By Eve Ottenberg
The business of America is said to be business. But that is not the business of America’s tens of millions of workers. Their business is getting paid fairly and not working 100 hours per week. Their business is having an occasional day off and paid sick leave. Their business is getting treated decently on the job. And when these things don’t happen, the business of the many millions of blue collar and part-time workers is to strike. Lately they’ve done quite a bit of that.
Take Starbucks baristas. They’ve been organizing like mad for months, so much so that management decided to snarl their labor activism by withholding raises from union workers. Starbucks did so illegally, the National Labor Relations Board alleged. “More than 230 locations have voted to join the Starbucks Workers United union since late 2021,” according to the Washington Post August 25. Management struck back. It even fetched its former boss, billionaire Howard “Union Buster” Schultz out of retirement to become interim ceo and chief strategist for the company’s anti-labor counter-assault.
Schultz was the guy who memorably proclaimed back in April that his companies were being “assaulted” by unions. He thus let the management cat out of the bag: oligarchs regard unions as basically criminal enterprises, therefore justifying their scorched earth approach to labor. Fortunately, this view is wildly out of line with most Americans’ sentiments. According to Gallup on August 30, 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest approval rate since 1965. Which just goes to prove my personal conviction that oligarchs are a peculiar, insular bunch, wrapped in their cocoons of excess riches and utterly out of touch with the wisdom and decency of most normal, ordinary people.
Starbucks denied the charges in the NLRB complaint: “We’ve been clear in that we are following NLRB rules when it comes to unilaterally giving benefits,” a company spokesman emailed the Post. Meanwhile the NLRB response delighted union activists, specifically “that a billionaire ceo must apologize to employees for abusing them and violating their rights as well as making them whole,” a lead organizer told the Post.
No question Schultz was caught red-handed. After all, back in May he announced pay raises only for non-union employees. That’s called union busting. Then in August, the raises went into effect. But what else would you expect from a fabulously rich oligarch like Schultz, notable for heading Hillary Clinton’s 2016 list to lead the labor department, if she attained the white house? Just more proof, if it was needed, that the Clintons’ base is the aristocracy and the extremely affluent financial sector – not us proles who traditionally voted Democratic, but now gravitate to third parties and in their absence may not vote at all.
The NLRB “complaint alleges that the company has also withheld faster sick time accrual benefits, career growth opportunities and expanded credit card tips from workers at unionized stores.” Next, Starbucks can either settle or go before an administrative law judge October 25. Apparently, Schultz’s loud-mouthed threats did not impress the NLRB. Nice to see government working for the average citizen for a change.
Starbucks isn’t the only corporation bleeding its workers dry. UPS has that distinction, too, with its recent refusal to install air-conditioning in its delivery trucks, so its drivers won’t, you know, collapse and die of heat stroke, as one did on June 25, during the freak heatwaves that capitalism’s war on the climate has now transformed into the new normal. Instead of air-conditioning, UPS had the gall to install surveillance cameras in their trucks. The company clearly could not care less about the hundreds of its drivers nationally who suffer heat stroke in summer.
This sort of thing exemplifies class war. It’s also a recipe for MORE class war. Labor hasn’t come out in the open with a massive action like a general strike, and so settles in for the long haul, organizing shops in the places it hasn’t touched before. Management fights back by putting out brush fires: it doesn’t make a humongous onslaught on labor as a whole. But make no mistake – that’s where we’re heading. If unions keep racking up wins, management won’t sit on its hands. It has the courts and the congress in its pockets, and there’s only so much defeat American oligarchs will tolerate. How much, you ask? Very little is the answer.
It’s not as if the richest one percent hasn’t already rendered ordinary people’s lives wretched. On September 10, the Economic Collapse blog reported that food banks throughout the U.S. are overwhelmed, as inflation slams people into poverty. “All over the country, middle class Americans are watching their lifestyles be absolutely eviscerated by the cost of living crisis, and an increasing number of them are turning to food banks…Sadly economic conditions have forced dozens of food banks all over the country to either shut down or reduce services.”
Who uses this resource? Desperate people working multiple jobs – you know, the folks whose double and triple employment boosts the rosy “lowest-unemployment-ever” stats. They may have three jobs, and the government may spin that to look great, but they can’t make ends meet. Their pay is miserable and so are their working conditions. So those people who can, strike. Seattle teachers, according to the Washington Post September 16, “called off a week-long strike,” while in Minnesota roughly 15,000 nurses walked out. They want “more flexible schedules and protections against retaliation for reporting instances of understaffing.” In Oregon and Michigan, health care workers “have recently authorized strikes.” The Post cites as the main problem a shortage of workers, which squeezes those actually on the job. But that does not explain the wretchedly low pay that causes people to work multiple jobs.
