May 24, 2012
By Alan Saly
An engaging discussion between labor veterans, Occupy Wall Street activists, and people looking to form and strengthen unions got underway on Wednesday evening in a meeting room at CWA Local 1180 headquarters in Tribeca. The event had the purposeful air of workers making an orderly inventory of the toolbox to figure out just how to tackle the jobs at hand.
Making a solid case why “business” unionism, or the service model – what he called “do it for me” unionism was weak, was Daniel Gross of Brandworkers International, which had just won a major victory in obtaining $6 million in back wages for immigrant workers exploited by the Flaum Appetizing company in Brooklyn. Gross said this about service unionism: “Get me a lawyer, an organizer, a researcher, none of whom work on the job. That maintains stability, but it doesn’t empower the rank and file.” By contrast, the old IWW model, solidarity unionism, “is based on direct action, where workers in the workplace are the primary movers of actions.”
The discussion moved on to talk of general strikes and strike action in general, with Gross making the interesting point that individual workers are not prohibited from striking by New York State’s Taylor Law, although unions are. And individuals can also legally strike in sympathy with another worker in another plant or company. He slammed the grievance procedure which exists in most union contracts as a bureaucratic process that delays results and weakens strength in the workplace. Recalling the strategies of the Industrial Workers of the World, Gross said that in IWW shops – where the employer is not allowed to collect dues to turn over to the union – workers self-enforce non-payment of dues by not allowing co-workers who were not paid up onto the shop floor – and striking if management allows them in.
Also speaking was Attorney Dominick Tuminaro, who has had a long career in worker safety and health in both government and legal practice. He drew the audience’s attention to the victory won last year by TWU Local 100 at the International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations, which declared the Taylor Law a violation of international labor law and called upon New York State to compensate the Union for the penalties levied against is stemming from the 2005 transit strike. “If unions are not willing to call out their governments,” he said, noting that most US unions have remained silent about the ILO decision, “than a movement has to arise to stand up for workers rights as human rights, for freedom of association, freedom to collectively bargain, and freedom to strike.”
Immigration Attorney Sonia Lin brought her insights into immigration law and the complexities of standing up for workers rights by “undocumented” people to the gathering as well. Questions, posed by both men and women in the audience seeking to form their own unions or looking for ideas about how to move forward after ballot victories found thoughtful and incisive responses.
One man who did not have the opportunity to engage in discussion because time had run out asked how to resolve the conflict between Tea Party Republicans, who say that taxpayers shouldn’t have to get themselves further into debt to pay the salaries of unionized government workers, and the workers who serve those same taxpayers and want decent wages and benefits. It turned out that he was speaking from personal experience: his own parents voted for tax cuts that had the effect of cutting their own son’s job.