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International Socialist Review Issue 32, NovemberDecember 2003
NEWS & REPORTS
Bolivia: Throwing out a president
By TOM LEWIS
BOLIVIAN PRESIDENT Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada fled La Paz in a helicopter October 17 as hundreds of thousands of Bolivians overran the streets of the capital city demanding his resignation and prosecution. Like so many others of Washingtons fallen henchmen, Sánchez de Losada scrambled aboard an airplane and scurried to a safe haven in the U.S.
The ex-president left behind a country in turmoil where the stakes remain high, not only for Bolivias neoliberal rulers, but also for U.S. imperialism and its effort to impose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The struggle will continue, as opposition forces wait to see if Bolivias new president, former Vice President Carlos Mesa, will put into practice the reforms Sánchez de Losada offered at the last minute in a futile bid to stem the tide of revolt.
In the three weeks of mass protests leading up to the presidents ouster, Bolivian troops killed more than 80 protesters and injured hundreds more. At the heart of the struggle lay the popular rejection of the governments contract with a transnational consortium to export natural gas to the U.S by way of Chile and Mexico. The consortium, Pacific LNG, is comprised of British, Spanish and Argentine corporations. A U.S. company has been awarded the contract to transport Bolivian gas from Chile to Mexico.
The Pacific LNG contract legalizes foreign piracy and pillage of Bolivias most important natural resource. Under its provisions, Bolivia would keep only 18 percent of the $1.5 billion in annual income expected to be generated by gas exports to the United States. Many Bolivian economists believe the percentage should be a standard 50 percent. The gas sold to Pacific LNG, moreover, has been fixed at a price well below current market value. The difference means a loss of additional billions of dollars to Bolivia over the life of the Pacific LNG contract.
It was Sánchez de Losada who, two days before his first presidential term expired on August 6, 1997, signed over ownership of Bolivias hydrocarbons to the transnationals. Ironically, this Octobers explosive protest against gas privatization brought about his political demise less than one year into his second term.
But though gas was the trigger, the revolt has deep roots in the mass poverty faced by the Bolivian workers and peasants, the majority of whom are indigenous Indians. Nearly eight in 10 live in poverty, with many living on only $2 per day, or less. Two decades of neoliberal "shock therapy" has created a massive polarization between the poor, indigenous majority and the small, Spanish-descended elite who were the periods sole beneficiaries. Bolivian peasant coca-growers, whose livelihood depends on the crop, are also angry at U.S.-sponsored efforts to use military force and toxic chemicals to eradicate coca growing.
A tumultuous victory
Demonstrators wrested significant concessions from the besieged president before his ouster. Sánchez de Losada agreed to hold a national referendum by the end of 2003 in which Bolivians could decide whether to re-nationalize the countrys natural gas. He also agreed to modify existing legislation on hydrocarbons and privatization that would make re-nationalization possible. Finally, Sánchez de Losada said yes to establishing a constituent assembly as a regular component of the Bolivian political system.
These gains had been won by October 15. But the protests did not stop. Indignant over the brutal slayings perpetrated by Sánchez de Losadas troops, protesters demanded he step down. As Felipe "El Mallku" Quispe remarked, "Spilt blood is sacred. We will not negotiate with a murderer." Quispe is the leader of the Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB) and has his home base in the altiplano.
On October 16 and 17, wave after wave of indigenous protesters cascaded down into La Paz from El Alto, the poverty-stricken satellite city of La Paz situated higher up in the Andes. Miners from the same region, marching under the banner of the Bolivian Labor Confederation (COB), also advanced on the city. From the south and east came workers, peasants and coca growers, all focused on the same goal: "Goni must go!" ("Goni" is the nickname Sánchez de Losada, a millionaire and former mining magnate, uses for himself; many opponents call him the "Gringo," however, since his long U.S. residence and his U.S. higher education cause him to speak Spanish with an English accent.) By the afternoon of October 17, downtown La Paz was overflowing. The workers neighborhoods of La Paz had emptied onto the streets as well, and all the demonstrators congregated close to the presidential mansion.
