Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
(November 2011). 
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008). 
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
U.S. West Coast Ports

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The Internationalist  
  July 2012  

Victory to the Electrical Workers! No Wisconsins in NYC!



Internationalist and CSEW protesters at July 17 union rally in solidarity with locked-out Con Ed Workers.
(Internationalist photo)

JULY 17 – The lockout of 8,500 workers by the management of the Con Edison utility monopoly is now in its third week. This is a crucial battle for all New York City labor. Management may be using this as a hardball negotiating tactic, but a lockout is always a threat to break the union. Con Ed has assigned 5,000 managers to work as scabs and brought in strikebreakers (“contractors”) from Virginia and elsewhere. The profit-hungry Con Ed bigwigs may think they can imitate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in ripping up labor’s hard-won rights. We need to show them that there will be no Wisconsins in New York.

The New York State AFL-CIO has called a mass solidarity rally for Tuesday, July 17 at Union Square in Manhattan. Supporters of the Internationalist Group, Class Struggle Education Workers and City University Internationalist Clubs have joined picket lines over the past two weeks. We urge working people to come out in the thousands to support the members of Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2: they are fighting for all of us! Every day, unions should bring out their members to make UWUA picket lines so big that no one dares cross. NYC labor needs to hit Con Ed management with a 1-2 punch the bosses will never forget. Mobilize workers’ power to knock out the lockout!

Lockouts have become increasingly common around the United States as employers try to take back union gains won in decades of struggle. Last year, American Crystal Sugar locked out 1,300 workers in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa and replaced them with scabs. In New York City, Sotheby’s locked out several dozen art handlers, but the fight at Con Ed is by far the biggest. This has the makings of a showdown between labor and capital that will reverberate across the country. The bosses figure if they can do it in New York, they can do it anywhere. It’s up to us to show them they can’t. We must defeat the capitalists’ war on the workers.

The cynicism of Con Ed management is boundless. CEO and board chairman Kevin Burke cries poverty while raking in well over $1 million in salary, plus another $15 million+ in benefits, bonuses, stock awards and options. If forced out he gets another $30 million. Other Con Ed execs also pull down multi-million dollar pay, while sticking it to workers who make on the average $27 an hour. The company claims it needs to raise cash by gouging its employees to stay “competitive.” But Con Ed is a cash cow for Wall Street. It made over $1 billion in net profit last year, and a 15% a year return on capital over the last decade and a half!

Con Ed worker sends a message at July 5 rally outside company headquarters.
(Internationalist photo)

Con Ed demanded that the union give it a week’s notice before going on strike because of the disruption it would cause. But when the UWUA bargainers refused, management locked the workers out on the spot! By pushing out its highly skilled workers, the company is literally playing with fire. On July 7, an underground transformer blew, setting a parked SUV aflame as smoke blackened a 15-story building on the Upper East Side. This could easily turn into disaster. In the midst of a blistering heat wave, a serious accident could trigger a blackout such as occurred in 1977 and 2003. (Con Ed has already cut the voltage in poor neighborhoods, not only in Brooklyn and Queens as reported but also in the Bronx and the Lower East Side.)

The central issue is the attempt by the super-profitable company to shove health care costs onto the workers (raising their share of premiums to 40%) and to eliminate the pension plan. The paltry wage “increase” offer of 2.5% a year would barely keep pace with inflation, and additional health care costs would make this a big wage cut. Getting rid of defined-benefit pension plans is the current goal of all major corporations. They want to replace it with a 401-K, which workers could easily forfeit if the stock market tanks like in 2008. And if they are successful at Con Ed, they will surely go after the pensions of city workers next.

See photo story on solidarity with Con Ed Workers at the web site of Class Struggle Education Workers.

The union leadership has been looking to the state Public Utilities Commission and to federal mediation, and to Democratic Party politicians to rein in Con Ed. City Council speaker Christine Quinn called on Con Ed to end the dangerous lockout – but she also wrote to the union echoing management’s demand that workers give a one-week notice before any strike, giving the company and the police time to prepare for strikebreaking. Meanwhile, Democratic governor Cuomo is tight with Con Ed – one of his top advisors is a long-time board member, and the company gave a quarter million dollars to his Committee to Save New York, a slush fund he set up to get business support for going after public workers unions.

Even sectors of the ruling class are unhappy about the Con Ed lockout. The right-wing New York Observer (11 July), representing real estate interests irked by constantly rising rates, slammed “Con Ed’s Con Job.” But  bourgeois politicians will not win this fight for Con Ed workers. A deal that would eliminate the present pension plan for new hires, which is what the company seems to be angling for, would be a threat to all NYC workers. The best way to prevent this is by mobilizing mass pickets that show the power of the workers and their allies. Yet the major unions (TWU, UFT, PSC, DC37) have barely lifted a finger in this fight. Union members must fight to mobilize the ranks in this knock-down, drag-out fight.

The fight at Con Ed is not a local “contract dispute.” It is a key battle against the capitalist assault on the unions, from the elimination of public employees’ bargaining rights in Wisconsin to the attempt to break ILWU longshore workers union jurisdiction on the West Coast. This struggle must be waged politically. Democrats from Barack Obama in the White House to Andrew Cuomo in the State House on down have repeatedly sided with the bosses.

In Wisconsin in February-March of last year, tens of thousands of unionists marched repeatedly against Walker’s union-busting. Thousands occupied the state Capitol for weeks. Labor federations called to support a general strike. Yet at the crucial moment the union tops took fright at the powerful forces they had unleashed, dropped the call for a strike action and threw everything into a drive to recall Walker and Republican legislators and elect Democrats. This June the recall election flopped miserably, and Wisconsin public employees no longer have bargaining rights.

If the unions are to survive to fight and prevail  in the sharpening class struggle it is urgently necessary to break with the Democrats, and with their shill, the “Working Families Party,” and build a revolutionary workers party fighting for a workers government.  

The workers have the power to make Local 1-2’s militant slogan – “If we go out, the lights go out” – a reality. But we have to use that power, or lose it. ■

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