Con Edison is a billion dollar power company in New York that is waging war against its workforce. In doing so millions of other people are at risk of facing power outages during a heat wave. In order to force concessions on the union – Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2 — the company has brought in 5,000 managers to do the work of the 8,000 workers. The workers are ‘locked out’ of their jobs until they are forced to make concessions for the sake of the company’s profits. For the union to win — and it can — it must change tactics, and quickly.
A lockout to prevent a strike?
Con Ed placed a message up on its website saying that it was trying to offer the union every chance to keep working while the discussions continue, but because the union leadership would not agree to a 7-day strike notification, Con Ed was forced to lock the workers out.
There are obvious flaws in the Con Ed statement. Why would you lock out a workforce to prevent them from striking if you are truly concerned about service interruptions? The lockout was triggered over disagreements between the union and Con Ed regarding the company’s request for a 7-day strike notification.
This was clearly a weak excuse to cover the fact that Con Ed was preparing a replacement force all along. Con Ed’s messaging was an attempt to garner sympathy from the community so as not to appear like strike breakers. In all actuality, Con Ed went on the offensive, using physical force -the lockout – to demoralize the workforce into accepting the company’s attack on their health care and pensions.
The work that is being done now is by people from the ranks of management with inferior skills who have not had the experience needed to properly run the complex electrical networks. Already there have been reports of supervisor injuries and power outages in the short time that the Con Ed lockout has taken place.
Con Ed has been forced to significantly curtail many of the services it delivers right in the middle of a heat wave that is devastating New York City among other areas along the East Coast.
The heat waves and power outages affect all workers who have a direct stake that this battle is not won by those seeking to profit from something so obviously in the public interest as energy. This is further reason why this struggle cannot be isolated and made to sound like a “typical labor issue.”
Strategy and Tactics
The fact that Con Ed had the gumption to pull off the lockout is another desperate cry for Labor to abandon the treadmill bargaining timelines and more importantly the predictable ineffective tactics permitted by the National Labor Relations Board that seem to have been designed to benefit the employers the most.
Contract bargaining usually has tight rules around when bargaining begins and ends and this has been in place for well over 70 years. Unions have become accustomed to tailoring their bargaining policy around these timelines and tactics. This makes bargaining largely predictable, which mostly benefits the employer.
The union had been telegraphing to the media and through online reports its intent to possibly strike. This tactic was being used during a time in which Con Ed was planning to defeat such a strike. The predictability of the union’s strategy was exploited by Con Ed, which took the bold initiative by locking out the workforce.
The union is now on the defensive; its strategy is limited to calling for federal mediation to end the lockout. This strategy is suicidal for the workers, who are now forced to watch as management is escorted into the building to break their resistance and implement health care reductions and put a 401(k) scheme in place of their defined pensions.
The union’s strategy currently doesn’t rely on the strength of the union membership and puts the union’s fate into the hands of a federal government agency that has proven itself to be as anti-union as its predecessor.
The union instead should mobilize the New York City area Labor Movement and wider community allies to overcome the power exerted by the company.
This can be done by calling on the entire New York Labor Movement – as well as the broader community – to form a mass picket line of thousands to prevent the company’s managers from entering and running the company.
Nothing short of this kind of bold action can overcome the determined strategy of the company; this is a struggle that cannot be won by the workers pleading to the government. The company is forcing the issue to their benefit; only an organized force in the workers direction can overcome this.
By simply making their intentions known that they intend to form a mass picket line, the union would win leverage; the union will have inspired the community by waging a serious fightback against corporate power, while striking fear into the heart of the company.
If different unions and community groups vow to join the mass picket, the company will continue to lose ground. As momentum is built for the action, the company may decide to give in before the mass picketing even comes into existence.
If the company refused to budge in the face of a mass picket, the union could win further community support by relieving fears of service disruption, by demanding to be allowed to run the company during the mass picket to ensure New Yorkers delivery of the full complement of needed electrical services. If the company were to continue to refuse, the workers could use the picket line strength to enter the facilities, with the intention of running the company operations themselves, in the interests of the community.
Such a struggle would obviously bring up discussions about the problems of having giant corporations running energy corporations for profit in the same way that the Enron disaster did where Enron manipulated prices to gouge the public and boost their profits. To this extent the demand would emerge to make Con Ed a public utility so that energy could be run in the public’s interest, not for the profit of the company’s owners.
As of the time of this report, bargaining is set to continue on Thursday, July 5th, which may or may not bring an end to the standoff.
Workers everywhere must learn from the Con Ed struggle and realize that militant, organized force is the only thing to overcome the force of management and the government that represents their interests, the interests of the 1% first and foremost.
As usual the AFL-CIO has abdicated organizing any meaningful solidarity support, as they are too busy immersing themselves in the electoral season. Solidarity statements are meaningless without solidarity actions.
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