders of other unions were not ready to take advantage of the opportunity.” It suffered from the widespread attitude of labor leaders that “if we cooperate with our employers, they will prosper and share with us.” She called it the erroneous attitude of the 1950s and saw the new voices movement in labor fading away.

She also criticized what she sees as a current trend for unions to give away something crucial in return for concessions by management. She cited the United Auto Workers and their relationship with a General Motors non-union supplier, Johnson Controls Inc.

In return for Johnson Controls agreeing to allow a union to organize, the company got a no-strike agreement. Very soon, she said, other non-union General Motors suppliers were ready to negotiate similar agreements.

“Labor needs a turning point,” she declared. “Something analogous to what happened in the 1930s.”

She recalled a period when strikes, sit-downs, demonstrations and occupations of facilities forced corporations to make dramatic concessions to organized labor.

Today, many workers, themselves, are apathetic, she said.

“We haven’t had it bad enough to start organizing a union,” is a common attitude, she said. She decried this opinion.

“It’s not true that when things get so bad, you have to fight back,” she said. “You only fight back when you think you have some power, some chance to win.”

She warned that labor today needs to repair its eroded alliances with such organizations as Jobs with Justice.

She recalled the current situation on West Coast docks, where members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) are working by government order under provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act.

“The union doesn’t have a whole lot of strategy,” she said. “They’re waiting until after the election.” She saw this lack of strategy as a critical point for the whole labor movement. The ILWU is accustomed to control of the waterfront and the union sees that eroding away as the employers introduce new technology.

“The ILWU is fighting for workplace power,” she said. “But this can be a turning point for the bad way.” She reminded the ILWU that the flight controllers thought they were impregnable in their demands, until President Ronald Reagan fired them all and hired replacements.

The ILWU, she feels, suffers from another weakness in the perception of activists, since its very function of moving inbound cargo promotes globalization of trade.

Slaughter exhorted her listeners to “Put movement back into the labor movement. Don’t give up, guys. Try to be activists. Maintain the right to dissent.”