As Goni crept away into the night, the COB called a large meeting at which it proposed five demands to be addressed by the new government: abrogation of the law privatizing hydrocarbons; abrogation of the agricultural privatization law; abrogation of Article 55 of Law 21060, which introduced flexible labor into Bolivia; the rebuilding of Bolivian industry and the repudiation of the FTAA; and the prosecution of those responsible for the deaths among the protesters, with the simultaneous cancellation of the states law that criminalizes social protest.
Dynamics of the rebellion
The overthrow of Sánchez de Losada resulted from several ongoing struggles that rapidly coalesced into a mass movement united around a common goal: recovering Bolivian gas.
On September 19, the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gasthe successor to the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life that successfully turned back water privatization in Cochabamba in April 2000called a nationwide protest. More than 150,000 turned out in Bolivias major cities demanding that Sánchez de Losada break the contract with Pacific LNG.
The next day, military police attacked road blockades that had been set up as part of an Aymara indigenous uprising designed to extend a region of de facto autonomy that has existed in the altiplano since the April 2000 "water war." The soldiers claimed to be "rescuing" a group of tourists who could not return to La Paz because of the blockades. But the militarys action resulted in seven deaths and included the killing of an eight-year-old girl. This atrocity led the Coalition in Defense of Gas to announce that it would join forces with the indigenous rebellion. It also prompted the COB to call for a general strike beginning September 29.
The COBs general strike achieved spotty success at first. Evo Morales, leader of both the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) and the coca growers movement, initially held back the bulk of his forces until the second week in order to see how much support the strike would receive. Morales came in second in the last presidential race, only one percentage point behind Sánchez de Lozado. As the strike became increasingly identified with the fight to reclaim natural gas from the transnationals, and as anger grew at the mounting numbers of indigenous protesters gunned down by the military in the altiplano, the cocaleros (coca farmers) joined in. The struggle then quickly generalized throughout Bolivias working class. By October 13, much of the middle class, too, came on board. Not only did the Catholic Church open its doors to middle-class hunger strikers; it also called for Sánchez de Losada to resign.
In the altiplano the main protagonists were the indigenous workers of Quispes CSUTCB and the miners of the COBs regional organization, the Regional Labor Confederation (COR) led by Jaime Solares. In La Paz, the main organizations were the COB, its statewide affiliate (COD-La Paz), the indigenous marchers from El Alto, and a myriad of neighborhood associations. In Cochabamba and the other major cities, the Coalition in Defense of Gas, along with the statewide union confederations and the cocaleros, drove the protests forward. These groups provided an organizational infrastructure in their respective areas but, in the end, they were happily overwhelmed by millions of workers and peasants in motion that assumed responsibility for their own self-organization.
The motor of the October protests has been the issue of Bolivias natural gas. As of this writing, that issue still awaits a definitive resolution. The struggle against neoliberalism in Bolivia still has a long way to go.
Evo Moraless MAS exerted a tremendous amount of pressure between October 15 and 17 to ensure that the outcome of the protests would be a constitutional succession: the resignation of the president followed by the swearing in of the vice president. The MAS, in fact, threw its weight behind the existing party system and a form of the state based on representative democracy. Thus it remained consistent with its position of supporting the government until the 2007 electionsa position it has held since April 2003despite the intensity of its anti-neoliberal program. The MAS also left unclear its view of a time frame in which to hold the constituent assembly.
To the left of the MAS, the Coalition in Defense of Gas is pushing for the constituent assembly to be held in six months. The Gas Coalition also favors a speedy transformation of the political system toward more direct democracy. This means leaving the current political parties out of the constituent assembly. And it means understanding the constituent assembly as a mechanism for creating a new form of state rather than as a means of simply reforming the existing one.
A revolutionary way out of the present crisis would entail a provisional workers government based on the COB that includes elected leaders of the social movements such as Morales, Quispe, and Gas Coalition spokesperson, Oscar Olivera. The mass movement has not taken up this alternative for the present. The "constitutional exit" from the crisis dominates mass consciousness and is likely to do so until the new government, or even the promised constituent assembly, discredits itself.
