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International Socialist Review Issue 2, Fall 1997


The return of the two-sided class war

The business press was desperate to deny it, but the victorious strike by 185,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents a major milestone for organized labor. For the first time in twenty years, a national strike held the line on concessions and won significant gains.

Stunned by the outpouring of support for the Teamsters–a CNN poll found that 55 percent backed the strike–the employers quickly assigned their spin doctors to do damage control. Typical was Bruce Steinberg, chief economist for the Wall Street firm Merrill Lynch: "I think the strike is probably a public relations victory for the Teamsters," he told the New York Times. Michael Baroody, a senior vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers, which lobbied Clinton to intervene in the strike, added, "I think the UPS-Teamsters situation as an event is an interesting one, but not necessarily precedent-setting for other labor agreements."

Yet, the deal is a crucial precedent because UPS combines the two major employment trends among large companies: With 60 percent part-timers, UPS blazed the trail which has shifted about 25 percent of all employment to part-time and contingent (temporary, contracted, and leased) workers. At the same time, UPS package-car drivers typically work 10- or 12-hour days. This parallels manufacturing, where factory overtime is at its highest since records were first kept in 1956. Such conditions–and a staffing shortage–provoked four strikes by the United Auto Workers at General Motors this year.

Thus, the UPS settlement shook up bosses far beyond UPS executive offices. The 25 percent, five-year raise for full-timers, while not keeping far ahead of inflation, tops almost every other major union contract. And although the 35 percent raise for current part-timers over the same period doesn’t undo the damage of the two-tier pay scale in effect for the last 15 years, it is a reversal of the corporate trend towards cutting part-time pay. The promised 20,000 new full-time jobs for part-timers–half through attrition, half through new positions–will exclude 80 percent of part-timers. But it is a big departure from the downsizing trend of the last several years. Moreover, the Teamsters’ successful defense of union-controlled pension funds contrasts sharply with Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, where the United Steelworkers had to fight a 10-month strike to reverse cuts in pension benefits made a decade ago.

The other precedent of the UPS strike was the display of workers’ power and solidarity. The Independent Pilots Association’s decision to honor picket lines shut down UPS’s most profitable business. If the International Association of Machinists had honored the picket lines of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981, the nation’s airlines would have been grounded. President Ronald Reagan would have been unable to fire the 11,000 traffic controllers–and labor’s worst defeat of the post-World War II period would have been a major victory instead.

After more than a decade of defeats, UPS workers have scored a major victory for all workers. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told the New York Times, "It ends the PATCO syndrome. A 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization is over."

Teamsters President Ron Carey’s stature increased greatly as the press gave credit to the Teamsters’ "media-savvy" operation in leading the strike. In reality, Carey hesitated before the battle. The months-long contract campaign created an image of activism, but there were never any serious preparations for a strike as Carey negotiated through the original contract deadline. But because Carey was facing the possible rerun of the Teamsters election, he needed to shore up his base with UPS workers by delivering a decent contract. UPS’s hard-line stance gave him no choice but to strike.

Since labor leaders had settled for bad contracts to avoid national strikes at General Motors and General Electric over the past year, UPS saw a chance to test to the "new" labor movement. But once the strike began, Carey shifted to the left, becoming steadily more aggressive as he adapted to the workers’ solidarity and mass support for the strike. And the political and economic impact of the strike forced AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to finally make good his promise of a "new" labor movement by providing financial support to the strike. It was an object lesson in the role of the trade union bureaucracy, which vacillates to the left and right depending on the amount of pressure from above and below.

UPS had counted on winning a strike through mass scabbing by part-timers and/or presidential intervention through the anti-union Taft-Hartley act. But even by management’s own estimates, over 90 percent of workers honored picket lines. And the sympathy of millions of workers for the strike and the backing of the AFL-CIO made it politically impossible for Clinton to use his legal authority to end the strike, as he did at American Airlines earlier this year and at Amtrak just days after the UPS settlement. And confrontations between militant workers and police in Somerville, Mass. and Warwick, R.I. made it clear to UPS that an all-out scabbing operation risked provoking mass pickets.

All of this gave the Teamsters tremendous leverage–much of which was wasted. The union could have pressed for three times as many new jobs. There are also backward steps, such as the introduction of sleeper teams for over-the-road "feeder" drivers and greater flexibility for managers in making job assignments. Such setbacks were completely unnecessary. The success of the strike had UPS management reeling.

These weaknesses flow directly from the way in which negotiations and the strike were conducted. Local officials sought to keep picket lines as small and non-confrontational as possible, giving a free pass to management scabs. Indeed, Carey waited a week before telling workers to "dig in." This conservatism courted disaster. Employers like the Detroit News and Free Press, Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone and Staley have broken strikes or lockouts with mass scabbing operations. UPS was different only because management was overconfident and unprepared.

Strike activists who held picket lines together throughout the strike will need to remain organized to keep the company from going back on its promises. This requires organization–and the Teamsters election campaign can provide the basis for such an effort.

