NEWS & LETTERS, July-August 2005

Workshop Talks

Workers’ lifetime labor stolen again

by Htun Lin

The pensions and health benefits of retirees everywhere are threatened with unilateral cuts imposed by management. This hits workers from the public sector to private industry, like auto and the airlines.

At United, the unions entered into a cooperative arrangement whereby workers were sold employee stock option plans (ESOP) in exchange for deep wage cuts, speed-ups, health and benefit cuts, and other takebacks, in order to help the financially ailing airline. When it no longer served the company's purpose, United dispensed with the ESOP.

When the company later declared bankruptcy, the employee stock options failed. Further, management announced unilaterally it would no longer honor the pension and health benefits of its retirees, and used the bankruptcy judge to throw workers to the mercy of the underfunded Pension Guarantee Board.

When those in the labor movement act as though there is no alternative but to make concessions to capital, there is no end. Capitalists keep coming back for more concessions in all arenas. In California, Schwarzenegger’s forces are pushing their special election on us so they can pass more anti-worker initiatives which they were unable to pass through the legislature. There are measures to attack teachers, nurses, and public service workers—our pay, our pensions, and even our job security. But the most deceptive proposition is one called "Paycheck Protection Initiative." It’s dressed up to look like a proposition to promote union democracy.

This is yet another sinister attempt to bust unions. Its supporters say, who could possibly object to a little more "democracy" in our unions, forcing union bureaucrats to get our individual permission before they spend our hard-earned dollars on political campaigns.

Never mind that company executives don’t need our permission to take back benefits contractually promised to us. Never mind that the initiative process has been appropriated by big money corporations that can afford to buy signatures to put anything they want on the ballot and use their deep pockets to promote it in their corporate-owned media.

When Schwarzenegger repeats that he is cleaning up Sacramento of "special interests," he means to get rid of unions. Schwarzenegger has targeted strong public service unions such as teachers and firefighters, but has singled out the California Nurses Association Teachers and nurses are fighting highly successful campaigns to improve the lives of average workers.

Schwarzenegger borrowed $90 million from public education mandated by a previous initiative, promising to pay it back. Now he refuses to honor that promise, after all his sermons on accountability. Accountability for debt obligations means one thing for the powerful and another for us average folks.

Congress gave companies the right to renege on pension obligations owed to retirees, yet passed a law requiring individuals to fulfill debt repayment before declaring bankruptcy. The number one cause of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. is a personal healthcare crisis. Where is the "paycheck protection" for that?

Some economists worry that Bush’s desire to scale back social security benefits based on income levels will pave the way for the far right to eliminate it altogether as a "welfare" program. Meanwhile big corporations like Wal-Mart and United are shamelessly showered with privileges to promote their welfare. We have the best democracy money can buy. 

We can be assured that the forces of capital will not stop at introducing one legal initiative after another to further erode workers’ rights in this protracted battle. We will begin to see any hope of a real democracy only when we reclaim control of our own labor. We need self-determination in our every day working lives, not just at the polls.

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