Posted June 24, 2009
Most of the labor news we hear about these days involves rank-and-file struggles with union bureaucrats or with business management, and sometimes both at the same time. But in the era of the taxpayer bail-out of the powerful financial institutions who control the purse strings, unusual tactics are called for. We saw it when Bank of America, the beneficiary of many billions of taxpayer dollars, tried to close down Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. Many unions seem ill-equipped to deal with this new situation; the usual “arrangements” with owner-management’s to bargain contracts that often represent win-win compromises don’t help when the problem is a bank cutting off funding for the payroll.
With grievance processing and closely-held contract bargaining, bureaucrats in most unions try to keep the ranks passive and discourage opposition to their entrenched bureaucracy. The United Electrical workers has been an unusual union since its inception, and remains one of the very few that relies on its rank-and-file, rather than providing “services” to them. The advantages are not always obvious to workers shopping a union, and the large business unions have been successful at organizing large numbers of workers. The UE has been involved with smaller companies and units, and the union itself is one of the smaller national unions. By necessity, the UE relies on militancy and imagination, and this is what is needed in the new situation.
The Quad Cities Die Casting workers in Moline, IL, and owner-management, faced factory closure because of the economic recession. This small company of less than 100 workers remains viable, since the customer base remains essentially intact. The problem is the fewer orders for product during the current downturn. The company needs bridge funding to keep it afloat until orders pick up again or until it can secure a new investor or owner. The US-government’s stimulus plan was intended to provide liquidity with taxpayer bail-outs of the financial sector, allowing banks to continue to provide credit for companies like Quad Cities to survive until the recovery. Besides the losses for Die Casting workers themselves, an economic impact study by the Center for Work and Community Development projected the closure of the plant would result in an additional 69 jobs lost in other area businesses, netting a total loss of 169 jobs and $5.3 million to the community.
Instead, large banks like Wells Fargo – which was the bank funding Quad Cities – saw a sweeter opportunity. Large regional banks like Wachovia in the East were suffering from bad debts, and when the financial crisis unfolded, their stock value plummeted. Wells Fargo saw an opportunity it could not resist and bought Wachovia for a song at the same time it was receiving at least $25 billion in bail-out funds, and presumably more via the AIG rescue and the Federal Reserve (see recent writing by Nomi Prins). The outrage over the bank bail-out has been largely an abstraction, but UE sees the Quad Cities situation as an example of the concrete results of the rip-off of the US Treasury by the private bankers.
The strategy employed at Republic Windows and Doors raised awareness and solidarity throughout segments of the American working class, not to mention a capitulation by the bank. It might work again. Several pickets and rallies were held in the Quad Cities and Chicago areas to raise the stakes for Wells Fargo. And a National Day of Action was planned for June 23. The idea was to make it uncomfortable for Wells Fargo to try to ride out the local noise about the Quad Cities dilemma, and while UE does not have members in every area of the country, one thing UE has is lots of allies.
Over the years organizers at UE have been generous with their limited resources to try to help out friends in the progressive movement “because they do good.” When a call would go out to a local UE president requesting a contribution for an ad in a fundraising program booklet, the response was we’ll send what we can, and don’t worry about the ad. Of course, an ad would be provided for them, despite their generosity. And now it was a time to return the favor to UE. Many Jobs with Justice chapters heard about the struggle because UE organizers had friends and comrades in the network. Despite a very short lead time, plans for rallies and pickets were beginning to take shape in some key cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. And the goodwill reputation of UE organizers over the years resulted in an often spontaneous response to help out even in areas where UE had little or no presence, and notably by comrades in this organization from Boston to Atlanta, Detroit to Portland, and many towns in-between.
The responses on the National Day of Action, albeit hurried and improvised, were intended to tell Wells Fargo-Wachovia that they faced the beginnings of another backlash like Bank of America faced only a few months ago. Management at targeted bank branches were challenged by delegations of UE and Jobs with Justice leaders serving them notice that the bank is in default on the compact with taxpayers to save workers’ jobs, not destroy them. The response has been encouraging most of all because activists were quick to grasp the importance of this struggle and the uniqueness of the moment. The imaginative coupling of the bail-out and the needs of the struggling working class by UE organizers, and the immediate response by activists across the country, shows a renewed commitment to adapt the fight back to new challenges.