The victory at UPS makes it far more likely that Carey will hold on to office in the Teamsters election rerun–if he is allowed to run. While he remains preferable to the "old guard" backers of Jimmy Hoffa Jr., Carey’s top-down leadership of the UPS strike was perfectly in keeping with business unionism.

Keeping pressure on UPS will require an active, organized rank and file to fight over grievances–and that will require changes in the union. Teamsters at UPS and other companies should demand that their locals institute elected shop stewards and contract-negotiating committees, regular union meetings, and votes on contracts before returning to work.

It is here that the relevance of socialist politics in the labor movement becomes clear. Socialists are committed to building shop-floor, rank-and-file organizations that can push the fight forward when union leaders fail to represent workers’ needs. The unrealized potential of the UPS strike points to the necessity of such an approach. What is more, the openness of many UPS workers to socialist politics and the role of socialists in initiating solidarity meetings in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Providence, R.I. marked a modest but important step towards legitimizing the socialist voice in the labor movement still deeply scarred by McCarthyism.

More generally, the massive support for the UPS strike shows that U.S. workers are no different than their brothers and sisters in South Korea or France, who have stood up against the employers’ offensive. After months of mind-numbing media happy talk about the economy, the strike made it clear that exploitation and class struggle are inescapable facts of life in the U.S. And this underscores the urgency of not just building the unions to take advantage of the momentum of the UPS strike, but of putting forward a socialist alternative.

A new mood of resistance

Millions of Venezuelan workers struck in August to demand wage increases and protest increased gas prices in the largest general strike in that country in years. Market reforms and International Monetary Fund austerity measures have driven down Venezuelan workers’ wages by 67 percent since 1979.

The Venezuelan general strike is the latest evidence of the growing mood of resistance to the free-market orthodoxy that dominated the 1980s and 1990s. The resistance, like the market itself, spans the globe. It takes different forms, depending on the national context, but the sense of rejection of the reigning orthodoxy is growing.

"Not long ago I read the results of a poll in which 80 percent of the population said they oppose privatization. People used to applaud privatization...Now that everything is privatized, people are reacting saying that it was no good," said an Argentine activist in the July/August issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.

In Mexico in July, three years of economic crisis led to the election of an opposition Congress for the first time since 1913. The biggest beneficiary of the erosion in support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was the populist Party of the Democratic Revolution–whose leader, Cuahtemoc Cardenas, won the mayoral race for Mexico City.

The Mexican election followed closely the upset election victory of the French Socialist Party. Conservative President Jacques Chirac, hoping to establish a mandate to continue his plans to slash the welfare state, called an election for June, eighteen months before it was required. Chirac expected to win a majority, sliced from the 80 percent of the National Assembly the French right won in 1995.

Chirac’s ploy blew up in his face. Socialist Lionel Jospin, in coalition with Greens and Communists, riding on mass discontent with Chirac’s austerity measures, won the prime ministership away from Chirac’s ally, Alain Juppé. The key to Jospin’s victory was his promise to create 750,000 jobs in a country with 12 percent unemployment.

Only one month before Jospin beat the combined forces of the right, British Labour leader Tony Blair scored the largest victory over a Conservative government since 1832. The Labour victory unleashed a wave of expectation among British workers that they would finally get theirs after almost twenty years of putting up with Thatcher and Major.

Conservatives now govern only two of the thirteen major Western European countries. Many observers predict that the right-wing government of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will go the way of Britain’s and France’s Tories when he calls elections next year.

In some countries, like Britain, no great increase in workers’ struggle has accompanied the massive shift to the left in workers’ consciousness. A recent poll showed that 76 percent of people in Britain believe that "there is a class struggle" and 52 percent say the government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. At some point in the future, the gap between workers’ consciousness and workers’ action will close.

In Italy and France, on the other hand, mass struggle succeeded in shifting the political climate against the right. A 1994 general strike in Italy brought down the government of right-wing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. The French mass strikes in 1995 and 1996 unraveled Chirac’s massive parliamentary majority.

These developments in Europe and Latin America (not to mention Asia and Africa) are the most recent manifestation of the growing polarization between classes in these societies. A widespread mood of resistance to the bosses’ priorities–whether it be the European Monetary Union or free-market reform in Latin America–is developing after two decades in which the bosses have had it mostly their way. The U.S. isn’t exempt from these developments, as the widespread public support for the Teamsters’ strike against UPS showed.

Existing reformist oppositions, like Britain’s Labour Party or France’s Socialists, have served as the main political channels for discontent with the status quo. Yet, for the most part, these oppositions have been timid. Ideologically, they have accepted much of the right wing’s pro-market rhetoric. Politically, they have tended to stake out positions which accept many of the conservatives’ priorities while promising to soften their impact. Economically, they are unlikely to deliver on many of their promises.

