This weekend was the first ever New Workers Conference. The University of Michigan-Dearborn has a Center for Labor and Community Studies, and they put on conferences several times a year. These serve as basic labor education and edification. It’s a chance to meet unionists from other locals, other companies, other unions. They’re also a lot of fun. This conference was kind of low-key, but it was a pretty big success and THAT is the important part. A lot of things worth discussing are happening.
Chrysler and GM both got E-TAP reinstated in the 2011 contract. E-TAP is the education benefit, the tuition assistance program for which the Big 3 have been famous. It allowed for rank-and-file union members to take classes. They could get into the skilled trades apprenticeships, they could enroll in business courses, they could put their kids through college, or they could get take classes that looked interesting, learn some things and cultivate a life of the mind, even if they stayed working in the plant. It was a great thing for a working-class intellectual. Of which I find more and more. I met a guy the other day who has degrees in history and anthropology. Has close to 20 years in at Chrysler and works the line. That day passed quickly for me in a meandering conversation about race, class, the East side of Detroit, the history of the auto industry and the best remedies for Swamp-ass. We are, after all, in a plant where the temp climbs to 100+ in the summer. Levity is key to survival. A million conversations, I’m sure, were paid for by E-TAP. A good number of people go to Labor School at Wayne State with that money. An even greater number went to labor conferences with that money. For a couple hundred bucks, a labor conference like New Workers allows a rank & file union member to get with other union folks, air grievances, commiserate, celebrate, and then strategize, organize, get educated and build real, lifelong solidarity. At Chrysler, our TAP benefit no longer covers labor education. We can use it to take management classes at Baker College or someplace that just turns out business degrees, but we can’t use it to go get real education and real empowerment from our Brothers and Sisters in the movement. People always say that I’m so conspiracy-minded, but I’m just a big-picture-looker. It seems almost unbearably convenient that the company won’t pay for us to go get ourselves educated on our rights, our conditions and our potential. It’s always easiest to get over on people when they feel isolated, and beat down and most especially if they think that they have no rights, no recourse, no power. But we have to keep on finding ways to educate ourselves, reach out to our working Brothers and Sisters. We need to expand our understanding of who our allies are (should be everyone) and make connections across industries and lines of all kinds. Big Capital certainly knows how to create solidarity among its class; we should take that lesson to heart. We are the working-class. We have power. Hell, we ARE power. But, like anything, we need to harness that power into solidarity and collective action. If you’re reading this and you work on a shop floor somewhere, please take the time to talk to someone new when you go back to work. Solidarity-building is a process. I’m lucky enough that I simply like talking to people. I know it’s not easy for everyone. But we have a common interest and we have a common destiny. If you work for a living, your rights are under attack now like never before. In the auto industry, we have our contract coming up in 2015. That’s just around the corner. Elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, we have elections coming up in November. Yes, the presidential election, but more critical than that, we have local elections. In Michigan, the Protect Our Jobs ballot initiative seeks to enshrine the right to collective bargaining in the state Constitution. That’s important. It will cover our Brothers and Sisters who are public employees: teachers, cops, firefighters, welfare workers, etc. These folks (even the cops) are members of our class. They have taken brutal cuts in pay and benefits while states gave HUGE tax breaks to corporations. THERE IS ENOUGH MONEY TO GO AROUND. It’s just being concentrated at the top; this is not new, just more visible than ever.
Perhaps even more important than the Protect Our Jobs initiative is Public Act 4. This is known as the Emergency Manager Act. This is the legislation that allows the governor to appoint financial managers over any entity which is in too much debt, sometimes as little as $10,000. This means cities and school boards, county commissions, etc. Those are all elected bodies. This act goes against the very nature of democracy. It allows for the governor to basically rule by decree. Those who are appointed as Emergency Managers are not accountable to the communities in which they ‘serve’. There is no transparency in the processes used to appoint them, or in how they make their decisions. It is the closest thing to fascism that we have working in the US today. Always in the vanguard, I suppose.
So please, get out and talk to your people. Talk to your steward, your committeeperson, the person who pushes the cleaning cart. Talk to your kids’ teacher. Talk to the cops you see directing traffic at the baseball games. Talk to that quiet person who eats lunch on the line. Our greatest, most powerful weapon is our numbers, but only if we seize that power. We are in a moment of profound peril and possibility. Let’s make it count.