. The following article is from Detroit Workers' Voice #44, February 5, 2004. A condensed form
was given by a supporter of the DWV at the February 5 forum of the Million Worker March
organization of Detroit.
. The financial crisis in Detroit presents the working class with a difficult challenge. Employees of the city and the school district are facing mass layoffs. City residents are facing reductions in bus service, school closures, increasing class size for students and a deteriorating school system. City residents also have to deal with slower response to water main breaks, rising water bills and threatened utility shutoffs.
. City and state politicians are squabbling among themselves over who or what is to blame for the crisis. But they all agree that the working class must pay for it through layoffs and cuts in services. The politicians' first priority is to help their capitalist friends ransack the public treasury while the poor and working people suffer.
. How can we force the politicians and their rich friends to recognize our needs as the first priority? Only militant mass action can do this. The talkshop city council cannot do it. A "national conference of cities" cannot do it. Only militant actions that mobilize the power of the working masses can do it.
. But how can we organize this struggle? Reviewing the history of strike struggles in Detroit of
the last ten years gives an important lesson: we can only do it by organizing rank-and-file
workers independently of the reformist trade union officials who are their titular, recognized
leaders. The main AFL-CIO leaders and other class-collaborationist trade union officials who
dominate most unions are an obstacle to the mass struggle and have undermined the fighting
capacity of the unions.
The 1999 teachers strike
. Look at the Detroit teachers strike of 1999. The teachers union leaders opposed the strike and
tried to block a strike vote at union meetings. It was only because activists were organized
independently of the union leaders that they were able to force the union leaders to take a strike
vote. The resulting strike blocked the state-appointed school board from implementing the worst
aspects of their assault on teachers. And the strike stood up to Gov. John Engler's bullying of
public sector workers. Engler had passed a new law calling for severe penalties against public
sector workers who strike, but the strength of the teachers strike prevented Engler from actually
imposing fines on the strikers. This shows that workers' mass action, properly organized, can
obliterate the capitalists' anti-strike laws.
Newspaper workers strike:
AFL-CIO leaders undermine mass pickets
. Or look at the Detroit newspaper workers strike. This strike eventually ended in defeat for the workers. But it didn't have to end that way. Early on the workers set up militant mass picket lines which at times stopped newspaper deliveries. But their union leaders then insisted that workers obey court injunctions which limited picketing to a token, impotent display. Instead they told the workers to put their faith in the National Labor Relations Board and the union leaders' ties to Democratic Party politicians. National leaders of the AFL-CIO like Ron Carey of the Teamsters and Richard Trumka of the Mineworkers visited the picket lines and preached to the workers to have faith in Bill Clinton and his Secretary of Labor, that they would force the newspaper capitalists to bargain fairly.
. But the newspaper companies were not impressed by these appeals to "fairness" and legality. When the companies lost NLRB decisions, they simply ignored them. The companies got local judges and police to back their strikebreaking operations. And as long as newspaper production continued, they were not seriously hurt by the "corporate campaign" and newspaper boycott organized by the trade union leaders.
. Various worker/community strike support committees were organized to try and revive mass
picketing at the newspaper plants. But the activists involved were not able to break the
stranglehold of the trade union officials' legalist ideas. The result was disaster for the strike.
What have the reformist leaders
of the city and school workers unions been up to?
. Now look at the Detroit city and school district workers. These workers have faced a deepening financial crisis over the last few years, as the false sheen of the so-called prosperous 90's has worn off. The workers have tried to mount resistance to cutbacks and layoffs, but they've run into roadblocks from their union leaders.
. About 3,500 city workers are organized into AFSCME locals united under AFSCME Council 25 and its president, Al Garrett. Garrett has a record of opposing union militants who tried to organize resistance to cutbacks. A couple years ago Garrett tried to have the leadership of Local 207 (water and lighting workers) removed from office because they opposed concessions being demanded by Mayor Kilpatrick.
. Another example is the school district's bus drivers organized into Teamsters Local 214. Last year, when school bus drivers organized a picket against layoffs, Teamsters officials tried to sabotage it, telling workers they'd be fired for protesting.
. The teachers union leaders are also trying to cut off resistance to layoffs. A group of teachers
filed an "unfair labor practice" lawsuit against the latest layoffs, charging they violated seniority
rules. But the teachers union refused to support the lawsuit, saying that the layoffs were being
done "properly. " The union also told teachers not to worry, that attrition from early retirements
would take care of the planned cuts in jobs. It never occurs to them to actually oppose the job
cuts! And this was before Superintendent Kenneth "Slash and Burn" Burnley's latest bombshell
about future job cuts and school closings. At the January 19 school board meeting Burnley
announced a five-year plan that would include the closure of up to 100 schools - almost half of
Detroit's schools! Burnley will be gone as superintendent after this year, but his plans may carry
on into the next administration. But instead of organizing opposition to Burnley's plans, the
teachers union leaders are trying to help him locate "alternative cuts".
Help build rank-and-file organization independent
of the class collaborationist union officials!
. This experience shows the need for rank-and-file organization independent of the main trade
union officials. The Million Worker March can play a role in building such organization. We can
establish contacts among rank-and-file workers. We can organize meetings of angry workers and
city residents. We can support workers' actions and garner public support for them. We can
produce literature clarifying the nature of the crisis -- where it comes from, who's to blame, the
class divisions underlying it, and what can be done about it. But this literature must also bring
criticism of the reformist trade union officials to the workers. This will help the workers sweep
aside obstructions to their struggle and help them build new, fighting, mass organizations. If the
Million Worker March organization tells workers the truth about the class-collaborationist union
leaders, it can make a contribution to "mobilizing in our own name". <>
Last modified: February 25, 2005.