The Fightback Campaign Stirring Within the Labor Movement

Bill Leumer

Bill Leumer

(Remarks made by Bill Leumer at the Emergency Labor Meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, March 5, 2011.)

Bill Leumer was a member of International Association of Machinists Local 565 for 15 years and President of the local for 10 years. He also was a Teamster for over 15 years, much of that time as a Steward. Bill is one of three Co-Conveners of the Workers Emergency Recovery Campaign. And for the past 2 years he has been a member of the Progressive Tax Committee of the San Francisco Labor Council.

I want to make a specific concrete, practical proposal about what people might consider doing when we leave this meeting. But I want to lay some foundation first to lead up to the proposal.

The Context

There is plenty of wealth in this society to employ everyone, guarantee quality education and health care, allow people to retire in dignity, erase the state deficits, etc. But the problem we confront is that the rich and the corporations are grabbing an increasingly larger share of society’s wealth for themselves. They do this by lobbying to get their taxes lowered and getting businesses deregulated. The gap between the rich and everyone else is greater today than at any other time in U.S. history. There is absolutely no reason why we should accept high unemployment. And there is no reason why we should accept the layoff of public workers or a reduction in their pay, their pensions, or their benefits. The budget deficits plaguing states have nothing to do with public workers. They are caused by these deeper structural inequalities and the recession triggered by Wall Street.

The rich have declared war on the rest of us. We are witnessing historic attacks on unions, public and private workers, public education, and social serves. It is time we acknowledged that there is a war so that we can stand up and demonstrate the power that working people have when we unite.

It is crucial to realize that we have public opinion on our side. There is absolutely no reason why we should make any concessions at the outset. A New York Times/CBS News poll just reported that 60 percent of Americans oppose weakening union bargaining rights and 56 percent oppose public workers making concessions. Public opinion is solidly behind us even though we have just begun to wage a fight. People have been inspired by the mass mobilizations in support of the Wisconsin workers.

And we are already seeing signs of a fight-back campaign stirring within the labor movement. While some union officials in Wisconsin immediately capitulated and agreed to accept wage, benefit and pension cuts, despite the fact that many rank and file union members oppose these concessions, the National Nurses Union recently called for an emergency strategy meeting in Madison, demanding: “No Concessions For Workers!” The massive numbers of people demonstrating in solidarity with the public workers of Wisconsin show that people want to put up a fight.

We should craft our fight-back around the priorities of working people. And we know what they are:

What Working People Want

Where people could only choose one category as their top priority, 40 percent ranked jobs as their highest concern; health care was next with 18 percent; then the federal budget deficit at 14 percent, and finally the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranked at 12 percent. (New York Times/CBS News poll reported in The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2011)

Also, 68 percent said they would oppose making major spending cuts to Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit. 62 percent want an increase in spending on education.

CBS News (April 2009) reported that two-thirds of Americans think the tax code should be changed so that middle-class Americans pay less than they do now while “upper income” people pay more.

The Action Proposal

With all these points in mind, let me propose this action program for consideration:

We mount a campaign and create a groundswell to put pressure on the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to organize massive demonstrations in key major cities across the country in defense of working people. This would include creating union committees in our respective cities that would organize forums and rallies and encourage the passage of resolutions in local unions, central labor councils, and state federations across the country, all calling for these massive demonstrations, which would then raise the following demands:

      No Concessions For Public Workers

Create Millions of Jobs By Taxing Wall Street

No Cuts to Social Security

Medicare For Everyone

Tax The Rich To Fund Public Education and Social Services

Spend Government Money on Human Needs, Not War

Organize the South

By including all these demands, we can create a campaign that unites the majority of both public and private sector workers and in that way guarantee that our demonstrations will be truly massive.

We should keep in mind that it is crucial that the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are on board. They have both the resources and the authority to organize huge demonstrations. And by reaching out to them, we can demonstrate our determination to unite the labor movement around mobilizing huge demonstrations that will place our demands on the government.

The Obstacle

Of course, labor officials have notoriously relied on the politicians, especially the Democrats, in order to get a few crumbs thrown in our direction. But it is becoming increasingly obvious to many in the labor movement that the Democratic Party is controlled by big corporate and Wall Street money and therefore cannot be relied upon to advance the interests of working people. We know that relying on the Democratic Party is a dead-end strategy. Working people are actually worse off today than in the 1970s, thanks to relying on the politicians. In Wisconsin, the Democrats championed concessions for the public workers. The Democrats are part of the problem.

The Solution

But we know that the pressure on the AFL-CIO and Change To Win officials to do something is already intense. Working people are angry. They want to put up a fight. And they are demanding that their unions do something. We are entering a new period of social activism. This type of campaign has the possibility of providing the spark that could lead to a conflagration because we have a vision of how to win. By offering a program around the most pressing needs of both public and private sector workers, we can bring everyone together on the basis of a unity program and build a massive movement.

But we need to be absolutely clear. We must dedicate ourselves to reversing the socially destructive wealth-inequality trends and fight only for gains, not concessions, for working people. To be successful, this movement must inevitably be conducted independently of both major political parties. We must aim at uniting all working people around the demands that are most pressing to them. By relying on ourselves and reaching out to all working people, we can build a massive movement and show people once again the power of a united working class when we act collectively and speak with one voice.

Summing Up Comments After The Discussion

In addition to the actions next week and on April 4, if we can emerge from this meeting with the resolve to pursue an on-going, united campaign around all our most pressing issues — jobs, public sector workers, Social Security, Medicare, etc., where we link the defense of public sector workers with the concerns of all working people — then we will be in the strongest position to unify working people, maximize our strength, rely on ourselves, act collectively, and defend the principle: An injury to one is an injury to all.

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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.