Two new realities, however, will make their impact felt over the coming weeks and months. The COB has recovered important legitimacy after years of passivity and kowtowing to the political parties. The former COB leadership was driven out at its last national congress in April. The new leadership has now proven itself under fire through its role in the current revolt. According to the progressive news service Econoticiasbolivia, the COB has been "converted into the undisputed head of the popular uprising."
The second reality concerns timing and reformism. If the mass movement and its component struggles relax, momentum will swing back toward the neoliberalizers. A few reforms, possibly including the constituent assembly, will serve principally to buy Bolivas rulers time to regroup. Yet re-nationalizing Bolivias natural resources will strike at the heart of national and global capitalism. The Bolivian ruling class, and U.S. and European imperialism, will seek to defend their right to plunder by any means necessary. It remains an illusion to think that the return of Bolivias wealth to its working majority can take place in any context short of a revolutionary mass movement for socialism.
There are some parallels between Bolivia in 2003 and Argentina in 2001. And if any lessons are to be learned from the truncated Argentine experience, they are these: (1) the importance of unity among the left; (2) the importance of placing the organized urban and rural working class, including the organized unemployed, at the center of the struggle; (3) the importance of workers taking up a wide range of social demandsin this case, the demands of the indigenous groups and the cocaleros; and, finally, the importance of building a conscious movement for socialism, broader than, but also including, explicitly revolutionary parties.
In 2001, neoliberalism suffered a heart attack in Argentina. We can hope that today it lies on its deathbed in Bolivia.
Tom Lewis is on the editorial board of the ISR.
European revolutionary left at the crossroads
The European left today is going through a debate which in some ways parallels the debate here in the U.S. over "lesser-evilism" in the coming elections. In France and Italy, where right-wing governments are headed by Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, respectively, there is strong pressure on the broad left to coalesce around a program of bringing social-democratic (and reformist ex-Stalinist) parties back into office as a way of defeating the right. But the reformist parties in power have been supporters of anti-working class neoliberal reform policies that have slashed social spending and helped dismantle the welfare state.
ANTONIS DAVANELLOS, a leading member of DEA (International Workers Left) in Greece, outlines these debates and the issues involved.
THE RADICAL left in Europe is getting ready for a very important period filled with many crucial political battles and critical electoral contests.
In France, the Chirac-Raffarin center-right government forcefully pushed legislation through parliament over the summer that cut retirement benefits, raised the retirement age and deepened the class bias of the education system, despite fierce labor resistance involving a wave of strikes and mass protests. These struggles pose a key question for the labor movementhow to take on right-wing governments and promote workers interests. They also present us with a good example of how trade-union fights can lead to open political struggle.
In France, there are many on the left who argue that the only way to defeat the right is for workers to vote for the return of the Socialist Party to office. Nevertheless, weve seen a growing number of attacks on the revolutionary left. These attacks have been repeated inside the anti-globalization movement by the most moderate among the leaders of the global justice organizations, ATTAC, on the grounds that their efforts to run candidates to the left of the Socialist Party will split the left-wing vote.
In the last French presidential election, held in the spring of 2002, the Trotskyist organizations, Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) and Lutte Ouvriere (LO), won 10 percent of the vote. This 10 percent could determine the outcome of the next election. The LCR and LO are exploring the possibility of a common ballot for the next regional and European Union elections. But the coalition does not appear very stable. LO remains stuck in a sectarian political line that led it to underestimate the mass demonstrations against the fascist presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and to dismiss the anti-globalization movement as "petty bourgeois" and "reformist." The LCR is an organization that has heavily participated in labor struggles, but is also prominent in the international anti-globalization movement. It would prefer an alliance (with the rank and file of the Communist Party (CP) in France, the Greens and groups of activists, for example) which could open up broader possibilities for rebuilding the left.
