Union locals embrace a call for a U.S. general strike

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Public workers are fed up with watching the crucial services they provide slashed to free up money for the war machine. And like everyone else, they are chafing under the relentless pressure of skyrocketing food and fuel prices, job losses, and stagnant wages.

So members in several local unions quickly embraced two resolutions that opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and boldly proposed strike action and pro-labor solutions to the deepening economic crises.

One resolution was written for the national convention of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). It called on AFSCME leaders to organize a nationwide strike to save public services by ending the war and taxing corporations and the rich.

The second resolution was addressed to the annual convention of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC). It called on the two main labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, to launch a nationwide general strike against the war, high oil prices, mortgage foreclosures and evictions, and the lack of affordable healthcare. It also conattacks on immigrant workers.

Four locals sign on. The resolutions were drafted by Freedom Socialist Party activists in AFSCME Local 304, and then circulated to other Local 304 members for input and feedback. The drafts were also discussed and publicized by Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, a Seattle area multi-union caucus.

The resolutions were then presented to the general membership of Local 304 at a June union meeting. Both resolutions met with enthusiasm and passed unanimously. Their next stop was AFSCME Local 843, where they received a round of applause — and approval.

The AFSCME national strike resolution was also adopted by Seattle-area AFSCME Local 341. And in July, the president of AFSCME Local 444 in Oakland, Calif., emailed the message: “I am proud to inform you that our local voted to endorse the AFSCME Local 304 Antiwar Strike Resolution.”

These unions were inspired by recent examples of mass strike action: the May Day 2006 walkout by immigrant workers to oppose racist anti-immigrant legislation; and the May Day 2008 shutdown of all U.S. West Coast ports, led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s no coincidence that the call to action resonated among AFSCME members; most work for state and local governments that face severe budget cuts.

In California alone, a $16 billion shortfall threatens to slash funding for healthcare for the poor and elderly, education, libraries, and parks. Governor Schwarzenegger’s solution is to reduce all state employees to the federal minimum wage!

For these workers it was a no-brainer to demand that the billions of dollars wasted on war and corporate tax breaks go instead to save public services, create jobs to rebuild infrastructure and public housing, and guarantee healthcare for all.

Passionate debate ensues. In late July it was time to take this message to the 6,000 attendees of the national AFSCME convention in San Francisco. Delegates from locals that endorsed the resolution collaborated to garner support.

They leafleted delegates, engaged in conversation and debate, and answered questions. Lively discussion showed that many delegates welcomed the opportunity to consider what labor’s response should be to these hard times, and were open to considering the bold proposal of mobilizing AFSCME’s 1.4 million members in a strike.

But the national AFSCME leadership keeps tight control over conventions, and they were not about to let a call for a militant strategy gain traction. They are far more comfortable lobbying Democratic Party politicians and relying on government-approved methods, like arbitration, to negotiate contracts. Forget this strike stuff!

The resolution was sent for review to a committee that is appointed by the leadership. Committee members seemed to have a cardiac arrest when they read the fifth word of the title, which happened to be “strike.”

They claimed that a strike would be illegal, the membership and public would not support it, etc. Advocates of the resolution countered with examples of successful strikes. AFSCME 304 president Rodolfo Franco pointed to a 2001 statewide AFSCME strike in Washington, and concluded, “If we want to do it, we can do it!” Amen to that!

But national leaders control which resolutions go to the delegate body, and they wouldn’t budge. Despite support from four locals, they never allowed the resolution to even receive consideration. They were roundly criticized from the floor for this undemocratic maneuver.

The following week the general strike resolution stepped into the batter’s circle at the WSLC convention in Vancouver, Wash. Supporters caucused and hit the convention with resolution copies and a cover letter signed by 28 unionists from 18 different WSLC-affiliated unions, both private and public sector.

As in AFSCME, resolutions are reviewed by a committee, and this one sparked an hour-long heated debate. Some committee members tried to stop the resolution, arguing that it should go through delegates’ international unions to the AFL-CIO instead of the state labor council. Sponsors defended their right to seek support in both venues at the same time.

Several backers, including leaders from unions of electrical and longshore workers, further argued that a general strike is what today’s dire situation calls for. A Vietnam vet spoke passionately about the ruined lives of soldiers and tremendous strain to veteran’s hospitals caused by the war.

Several members motivated the need for a serious hearing before the delegate body. Instead, committee members weakened the resolution, calling for a rally in place of a general strike. They sent on the amended resolution to the convention as a whole with a “do pass” recommendation.

Supporters of the strike call quickly drafted up a flyer, calling for return of the original language. In debate, they pointed out that countless rallies have already failed to stop the war, that labor’s survival is on the line. As one delegate summed up, the power of workers is in their ability to “shut down production.” Delegates on both sides of the debate agreed on the need to stop the war, and seriousness of the times.

The weaker version prevailed, with language calling for a nationwide rally. But many delegates took this to mean that labor should spearhead a major demonstration, along the lines of the 1999 protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.

Keep agitating! The government is taking over major lending institutions to avert a collapse of the financial system. Clearly, the times will get even tougher for working people.

The education and the fighting spirit that these resolutions inspired needs to spread in preparation for the day that labor is ready to take decisive action. If the rank and file turn up the heat, leaders can be pushed to act, or to step aside for others with the mettle to match these challenging times.

Published originally in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.