NOVEMBER 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 11
Jobs, Politics High on Labor Conference Agenda
by Ed Kinchley
As their national leadership voted to endorse Walter Mondale for President, over 300 rank and file and local labor union leaders met in Oakland, California last month to discuss how "to put the movement back into the labor movement."
The conference, entitled "Saving Our Jobs and Working Conditions," brought together activists from 40 unions and community organizations from throughout the West Coast during the weekend of September 30 through October 2.
Keynote speakers were Jane Slaughter, co-editor of Labor Notes and author of Concessions and How to Beat Them, and Don Tormey, International Representative of the United Electrical Workers Union. Slaughter outlined union strategies for "saving jobs at decent wages," noting that too often unions have accepted corporate strategies such as Quality of Work Life programs without critical analysis of their goals. She warned that contract concessions and quality control programs represent a "complete restructuring of the labor-management relationship," and that wage concessions in the past several years - accepted on the premise that lower wages would save jobs - have not stopped plant closures. "Labor has to become political in content," she stressed.
Tormey emphasized the importance of class consciousness. "We are not the middle class, we are the working class, and without us nothing works," he said. Tormey echoed the calls of trade unionists like Tony Mazzochi for a labor party. "The company buys our labor for as cheap as he can get it. .. We must form a political organization or they will no longer pay any more for labor in the United States than in Singapore or Korea."
Mike Johnston, West Coast organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union set the tone for the main session on "Fighting Concessions at the Local Level," stating that labor "needs local struggles to build national battles." All speakers addressed the need for grassroots organizing, democratic leadership reflecting the needs and wishes of the rank and file, and thorough corporate research to prepare to fight concessions. Eric Mann, from Local 645 of the UAW and the Committee to Keep GM Van Nuys Open, explained that "The key to our alliance [in Los Angeles] is between the workers and the Chicano and black community." The alliance is strong enough, Mann said, to "threaten the biggest boycott of GM products if they do close it down."
Workshops were held on a wide range of issues. At one of the most popular workshops, Undocumented and Immigrant Workers, Spanish-speaking organizers presented their strategies for building unity between immigrant and native-born workers.
Participants in the workshop on "Political Approaches to Job Loss" heard presentations on conversion of plants from military to peacetime use, employee ownership schemes, plant closure legislation, and industrial policies. Phil Shapira of the Oakland-based Plant Closures Project urged workers to push for reindustrialization plans that would save the country's declining industries while increasing public intervention in economic planning and worker/community control over the economy. He charged that the reindustrialization plans of Walter Mondale are significantly probusiness, and will offer little or no control to workers and communities.
The final day's agenda began with a lively debate on Local Content Legislation. Louis Quindlen, a laid off worker and former Retraining and Job Developer for UAW Local 76, argued that this legislation, pushed by the UAW (see MM, July 1983), is necessary because of the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in the U.S. when American auto manufacturers close plants and invest abroad. While criticizing the UAW national leadership for focusing solely on foreign imports in their campaigns, Quindlen estimated over a million jobs will be lost if the Big Three automakers' plans for "out-sourcing" - manufacturing auto parts abroad - are permitted to continue unchecked. "The enemy of job loss in this country is GM and Ford and Chrysler, and that is where this battle over auto content is going to be waged," he said.
But Japanese community activist Mickey Imura countered that protectionist legislation is "racist" and that "it's very important that we not zero in on just foreign competition as being the source of all ills" of the U.S. economy.
Ed Kinchley, a hospital worker, is active in Local 400 of the Service Employees International Union in San Francisco.