The most recent Ramulaud initiative (which brings together dissidents of the CP, radical Greens and independents on the left and owes its name to the café where it was founded) has the potential to become this left coalition. Nevertheless, it remains widely open to the Socialist Party, and for that reason the LCR, for the time being, rightly rejects any closer collaboration.
In addition to being the backbone of popular resistance, the French left has the potential to register itself as a political trend with significant mass influence, even in the elections.
In Italy, the possibility of removing Berlusconi, the right-wing media tycoon who heads up the Forza Italia coalition, is putting pressure on Rifundazione Communista (PRC) to collaborate more closely with the center-left "Olive Tree" coalition. The latter is headed by the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS), a social-democratic party that morphed out of the old Communist Party in 1991, which runs on a program of austerity and fiscal responsibility. The PRC made an impressive turn to the left over the last few years by positioning itself as the party of the movement, in particular providing political support for the anti-globalization movement that burst onto the scene in Genoa and Florence in 2001 and 2002. But its electoral results have not been matched by its growing prestige in the movement.
A PRC united front collaboration with the Olive Tree to oust Berlusconi would be an understandable tactical maneuver. But it would become a problem if the tactical maneuver turned into a political engagementthat is, if the PRC enters an agreement for a governing program with the Olive Tree coalition. If the PRC agrees to form a government with the Olive Treea government which objectively will have to follow a neoliberal directionthen it will have crossed a political line. Such an event would be the end of a round of resistance for the PRC, and would signal a significant retreat for the political left in Italy.
In Spain, there has been an increase in the level of mass struggles. For example, more than one million people around the country protested on February 15 against the invasion of Iraq. However, the small size of the radical left leaves room for stabilizing the right-wing Aznar government and expectations for electoral gains for Spains Socialist Party (PSOE). The PSOE has sunk into a crisis as a result of its promotion of neoliberal policies while in government between 1982 and 1996. But popular anger against the rightwhen there is no viable alternative offered from the leftopens up the possibility that the PSOE might return to power.
Electoral victories for the socialist parties in Europe will not signal a turn at the top toward the lefti.e., a return to traditional social-democratic Keynesian policiesbut the continuation of neoliberalism by different political personnel. It would look more like the switch in power between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S.rather than the victories of the European social-democratic parties in the early 1980s, when the workers celebrated the victories of François Mitterand and Andreas Papandreou in the streets of Paris and Athens.
Similar developments are also taking place in countries where social democracy is already in power and the right is emerging as a threat. In Greece, the reformist government of Costas Simitis is collapsing, having implemented the most capitalist-friendly policies of any Greek political party in the last 20 years. The polls predict a right-wing victory. But this outcome is still in question, because active mass resistance to Simitis policies were registered by the strong labor movement and the left, who have no interest in voting for the right.
After 1989, the Greek Communist Party went into crisis. This resulted in the regroupment of the left, primarily around the anti-globalization movement. The founding of the Greek Social Forum opened up great opportunities for the revolutionary left.
With the parliamentary elections coming up, a section of the ex-Stalinist reformist leftists (the Coalition of the Left) is discussingalong with some revolutionary and centrist organizations, as well as groups and personalities of the movementthe possibility of an electoral alliance under the slogan "No to neoliberal social democracy, no to the right, the solution is the left."
Our organization, the International Workers Left (DEA) participated in these discussions. The chances for an agreement arent great, but the fact that a parliamentary party of the reformist left has been forced into lengthy and painful negotiations with the forces of the radical left is a good example of the opportunities presented to us in the current circumstances.
In Britain, where the most massive movement against the war and Prime Minister Blairs policies took place, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is one of the biggest organizations on the European revolutionary left. One would expect, therefore, that the formation of a broad political current, attempting to offer an alternative solution to the disillusionment of "New Labor," would be most developed in Britain. But the Socialist Alliance, in which the SWP plays a significant role, remains weak, with limited activity. Most likely we should try to find the explanation of that in the tactics of the SWP which organizes its activity through a number of unconnected "united front" organizations (Globalize Resistance, Stop the War Coalition) and limits Socialist Alliance to a purely electoral perspective, without creating the space where the conditions for an overall political resistance could be discussed and take shape.
