Monday, August 13, 2012

class unity and class division

The Communication Workers of America  represents over 150,000 AT&T workers across the country. However, instead of a single national contract, the union must negotiate about a dozen different ones. There are nine regional bargaining units based on the telephone companies that were unionized before merging into AT&T. On top of that, wireless AT&T workers have their own units. When CWA negotiates these various contracts, they try to stick to a common expiration date to increase their bargaining clout and make a collective strike possible. In theory, no district will sign a new contract until all districts have agreed to a deal. But during the last round of contract talks, three years ago, some CWA districts settled for concessionary contracts without getting the approval of other districts. This year, it appears that the same thing is happening. On July 20, while some AT&T workers in were gearing up for a strike, District 4--based in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan--cut a separate deal with AT&T.

Recently 20,000 AT&T workers in California, Connecticut and Nevada went out on a two-day strike to protest unfair bargaining by AT&T.

The striking members of West Coast-based CWA District 9 and Connecticut-based CWA Local 1298 claim that the company has given them a take-or-leave-it contract with concessions that they simply cannot take. Under AT&T's terms, "a new employee will pay 32 percent of their health care premium costs, plus a deductible of $1,000," says CWA Local 1298 President Bill Henderson. "A new employee making $18 an hour cannot afford that. He would be working to pay for his health care, and our feeling is that’s a bad contract.” The locals are also upset that in May, AT&T began shifting work from business technicians--who make $30-$35 an hour--to apprentice technicians, who make $18-$22 an hour and are easier to fire.

What was shocking was the lack of solidarity from other CWA districts. CWA members at AT&T call centers in District 4 in the Midwest voluntarily took overtime to compensate for the missed work of those on strike. In other CWA bargaining units that have already tentative agreements, there has been little attempt to coordinate solidarity activities with those still out struggling for contracts.

“Here we have a situation where the same union is scabbing on itself,” says Kieran Knutson, a call center worker in Minneapolis and a member of CWA Local 725

“AT&T has a divide and conquer policy. They work one group against the other and that’s not a good thing for a national union,”
says Henderson. “They offered us the same settlements that District 4 agreed to and we said no. Shame on District 4 and those other people who took such a lousy deal because they didn't have to. When they set the bar so low, it just doesn't hurt their members, it hurts all of the union.”

However, Jerry Schaeff, Administrative Director of CWA District 4, says that they were simply looking out for their own members when they took the deal. “The Midwest contract meet the needs of the Midwest workers,” says Schaeff.

If the rank and file of the unions seek success, they must drop their apathy, take an interest in its actions and, above all, elect representatives from their own ranks instead of the bureaucratic officials with their dirty tricks and personal ambitions, who use the unions to crawl further into the graces –and the jobs – of the master class. Only by so selecting men from their own ranks, men who have no "official" interests to support, and over whom the membership have complete control, can the organized workers ever get these problems of organization settled in their own interests, and achieve the unity vital to the successful struggle on the industrial field. They must elect their officials to take orders, not to give them. Organised on that basis, refusing to be tricked and bluffed by promises, and recognizing for themselves the hostility of interests between themselves and their masters.

“The only way to make gains is to have a credible threat of a strike. In order to have a successful strike, you have to unity among the working groups,”
says  Minnesota-based CWA Local 7520 member Kieran Knutson, “I think it’s important that workers stand with folks that are out on strike and that we don't accept these tentative agreements.”

 While union members must understand the strength of unity they must also realise their weakness in the economic field against the power of the employers, then it will turn to the facts of its situation for a solution and find that the way to salvation lies through organisation for control of the political power. Not until that is assured can the workers own the means of life and operate them for their own benefit. When that lesson is learnt the day of socialism will be dawning. The sentiment of solidarity must be embodied in practical organisation based, not upon the mere transient necessity for wage claims, but upon the permanent need of the workers for the abolition of the wages system. To that end the workers must organise as a class, not merely industrially, for the capture of supreme power as represented by the political machine.

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