Meanwhile rail workers were ready to strike in mid-September, because as Labor Notes reported September 1: “On August 16, the Presidential Emergency Board convened by President Biden issued its recommendations for a settlement,” and rail workers were unimpressed. The PEB ignored union “demands on work rules and conditions,” for instance, a sick leave policy. “Rail workers have no sick days.”
How ‘bout them apples? If the engineer driving a freight train came down with covid, he was out of luck. If he wanted a paycheck, he kept working. If he had a coronary, he couldn’t even take an unpaid sick day to see a doctor without losing company “points.” Enough points lost and so was the job. This scandalous situation went on for years. The engineer could have dropped dead as the train sped along the tracks, but hey, those private freight companies like BNSF owned by Berkshire Hathaway, Union Pacific and CSX aren’t in business for charity. On the contrary, over the past three years, five railroad conglomerate ceos raked in over $200 million, while U. S. railroads showered their executives and shareholders with $196 billion in stock buybacks and dividends since 2010.
The strike, Labor Notes reported, could have come September 16. “A national rail shutdown, which has not occurred since the early 1990s, would have a major economic impact.” The strike was averted at the last minute, partly by Biden’s personal intervention, when railway workers got their one paid sick day. How many unpaid sick days they get remains opaque. One union leader, locomotive engineer Ron Kaminkow, called this offer “an insult.” But the rank and file may approve the deal. In any event, they agreed not to strike while the several unions involved vote, regardless of whether they reject this contract.
As Kaminkow told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on the morning of September 15, “I think all of us are now trying to make some sense of what the tentative agreement is.” He cited three main issues for union members: paid sick leave; no penalty “for taking time off work for a medical appointment. And then, last but not least, it sounds like there is going to be some sort of semblance of a schedule. And that probably is the key here, because railroad workers traditionally have not had a schedule. We’re on call, subject to a two-hour call, 24/7…The rank and file will have the last word.”
Years ago, according to Kaminkow, rail workers had some control over their schedule. But “We lost all that. And now it’s lean and mean. They do not want one more worker on the payroll than absolutely necessary…We’ve never had sick time, but until recently it wasn’t really an issue, because the right to work when you wanted to, and not when you didn’t want to, was considered one of the perks and benefits of a railroad job in the operating crafts. That has gone away completely and been replaced by harsh attendance policies.”
Management’s attitude now is “we’re going to cut maintenance, we’re going to cut costs, we’re going to cut staffing and otherwise do whatever we can to pump up the stock price… And one of those ways to do that…is to get more work out of the existing workforce.” And workers don’t like getting the life wrung out of them. “In the old days, railroad workers would advise their children to get jobs on the railroad. That pretty much is a thing of the past.” In fact, according to the Lever September 16, “total rail employment has decreased from over 427,000 in 1983 to less than 200,000 in 2021.”
Kaminkow would not be pinned down on whether members would approve the contract, despite pressure, which at one point he referred to as a “circus.” He cited the union leadership and white house desire for “a victory lap.” Maryland Democratic congressman Steny Hoyer even, quite repulsively, threatened workers with passing legislation to ban them from striking, which, as the Lever notes, could violate international labor law. But despite all this noise, or maybe because of it, Kaminkow said that so far union members haven’t been able even to figure out what’s being offered in the much ballyhooed contract. “I don’t have a clue what the [agreement] says…I can’t even tell you if the agreement says one sick day [is allowed] or three. The language we have seen does not give us a clue.” This does not bode well for averting a strike. If the rank and file does not consider the benefits offered to be transparent, they are not likely to vote for the agreement.
For the Democrats, a rail strike could not come at a worse time, hence some part of Biden’s motivation to get involved in the negotiations. Cynical Republican congressional honchos made clear they would use a strike to beat up the Dems in the midterms. But midterms or no, that’s how they would use any strike. As far as the GOP is concerned, management had the right to cram its lousy deal down the union’s throat, as it originally wanted to, when stubbornly refusing to yield a single paid sick day. To repeat Kaminkow’s criticism, there’s still a lot of hocus pocus about how many, if any, unpaid sick days management will allow. If it turns out those are minimal, the rank and file may walk out. Meanwhile news of this possible strike was music to preppers’ ears, as they already hoard canned and dried foods, in the runup to scarcity and inflation, caused by insane sanctions on shipping Russian energy, food and fertilizer and the Federal Reserve printing billions over decades to prop up the stock market and latterly to send more weapons to the lunatic CIA proxy war in Ukraine.
Overall, government priorities do not include worker pay or working conditions. That is to be expected in an oligarchy such as ours here in the U.S., but so are labor revolts. As the economy crumbles, because it serves only those Ubermenschen known as defense corporations, as the main American export becomes, steadily and more steadily, weapons, since we live under a military industrial corporate dictatorship dependent on bloody foreign wars for its monstruous profits, you should expect that other war to heat up, that other war that never makes headlines in major media, but that profoundly affects all ordinary people – the class war.
Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.