The revolutionary left in Europe enters a period full of challenges. The most essential features of it are:
c A coordinated ruling-class offensive against the most significant gains of the labor movement (pensions, health care and labor law governing workers rights). The connection with the war is obvious: European capital, aiming to compete effectively against their American friends, have decided on a massive build-up of European military capacity, and they intend to cover the cost through harsh cuts in social spending. The attack is of historical dimensions, and thousands of militants throughout the continent are getting the sense that they will have to put out their best if they are to overcome it.
c The reformist parties are facing one of the most serious crises in their history. This is not only true for the social-democratic parties, now paying the price for the neoliberal policies they implemented when in power. The communist parties suffer both from the collapse of their fortunes after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as well as their subsequent support for neoliberal ("third way") policies adopted in an effort to reinvent themselves. In many countries, this combined crisis has created an unprecedented political vacuum, where there is no political expression for the hopes and demands of the working class and the broader popular masses. For revolutionaries, this void creates opportunities and possibilities, but also dangers. We cannot underestimate the possibilities in the present circumstances that fascism and right-wing nationalist alternatives can also grow.
c The steady growth of the anti-globalization movement continues in the form of large turnouts at demonstrations and a growing youth radicalization. But there is no room for triumphalism or resting on our laurels. The millions of people who took to the streets on February 15, 2003 against the invasion of Iraq did not participate in the battles that followed. Moreover, in no country was there a rapid growth of the revolutionary left coming out of the antiwar and anti-globalization struggles. Those who rushed to draw parallels between the current situation and May 1968 in France, were wrong. The slogan "another world is possible" is wonderful, giving expression an ideological and political counter-attack against the so-called triumph of the free market, and expressing a desire to overcome the capitulation of the left in the 1980s and 1990s. But it is still some distance behind the "one solutionrevolution" slogan of 1968, which sent thousands of young militants to the side of the labor movement, into the ranks of the left and into rebuilding the organizations of the revolutionary left. This is still possible, but is not yet a given.
Under these circumstances, the revolutionary left ought to undertake a double duty. On the one hand, it should accept the challenge to participate and organize a broad current of political resistance to imperialism, neoliberalism and racism. To refuse or underestimate this duty is plain sectarianism. On the other hand, it should not forget for an instant that such a current of anti-capitalist resistance cannot be built unless there exists in its heart a stronger and better organized revolutionary left. The period is full of challenges for us to assume significant political roles. We have to do it, knowing very well that this is not a substitute, but the best way to build truly strong revolutionary organizations.
Employers' offensive: Is the class struggle heating up?
By LEE SUSTAR
AFTER EXTRACTING tens of billions of dollars in labor concessions from unions in the airline, steel and auto industries, Corporate America encountered resistance on the picket line this fall. In September, a strike victory at Yale University was soon followed by an even bigger win on the picket line by 3,400 Chicago sanitation workers. Next came a strike by 70,000 grocery store workers in Southern California, followed a day later by a strike by 2,500 bus mechanics in Los Angeles. Suddenly, strike action was at the center of daily life in the nations second-largest city. Back in Chicago, the 33,000-member teachers union rejected a contract heavily pushed by the leadership, setting the stage for a possible strike. Many of these strikes have highlighted what has become a key issue in most recent labor contract negotiationsemployers attempts to make workers pay dramatically more for health insurance.
Its far too soon to say if these fights represent the beginning of a reversal of labors big retreat in recent years. But the emergence of a more combative mood is unmistakable. With George W. Bush no longer appearing invulnerable, and frustration over the jobless recovery growing, significant groups of workers are finally beginning to push back. At the same time, a handful of top labor leaders are proposing a plan to reverse the long decline in union membership13 percent overall, less than 10 percent in the private sector.
The first question that must be asked is: Can unions recruit new members even as they continue to agree to catastrophic concessions in wages, benefits and working conditions in the name of partnership with employers?
The leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW) apparently believe that they can. In September, UAW officials agreed to a contract covering 307,000 members, in which new hires in the parts companies Delphi (a spin-off of General Motors) and Visteon (formerly part of Ford) will earn between $14 and $16 per hourat least $10 per hour less than current workers. This abandons the unions principle of equal pay for equal work that dates from its founding in the 1930s. The deal also opens the way to massive downsizing thats expected to eliminate 49,000 UAW jobs over the duration of the four-year contract, following a loss of 53,000 union positions during the last four years. This will leave UAW membershipalready less than half of its 1979 peak of 1.5 million workers, not all autoworkersat its lowest level since 1942. The UAW does have a strategy of sorts to rebuild membershipgaining neutrality agreements from employers to organize in exchange for taking concessions and/or improving quality.
Bob King, the UAW vice president for organizing, told reporters that the union had to cooperate with employers to save jobs. "If we want to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S., we cant be fighting management...or well end up seeing more jobs go overseas." In fact, King could find plenty of nonunion auto jobs a days drive south from UAW headquarters in Detroit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 928,000 jobs in the auto industry in 2002, not far below the peak of one million auto jobs in 1979. The problem for the UAW is that unionization in the parts industry has declined from about 50 percent to less than 20 percent over the same period. Since then, the UAW has repeatedly failed to organize nonunion, foreign-owned "transplants" operated in the U.S. by Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes and others. The unions conclusion: Help unionized auto industry companies compete with nonunion ones, even at the cost of driving down wages throughout the industry.
Taking concessions to help management compete was also the unions logic for a concessionary deal at Verizon, a company that made $4.1 billion in profits in 2002 and is hailed as "one of the great cash machines of Corporate America" by BusinessWeek. The two unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workerswhich had won two previous strikesordered members to work nearly a month without an agreement. The final deal preserved job security for current workers but removed it for new hires and increased workers health care paymentswith total savings for the company of $1 billion, according to Verizon Vice Chairman Lawrence Babbio, who told the New York Times: "I have to give the unions credit here that they were willing to step up and reach some compromises to help us improve our competitive position, long before its too late."
Why are workers willing to accept givebacks even at profitable companies? The terrible job market is a major factor. Another is the weakness of the unions. Despite a certain revival in the late 1990shighlighted by the successful 1997 Teamsters strike at United Parcel Serviceunions have yet to recover from the effects of a 25-year employer offensive. George W. Bushs use of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in last years West Coast dockworkers lockout gave added momentum to employers anti-union campaign, much as Ronald Reagans firing of striking air traffic controllers did in the 1980s. Moreover, retirements and job lossesparticularly in manufacturinghave weakened or eliminated the base of the rank-and-file and reform groups organized during the big labor struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. These problems are compounded by the historic weakness of the left in the U.S. labor movementa result of the absence of a social democratic or labor party and the uprooting of the socialists in the unions during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
There are, however, openings for political activity in the unions, as the passage of a series of union resolutions against the war in Iraq has shown. These resolutions serve as an indicator of opposition to the direction of U.S. politicsand the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War, although small, shows the potential for more activity to the left of support for the Democratic Party. But in most unions there remains a big gap between workers oppositional mood and the low level of organization and confidence to challenge the employers.
Nevertheless, unions cant keep surrendering indefinitely without a fight. Consider the Southern California grocery strike. Three highly profitable industry giants are involvedAlbertsons, Safeway and Kroger. Among the companies demands: cuts in health care coverage, a two-tier wage system, an unlimited ability to outsource union work and management discretion over the number of hours worked.
Agreement to such terms could gut union power, so the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union was compelled to fight. The union faces a similar situation at the Tyson meatpacking plant in Jefferson, Wis., where a highly profitable firm wants to cut wages, reduce sick time, health care coverage and pensions for a total of a 33 percent cut in workers compensation at a profitable plant. About 470 workers at the plant walked out in February 2003 in a strike thats won widespread community support, with only a handful of workers crossing picket lines to join scabs. "Were not saying the Jefferson plant is losing money," Tyson company spokesman Ken Kimbro told the New York Times. "Were saying the cost in Jefferson is out of line, and we have to make adjustments."
