Black Workers Organizing in the Face of Neoliberalism, Labor Retreat and the Corporatization of Everything

[A Talk by Tim Schermerhorn at the Black Workers Caucus in the Black Workers Track of the 2008 Labor Notes Conference, where a Black Workers Network was formed.]

To have a real chance of making real fightback strategies, we must have at least a fundamental understanding of the forces arrayed against us, and how they operate. An essential component of this process is demystifying words such as neoliberalism. One of the reasons for this encrypted terminology is to send a message to common people, working people, to tell us that we can’t understand the players and plans that affect our lives. They are a large hostile sign on a closed door that says, you can’t even understand the discussion, much less act or organize in your own interest. And while we can’t completely analyze a political or economic ‘school’ in a short discussion, we can distill its fundamentals, and know how it moves.

Neoliberalism can largely be understood through knowing its three major objectives:
  1. Total Free Trade,
    The unrestricted ability to exploit every working class around the globe. For workers this precipitates total insecurity and competition. The advance of this employer objective not only requires the removal of legal and national barriers but also the disintegration of worker solidarity – intra- and internationally and any remnants of a class-wide movement. Worker organizations resistance to a race to the bottom impedes the advance of neoliberalism.

  2. Total Deregulation,
    The complete elimination of legal, government and environmental restrictions on business, as well as any union or working class intervention. Worker organizations, particularly unions, impose regulation on employers. Even a union in surrender imposes restrictions or regulations on an employer. That is what surrender is: regulations on employer actions in return for collaboration. It favors the employer, but it regulates them nevertheless.

  3. Permanent and Advancing Austerity,
    The continual shrinking of the public sector and government spending. The downsizing of government, strangulation of services. A neoliberal economic outlook provides the ideological framework for the war on government, meaning government spending to benefit anyone in the society except business itself. They never fight business-friendly public spending.

The Racist Effects of Neoliberalism

African Americans are disproportionately represented in the public sector, so the advance of neoliberal policies has a racist result in addition to its assault on working class communities. About 80% of African Americans live today essentially where we were slaves and where we went to get jobs, post-chattel slavery – in 14 states stretching across the south from East Texas to the Atlantic, then north; five states in the Midwest; and New York, New Jersey and California. In these parts of this country we dominate the public sector, and in areas of fewer Black people are still disproportionately represented. The collective Black political consciousness has also led to a disproportionately high percentage of Black people in recognized unions and other working class organizations. The general employer offensive and neoliberal policies in particular are disproportionately an attack on the national Black community.

In the face of this employer offensive, there is accelerating labor retreat, and the emergence of a surrender trend in the trade union bureaucracy. The officials of the establishment trade union federations (the AFL-CIO. and Change to Win) have been in retreat for more than a half century. This retreat from the confrontation with the employers has gained momentum in the last 25 years, and accelerated in the last decade. The “some day we will fight an epic battle with our bosses, but right now we must elect someone, find someone to carry our water, and hold some of what has already been won” dominates the official leadership.

This has exacted quite a cost on us. There have been defeats because the official leadership did not organize to win. Labor Notes’s archive is a virtual history of the retreat of the official leadership and some of the rank and file trends that have resisted it. There have been strategic surrenders: Top-down surrenders that have suppressed rank-and-file rebellions to fight the employers and reverse the retreat. Surrender where local regional or international officials settle for a substandard agreement, just as a rank and file job action strike or broad direct action-based contract campaign is winning. A surrender to put the official leadership back in control as a more militant rank and file leadership is emerging.

The most disturbing development is the emergence and bold assertion of a surrender trend. It is not yet the dominant paradigm, and the official union leadership is in debate over it, but it is advancing itself. This surrender trend replaces the “let us retreat until we find someone to carry our water” with “let us carry the employers’ water and they will let us live.” It accepts and advocates the political ideologies of the employer. It assumes that the working class will never defeat the employing class or slow labor’s extinction. It collaborates in the employer offensive. Basing survival on a relationship with employers puts workers and their organizations in competition with each other. The collaboration of unions in surrender is a catalyst for neoliberalism and the corporatization of everything.

Agreements to not fight or file grievances, and putting the unions’ legislative, political or public relations apparatus at the service of employers, in exchange for employers handing them new bargaining units and non-interference are among the markers of surrender. Another is the destruction of democracy within the union. Surrender requires more discipline than retreat, because it is a more acute imposition on workers. The combining of workers into statewide and multi-state mega-locals and the sacrifice of democracy for efficiency are further markers of the internal organization of the surrender trend. It puts rank and file workers less in control of worker organizations.

Another marker of the surrender trend is the simultaneous promotion of “movement” culture and suppression of social movement unionism and isolation from actual social movements. Harmless events and marches that never challenge the employers are abundant, but real challenges violate the discipline of “modern” efficient unions. Black workers bring a social movement input to unionism. Black and other oppressed communities are pressed to exchange power in smaller locals with their own elected officers for appointed officers in organizations too large to exert a social movement character.

While the boldest assertion of the surrender trend is expressed in the SEIU, it is a tendency that is much broader. Markers of the surrender trend, either the internal organization of unions or the external relationship with employers, can be seen in unions in both establishment federations. One of our primary objectives has to be to expose, confront, and oppose the premeditated collaboration with the employers that is the surrender trend in labor.

Our society is dominated by corporations. Corporate brands are on everything, and corporate organization is the operating model for organizations throughout our society. The official leadership of our unions accepts and adopts corporate organization. Some of our unions are as corporate-branded as college bowl games. Beyond the offensiveness of corporate culture, this presents a real political contradiction; social movements cannot be generated through corporate organization. This means that organizing fightback requires we change our unions.

We Must Converge to Fight

All these elements come together for a perfect storm of exploitation, worker and Black oppression, and counter-democracy. People participating in the sessions of this track represent many impressive and meaningful fightback projects, but that is not enough. We all acknowledge we have much organizing to do, but we also have to converge. Establishing our class struggle/social movement trend is not just a process of building but also of cohering its elements, and we have to advance and promote that trend, and build it as a layer of the workers movement.

We in this room and others are critical to establishing the Black workers component of the class struggle trend. This is important for the political coherence of fightback as well as representing a core for a population that is advanced on class issues (the national Black community). We must come together to build and promote coherent working class politics in the Black freedom movement.

Coming together is not just for organizing. We must bring our fragments of knowledge and experience together for a holistic and consistent perspective. We must seek to impact every political, economic and cultural discussion in labor and the society as a whole. Let’s start today.

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