In an atmosphere of growing worker militancy, contracts for hundreds of thousands of municipal workers in New York City are scheduled to expire in the coming months. The bosses – in this case the city government -- and the unions are preparing to impose new belt-tightening concessions on the workforce and to defeat any attempt by the working class to fight back against this new assault to their living and working conditions. Workers need to prepare themselves to confront their enemies on their own terrain, the terrain of the working class struggle.
UNIONS, BOSSES AND THE STATE, THE SAME ENEMY
During the last contracts negotiations, in 1996 the city government, with the help of the unions, imposed draconian austerity measures across the board. Claiming a "budgetary crisis" and threatening "massive lay-offs" if workers didn’t accept concessions, the city forced through a new contract that included a two year salary freeze and numerous give-backs in workers’ benefits. At that time, most workers were outraged by the boss’ merciless proposals. The discontent was so deep that the District Council 37, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – the umbrella organization for most municipal unions - had to resort to rigging the ratification vote in order to ram through the contract. While at almost the same time, the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers(UFT), had to work overtime to sell on a second try a contract that workers had rejected the first time around.
This work by the unions as the right hand man of the bosses is far from being an aberration as some leftists critics of the union bureaucracy would want the workers to believe. On the contrary these actions correspond completely to the true nature of the unions as agents of the capitalist state within the working class. The function of the unions is not to "represent the workers", but rather to police them, defend the boss’ regulations in the work place, and to sabotage and derail the workers struggles against capital.
Today as the expiration of the 1996 contracts nears, management and its unions are again maneuvering to defeat the municipal workers. As if workers had no memory, the same unions –with some new faces it is true -- that negotiated "give backs" contract after contract are currently talking tough. They want workers to believe in their new found "militant unionism," while in reality they are only posturing with the goal of refurbishing their discredited image. To confront the potential upsurge in workers’ struggles in the context of the upcoming contract negotiations, the ruling class has employed a simple strategy: reestablish the credibility of the union apparatus.
This was the underlying objective behind the governmental investigation of the corrupt practices of several highly placed city union bureaucrats and the exposure of the gangster-like actions used by the leadership of the DC 37 to pass the 1996 contracts. In fact the ousting of a few union officials – with nice monetary compensations for its services, on the back of workers needless to say! -- in the aftermath of the investigations allowed the bourgeoisie to get rid of a bunch of bureaucrats who had become a liability, and to bring in new faces to run the union who are more able to play the game of "militant unionism."
On the other hand, as part of this general refurbishment of the municipal union apparatus, during the last year we have seen the development of a "radical unionist" movement. Left union bureaucrats with links to the Association for Union Democracy, a group with social democratic roots, have been pushing for greater "democracy" in the union and a more "radical" leadership. Their message is the tired old tale of the leftists of all stripes – who occupy the extreme left of the political apparatus of the ruling class – which says that what is wrong with the unions is its structure and/or leadership. This is a lie; the reality is that for most of this century unions everywhere, democratic or otherwise, with good or bad leaders, have been a central instrument of capital against the working class.
Currently, with the negotiations for the new contracts about to begin, the city is already threatening a new round of austerity measures in the name of increased productivity and work flexibility. For their part the official union bureaucrats organized in DC 37 and the left wing unionists organized in the so-called ‘Committee for Real Change (CRC) – a group that includes union bureaucrats and leftists like the trotskyists of the International Socialist Organization -- are both working to set the workers up for a new defeat. Recently, the Municipal Labor Committee, a coalition of city labor unions dominated by DC 37, announced a supposed shift from past bargaining tactics. These bureaucrats plan to abandon their previous policy in which the pattern for the new contracts for the various sectors of the municipal workforce was set by the agreement reached in the first contract negotiated.
This time they will use a novel "coordinated bargaining" tactic, in which they will let every union negotiate its own demands, while keeping each other "informed." From the point of view of the working class, what this "new tactic" amounts to is a further division of its already scattered forces in dozens of different contracts and unions that claim to represent them before the city. The newly re-sanitized union leaders propose to elevate what separates workers rather than what they share in common and drown the workers’ militancy in corporatism. What workers really need is to build in struggle a common front with unified demands independent of professional and category divisions. Only such a common front, independent and against the unions can allow them to fight the city bosses successfully.
As far as the CRC and leftist groups are concerned, they are playing the role of loyal critical left - opposition to the official union bureaucrats, posing alternatives that stay completely in the framework of the union strait-jacket. For example, in the case of the transit workers contract negotiation, the League for a Revolutionary Party (LRP), one of the more "radical" trotskyist groups, advocates a "strategy" that calls for workers to struggle under the direction of the unions – a more militant struggle, of course, they would say. This group criticizes both the right and left wings of the transit union bureaucracy for their supposed lack of a "strategy to win a good contract," but at the same time calls for workers to "demand that the leadership take real steps to prepare a strike," thus illustrating well the function of the leftists as a the extreme barrier of capitalism against a genuine workers struggle.
Despite all the maneuvers that the dominant class is currently developing and the bogey man of the state Taylor law –the law that prohibits public sector workers from striking -- the potential for a city wide workers struggle is very real. Armed with the experience of the past struggles of the working class, all the workers and its most militant minorities need to prepare themselves to wage an effective struggle, to challenge the unions control of the struggle by having the workers take control into their own hands and spread the struggle throughout the public sector.