If the UFCW finds itself on the front lines of labor struggles, it isnt because that union is more progressive and combative than others. In the mid-1980s, the UFCW refused to support the striking meatpackers of Local P-9 in Austin, Minn., at the Hormel company after workers refused to accept top union leaders push for industry-wide concessions. The UFCW urged the labor movement not to support the strike, which went down to defeat as national union officials took control of the local. In the 1990s, the unions two top officers were ousted for corruption.
Nevertheless, a combination of circumstances has forced the UFCW to fight back in Southern Californiathe employers arrogance, workers anger and a grave threat to the union itself. Wal-Mart, the nations largest private employer, has so far defeated the UFCWs efforts to organize its stores. Unionized grocery chains have in turn used Wal-Mart as an excuse to justify their own assault on the union. Faced with a likely confrontation, UFCW officials responded by building a strike fund months before the Southern California contract deadline. The union was already on strike at two Midwestern grocery chains even before the California walkout.
The grocery strikesalong with the mechanics walkout in LAhighlights the need for a generalized strategy for the labor movement. Some union leaders do grasp a need to move in this direction, as seen by labors support for the large and inspirational Immigrant Freedom Ride demonstrations, which culminated in a protest of 100,000 in New York City on October 4. Nevertheless, organized labor continues to outsource all politics to the Democratic Party, tailoring its agenda do suit this or that candidate from the presidency on down. The most striking example of this was the unions decision to pour $5 million into California Gov. Gray Daviss campaign in the recall election. California Federation of Labor President Art Pulaski even declared that the corporate-friendly, budget-slashing Davis was the best governor for workers in a century. And even as the question of the U.S. occupation of Iraq moved into the center of politics, the AFL-CIO executive council declared that it wouldnt take a position on foreign policy issues in the 2004 elections in an all-out effort to get Bush out of office (any Democrat will do).
A handful of activists have decided that this approach is insufficient, and have formulated a strategy for a turnaround. This includes merging unions, restructuring jurisdictions, reducing union services and pouring 77 percent of the budget into organizingleaving funds earmarked for the Democratic Party, untouched.
Known as the New Unity Partnership (NUP), its led by three Ivy League-educated union presidents: Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Bruce Raynor of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), and John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE). These unions are known for their progressive images. HERE played a major role in organizing the Immigrant Freedom Ride. For its part, UNITE has set out a bold strategy to organize Cintas, the nations largest industrial laundry.
The NUP shouldnt be seen as a leftist cabal. Its membership is rounded out by Laborers International Union of North America President Terrence OSullivan, a bridge to more conservative union leaders. An unofficial member is Doug McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, who withdrew his union from the AFL-CIO and allied himself with George W. Bush. Whatever their political differences, NUP leaders are united in seeking a solution to labors problems with a corporate-style restructuring. Politically, the NUP document envisions relationships with Republicans, including Bush adviser Karl Rove.
The formation of NUP may foreshadow a bigger fight over the direction of organized labor. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has announced that he will run for re-election in 2005, reversing an earlier pledge not to do so. The irony is that the NUP is trying to carry out Sweeneys strategy of reviving labor by pushing organizing, only without the façade of workers democracy. Most important, the NUP document lacks a discussion of how concessions undermine the recruitment of new union members. So the question remains: If unions cant defend their current members, how can they organize new ones? Neither the NUP nor Sweeney has an answerand both camps reject the idea of independent political action by labor.
There are no bureaucratic solutions to labors crisis. The battles ahead will be difficult. Nevertheless, recent strikes highlight workers resilience and a willingness to fight even when the odds are long. Success in these fights will do more for organizing new union members than the best schemes of union leaders. Organizing solidarity for these struggles, broadening the political debate in the labor movement and rebuilding the unions on the shop floor are the next steps in rebuilding a fighting labor movementone in which the old union slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all" becomes a rallying cry again.
Lee Sustar is a contributing editor for Socialist Worker newspaper.