Leo W. Gerard
By Leo W. Gerard
United Steelworkers International President
The nightmare for far too many is Cyborgs. The public fears HAL, the 2001 Space Odyssey computer that killed astronauts rather than forfeit its objective.
So terrified of the sentient machine, citizens overlook the allegory. The soft-spoken, reasonable-sounding HAL behaves exactly like a greed-driven, multi-national corporation. The corporate mission is profit. With 29 workers massacred in a Massey mine explosion and 11 slain in the BP oil rig explosion in just one month last year, greedy corporations have shown they’re willing to kill rather than forfeit their profit objective.
In America, the UK and Europe, the entities that should be feared — greedy corporations — are pulling politicians’ strings. Reckless speculation by multi-national financial corporations took down the world economy, creating the worst recession since the Great Depression. Governments – in the UK, Europe and America – used worker tax dollars to bail out the banks. Now those big banks are granting outsized bonuses and pay packages to their executives while demanding that governments balance recession-ruined budgets with cuts to social services, education, pay and pensions for government workers and worker’s rights to collectively bargaining for better lives.
Workers, students and pensioners in the UK and Europe have protested these measures for a year, from general strikes in Greece to national strikes in France. In the U.K. students, in the largest numbers since the 1960s, protested education fee increases. Last weekend, the U.K.’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) organized the March for the Alternative in which a quarter million demonstrators walked for five hours in London to protest austerity imposed on workers while corporations get breaks.
The diamond-crusted rich on both sides of the Atlantic have determined that workers and the vulnerable will pay the consequences of the bankster-caused recession. And they’re exploiting the financial crisis to strip workers of collective bargaining rights, preventing them from ever regaining what they’ve lost.
That is what’s going on in Wisconsin — and in a half dozen other American states where right-wing legislatures and governors are passing or pressing for legislation decimating workers’ rights to collectively bargain, even after workers accepted pay cuts to help balance budgets.
The disingenuousness of these right-wing governors in blaming public employees is clear. First of all, many of the state leaders granted huge tax breaks to corporations, lowering the states’ anticipated revenues, then demanded state workers bear the brunt of filling budget deficits.
Second, many of these governors didn’t stop at demanding public workers accept pay cuts. They also insisted on terminating workers’ rights to bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions in the future. In addition, these right-wingers are meddling in the relationship between private sector unions and corporations. They want to forbid private employers from subtracting union dues from paychecks and remitting the money to the union. And they want to pass legislation intended to bankrupt unions and to prevent them from supporting progressive candidates who would treat workers fairly and protect their rights.
This is how it played out in Wisconsin: The governor, right-winger Scott Walker, gave corporations more than $100 million in tax cuts then decreed that public workers, such as teachers, nurses and librarians, take wage and benefit concessions. And Walker threatened to send out the National Guard, a state-run militia despite the name, to quell protests. This raised the specter of the May 4, 1970 massacre at Kent State when Ohio National Guardsmen called out by the governor gunned down unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War.
Contrary to Walker’s expectations, his threat energized opposition. Repeatedly, tens of thousands of workers, students, retirees, environmentalists, religious leaders and children poured into the streets and occupied the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin to protest the right-wingers’ plan.
Walker’s proposal passed in the state Assembly and needed a vote in the state Senate before it could get to his desk for final signature. To prevent a quorum needed to vote on the measure, all 14 Democratic senators left the state. They became known as the “Fab 14” as they remained holed up in hotels in Illinois for weeks, trying to negotiate a less draconian measure with the governor.
Although public opinion polls showed 60 percent of Wisconsin citizens opposed cutting collective bargaining rights, although workers already had accepted the pay reductions Gov. Walker had contended were vital to balance the budget, although protestors occupied the capitol building with a sit-in and sleep-in for weeks, the right wingers devised a scheme, in a secret meeting behind doors locked to the public, to vote without a quorum to deny government workers their collective bargaining rights.
In the midst of the dispute, Gov. Walker revealed his puppet masters – the Koch brothers, owners of the Georgia-Pacific paper company, with plants in the United States and the U.K. While contending he had no time to talk to progressive leaders or union officials about his union-busting legislation, Gov. Walker jumped on the phone for 20 minutes when told the caller was billionaire David Koch. The billionaire was Walker’s second largest campaign contributor; he provided $1 million to a fund to attack Walker’s opponent, and he bankrolls the right-wing’s right-wing, the Tea Party.
Events in some other countries show it doesn’t have to be this way. Brazil just passed a law giving unions a director’s seat on each board of a state-owned company. And in Australia, progressive labor legislation has enabled unions to increase membership by 20 percent in the past two years.
There are some signs of success in U.S. workers’ struggle to stop the corporate-backed right-wing campaigns. A Wisconsin judge has halted implementation of the union-busting measure because the way conservatives passed it appears illegal. And progressives are working to recall – or remove from office – eight right-wing Wisconsin senators who voted against worker rights. They’ve pledged to mount a recall campaign against Gov. Walker as soon as it’s legally possible.
In addition, labor activists and their supports have derailed proposed anti-union legislation in Indiana and Missouri.
That’s an indication of what coordinated coalitions of citizen protesters can do. That’s an indication that organized workers with their allies can take on global capital and win.
The difference between HAL and corporations is that HAL is fictional while greedy multi-national corporations are real threats. In the end, a human defeated HAL. In democracies, workers united with their allies can take on corporations and win as well.
Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama recently appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of the Apollo Alliance, Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute. He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union.