These electoral victories are therefore more important as a measure of working-class discontent than a sign that the traditional left parties–who themselves administered austerity in the past and will continue do so now–are suddenly experiencing a permanent revival. What we are likely to see is growing political volatility with wild swings to the left and the right at the level of formal politics. As the political crisis deepens, mass disillusionment in mainstream parties of both the right and the left will produce increasing polarization. This can open up a wider audience to far-right politics such as those of French Nazi Jean-Marie LePen, but it will also–especially as working-class struggle intensifies–open up the possibilities for the rebuilding of a revolutionary left.

In this new climate, the prospects–and responsibilities–for socialists are vast.

Nothing about the current situation guarantees victory–either in the class struggle against the bosses or in the ideological struggle for Marxist ideas. Though highly uneven, class struggle is likely to intensify. In that context, the possibility of reconnecting a new generation of fighters with the genuine socialist tradition exists in country after country in a way that it hasn’t for a generation.

Israel’s Reign of Terror

When "peace" means war

It is hard to find anyone in the Middle East who takes the "peace" process seriously anymore. Following July and August suicide bombings that killed seventeen Israelis in crowded Jerusalem markets, Israel locked down the West Bank and Gaza, suspended its planned handover of West Bank territory to the Palestine National Authority (PNA), and threatened war with the PNA instead. Meanwhile, Israel’s undeclared war against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon continued its upward spiral.

Almost seven in ten Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza favor a return to the intifada-style mass uprising against Israel, and 38 percent favor "armed attacks," according to a recent survey by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies.

The Clinton administration dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in September in hopes of getting the "peace" process "back on track." But the U.S., which supported Israel in every one of its provocations against the Palestinians, shares the blame for the current crisis.

Having stood alone with Israel in vetoing United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem in the spring, the U.S. joined with Israel in calling for Arafat to crack down on "terrorists" after the market bombings.

Of all the major players in the Israel-Palestine conflict, only Arafat seems to cling to the "peace" process. Having offered to play Israel’s gendarme in exchange for a few pieces of land that he nominally controls, he has little choice.

"In essence, the Palestinian leadership is trying to counter Israeli intransigence by proving to the U.S. and the world that it is the party committed to the Oslo process, in the hope that international pressure will be brought to bear on Israel," Louis Andoni wrote in Middle East International in June. "Meanwhile, it will continue to fulfill its obligations to protect ‘Israeli security’ while Israel continues to form the shape of the future final settlement."

Arafat’s acceptance of Oslo and the "peace" process has locked him and the PLO in a vise whose grips Israel turns. To Israel, the PNA is useful only insofar as it represses the Palestinian population effectively enough so that Israel won’t have to bother. Until the recent bombings, Arafat’s bloated security apparatus–as many as 50,000 cops and security officers in an array of different agencies–fulfilled its appointed role.

Under the cover of the "peace" process, Israel–under both "pro-peace" Labor and right-wing Likud governments–has achieved major strategic gains.

Israel has been able to reduce Palestinian workers’ employment in the Israeli economy. Between 1993 and 1996, Israel reduced the number of Palestinians working in Israel from 116,000 to 29,500.

Israel replaced Palestinian workers with Jewish immigrants from Russia, as well as non-Jewish contract workers from Thailand and Romania. The 1992-1996 Labor government’s policy of "separation" of Palestinian workers from Israel has nearly reached fruition under Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud government.

This kind of economic warfare against the Palestinian population is the chief explanation for the drop in living standards among the Palestinian population living in the PNA-administered areas. Since the PNA took over formal rule of six West Bank towns and most of Gaza in 1994, the Palestinians living in those areas have seen their already miserable incomes decline by nearly 40 percent.

What is more, Israel has nearly managed to seal off areas under Palestinian control from any contact with areas under Israeli sovereignty while populating Israeli-held areas with Jewish settlers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forced Arafat to break off negotiations with Israel last March when he announced that Israel would continue to build a massive housing settlement on Palestinian land at Jebel Abu Goneim (known in Israel as Har Homa) in East Jerusalem.

The new construction would complete a wall of settlements cutting off the city’s Palestinian population from connection with the West Bank. In combination with an almost completed network of superhighways connecting the West Bank to Israel, Israeli settlements aim to complete a de facto annexation of the majority of Arab land that Israel occupied in 1967.

All of this has left Palestinians living under the PNA angry and disillusioned with Oslo. Palestinians perceive Arafat and his cronies as repressive, incompetent, and corrupt. The PNA’s elected legislative council agreed, urging Arafat to fire his entire cabinet for corruption in late July. And a small, but growing, minority perceives Arafat as little more than a stooge of the Israelis. Arafat’s recent "embrace" of leaders of the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations was an attempt to repair his standing.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy insisted that Israel "doesn’t want the collapse of the [Palestine National] Authority." But Netanyahu’s threats to invade the PNA seem aimed at preparing the Israeli public for the possibility of reoccupying the PNA’s territory.

If Israel takes this route, it will face a challenge better armed than children throwing stones. And the leaders of the PNA security forces will have to choose whether they will fight a war against Israel or a civil war against Palestinians.

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