(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
July 06 , 2008
US Trade Unions On The Path Of Unity & Struggle
M K Pandhe
THE convention of Service Employees International Union, having a membership of two million in USA, Canada and Puerto Rico held on June 2-4, 2008 in San Juan (Puerto Rico) was attended by more than 1500 delegates. The SEIU invited me to attend the convention. For the first time the CITU was invited to attend a convention by a union in USA. The SEIU representative attended the last conference of CITU held at Bangalore in January 2007.
SEIU opposed the policies of AFL-CIO and adopted a path of struggle against exploitation by the employer. It has built up contacts with several international organisations. Thirty delegates from foreign countries viz. UK, Netherlands, Germany, India, China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Russia, France, Brazil, Ireland and Switzerland attended the convention and expressed solidarity with the struggles of the SEIU.
SEIU officers report to the convention stated, “At a time when CEO pay, corporate profits and productivity are all up, while conditions for most workers are stagnant or in decline, SEIU members have untied, taken action and won improvements that have bucked the trend - victory that shows the kind of world that is within reach for all”.
The report further stated, “In 2005, DEIU joined with the other unions, teamsters UNITE-HERE, food and commercial workers, carpenters, labourers and farm workers - to form change to win, a new federation of unions representing six million workers, together our unions share a common belief that working people can not win a better future without making it the highest priority to unite millions more workers with us, in our core industries in the service economy of the 21st century”.
Regarding the development of international relations the report noted, “We asked our union allies from around the world to work more closely with us and together to learn from one another, and to replace old, outdated, international relationships with real strategies and real unity that can make a real difference”.
Anna Burger, international secretary - treasurer of the union underlined the growing inequality in USA with 472 billionaires cornering huge wealth. Some of the CEOs have been earning salaries equivalent to the wages of 20,000 workers. While some of the MNCs are earning $51,000 profit per hour. During the last ten years average of increase in wages was only two per cent.
In another document “Justice For All-Pass it On” pointing out the weakness of the American Trade Union movement observed, “The percentage of unionisation in the private sector has dropped below eight per cent and two thirds of public employees have no union either. In the health care and property services industries 90 per cent of workers have no union.”
It therefore recommended, “The experience of some of the major industrial, construction and transportation unions are a stark reminder that SEIU cannot expect to win or maintain high union standards for just us, as an island in an increasingly non-union economic sea. While not long ago SEIU was only 8 per cent of American union movement by 2012 we will be 20 per cent if current trends continue and other unions continue to decline”.
The report emphasised the need for democratic functioning of trade unions and pointed out the rights of workers: the right to have opinion heard and respected, the right to be informed of union activity, the right to be educated in union values and union skills, the right to participate in union bargaining efforts and approve union contracts, the responsibility to help build a strong and more effective labour movement and the responsibility to support the organizing of unorganised workers.
Another report of the Community Strength Committee stressed the need for keeping close relationship with the community in the region. It noted, “In our neighborhood and nationwide SEIU is increasingly known as a catalyst for social change. SEIU's relationships with community organisations have grown stronger as a result of our collaboration. As we look to our ambitious agenda for the coming years, it is clear that we need allies now more than ever”.
These documents reflect a new awakening in the trade union movement in USA.
The convention discussed at length the drawbacks of the US health care system. The draft of the resolution noted, “Our nation's health care crisis has touched every kitchen table, every worker, every boardroom and every patient and continuous to grow worse each day.”
It has further pointed out “48 million people in the United States have no health insurance and hundreds of millions are under insured, making it difficult or impossible for them the access to quality health care.”
“20-30 per cent of every dollar spent on health care in US goes to insurance companies for profits and administrative fees rather than to health care providers and institutions that provide health care.”
“Our current system forces many seniors and people with disabilities, who could thrive in their homes and communities, to move into institutions. Many states have significant levels of unmet needs amongst their elderly and physically disabled because of a lack of well-funded accessible and community based care. Up to 30 per cent of seniors have unmet needs.”
SEIU local 1021 in its presentation pointed out, “Whereas health care costs are the number one reason for individual bankruptcy in the United States, in 2006, two million Americans - 74 per cent of whom had health insurance were forced to declare personal bankruptcy because of their medical bills.”
The US Republican candidate for presidential election Senator John Mc Cain shamelessly stated, “I want to keep health-care costs down until I get sick, and then I don't give a goddamn” several delegates while speaking in the convention condemned him and called for strong opposition to his retrograde policies.
The convention demanded that the health care should be made universal and every individual should be ensured full health care from the state. Several delegates while speaking opposed privatisation of the health care system and demanded non-profit national Health Insurance Scheme.
RIGHTS OF IMMIGRANT
The convention discussed at length the problem of immigrant workers. Majority of the delegates attending the convention were immigrant workers and it reflected a remarkable unity at all sections of US workers. The draft of the resolution stated,“As a result of US senate's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform last year, we have seen an alarming increase in local laws that target immigrant workers and their families, along with costly deportation raids that make headlines but do not realistically fix a broken system. Deportation threats without reform have pushed undocumented immigrants further into underground economy, dividing the workforce and driving down wages and benefits for all working people.”
The draft also pointed out “the Bush Administration announced a federal attack on undocumented workers, including new policy on “no match” social security cases.” It further noted, “We will oppose initiatives including guest worker programmers if they do not provide future immigrant workers with a safe, orderly and legal process that includes full protection to US laws and pathway to citizenship.” It was the intention of the US government to provide rules for guest workers depriving them of benefits of the US labour legislation. This was opposed firmly by the convention.
The draft therefore concluded, “We will also work together to discuss the immigrant issues with our diverse membership and promote a common understanding of how our broken immigration system divides workers and benefits unscrupulous employers and how we can build a united movement to overall our immigration system so that it benefits all working people.”
Several speakers narrated their experience how immigrant workers face discrimination in US and how there was urgent need to protect their interests, SEIU local 1021 noted in its presentation. “Guest workers to-day are routinely robbed of their basic rights in a system that has been characterised as “Slavery, plain and simple.” Some have even had to literally escape, having been locked in their trailers and trapped in a mare of hidden fees, in perpetual debt to their contractors”.
A noteworthy feature of the convention was a resolution it passed on war against Iraq. Andy Stern, SEIU president while questioning president Bush's' war in Iraq raised four points:
War involves enormous risks to our families and our communities and must be a last option, not the first.
The goal of our foreign policy must be to promote a safer and more just world, promoting peaceful and multilateral solutions of disputes.
US foreign policy must give high priority to improving the lives of people around the world.
The rights and freedoms our government says it is fighting for abroad must be protected at home.
The draft of the resolution stated, “More than five years later, the invasion of Iraq has proven to be the worst policy disaster of our time. Even by Pentagon's own official figures, 30,000 Americans have been wounded and more than 4000 killed. Iraqi deaths and casualties are hard to document but number in hundreds of thousands.
“The war that has lined the pockets of major corporate campaign contributors has drained the US economy and local communities of resources urgently needed for health care education, housing and other needs.”
The convention demanded withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The delegates wore badges opposing war in Iraq. Several women with tears in their eyes narrated how their family suffered when their dear one's life was lost in Iraq war. The organization, US Labour Against the War was active during the convention and was distributing literature against war in Iraq.
During the convention a meeting of the foreign delegates was held which considered the need for strengthening the co-operation between trade unions of different countries in the struggle against the policies of globalisation.
SEIU convention was a milestone in the recent history of American trade union movement wherein a planned attempt is being made to strengthen the trade union movement by uniting the working class and by giving emphasis on democratic functioning of trade unions which do not get influenced by the employer's machinations.