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(en) US, Portland, Issue #2 of the Firebrand* Out Now

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>(pdxfirebrand-A-ziplip.com)
Date Fri, 3 Dec 2004 10:31:36 +0100 (CET)


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The second issue of the firebrand, a rank and file working people's
newspaper is out. Copies of the paper can be found at cafes, union
halls, and on the picket line. Come and support the Firebrand newspaper
at our upcoming benefit. And don't forget about the Perry Center Strike,
November 29th (monday) all day at 34th and SE powell.

Nothing's too Good for the Working Class Brunch Saterday, December 11th,
11 am to 2 pm, Liberty Hall 311 N. Ivy, $5 a Plate, Mixed Drinks $2
Talking about a Rank and File Movement Firebrand Interviews a Perry Center
Rank n' File Militant:

Firebrand: What is your position at the Perry Center for Children?

Todd: I'm a maintenance worker, which is kinda a catch all
term for somebody who takes care of the facilities. This means
I garden, paint, and fix anything if it breaks; if something goes
wrong we're the ones dealing with it.

Firebrand: In general, what is the purpose of the Perry Center
for Children?

Todd: The Perry Center is a live in center for abused children.
It's got a campus, a school that's run by Portland Public
Schools. It's got something like 50 beds, a garden for
horticultural therapy, a gym; all kinds of stuff. It's basically just
a small world for these kids to get away to and rehabilitate
themselves with the assistance of staff.

Firebrand: Right now, what labor conflict is going on at the
Perry Center?

Todd: Where in contract negotiations. The contract before the
contract were working on called for a two year contract
extension. This means there's a wage freeze-no raises, but
everybody keeps the same benefits. That contract was really
screwed up because it had a draconian labor peace agreement
in it that said no group actions could take place at all, which
included on our own free time after work. Any kind of leafleting
that would portray the company in a negative light. This is
strait jacketing for any kind of direct action. So, when this
contract came up the organizers had changed hands and our
new organizer and the membership, there's a really high turn
over at our work, so the membership will be different during
each contract negotiation. The organizer and membership were
much more active and wanted to get rid of these things keeping
us from doing any kind of direct action and management
basically called for another three year wage freeze, and no new
economic gains. This constitutes about a five year wage freeze
with extremely high turnover, lots and lots of injuries due to
understaffing. Literally people getting kicked every day that
could be prevented if there were more staff. Staff are talking
about how they try to relieve negative things but don't get to do
a whole lot of positive work with the children because they are
basically doing triage because there's not enough workers and
cause' the conditions at work are so bad. So the struggle has
just been escalating to make a stand here because it will only
go down hill from here if we don't win a wage increase or some
kind of gain, the union will just stagnate and people will realize
it's not really doing them any good if we can't learn to fight.

Firebrand: What's SEIU 503's strategy for winning the contract
workers at the Perry Center want?

Todd: Escalation is basically the idea. We had our first
informational picket, which is like a strike but everyone still
works and you go out there and try to inform the public and
management that were serious about this and why were out
there. From there it's going to be more informational pickets,
showing up at any fundraisers the Perry Center has. We
haven't really discussed any concrete actions but the idea is to
keep escalating to the point of striking, if need be. Basically, to
make it so that the public image Trillium Family Services,
which runs the Perry Center, is not one of a happy altruistic
company benefiting children, but really one of management
gone wild and kind of loosing sight of the children and staff.
Management spends about three million dollars a year on
capital improvements, whereas if were talking about a three
year economic freeze there spending no money on personal
improvements or improvement of services.

Firebrand: What sort of input does the rank and file
membership of the union at the Perry Center have in this
contract negotiation?

Todd: At the beginning of the negotiation we sent out a survey
asking people what they thought was most important. We use
that as our direct guide in negotiations, we kind of scraped
some things that were important to some of us but not to
everyone. For example, there are some part time workers, I'm
one of them, and we don't have health insurance. We realized
that if we opened up health insurance for discussion
management might cut the health insurance for everybody. So
it was a risk we had to take by setting aside our interest to go
with the ones of everybody else. Pretty much everyone had a
consensus on what was most important. It kind of came to a
point where I pointed out to other members of the bargaining
unit that no nobody was showing up to any meetings, that
nobody was coming to bargaining. So if we actually had any
hope of winning this we needed member input or the whole
campaign would really atrophy. We can't move forward with
direct action if people don't really know what's going on. So
then we held some meetings at houses. Basically one meeting
where we said this is really serious and we pulled a significant
portion of the membership. That kind of got everyone
motivated and laid the way for this first informational picket.
When we did do the informational picket almost everybody
came out, even if they could only come out on there breaks if
they were working. It got significant numbers of people
involved. We made it clear to the rank and file that we weren't
doing anything as a bargaining unit; it's only the rank and file
who can do anything at all. If the rank and file doesn't do it, or
authorize the bargaining committee to make the steps needed
then we can't do anything. I think that resonated with people
and they started to take more active steps.

Firebrand: With your experience at the Perry Center, how is
SEIU structured with paid organizers and the rank and file
members?

Todd: I think there's kind of a common structure but what I've
learned from being a participant in it and going to their
trainings and seeing other shops is that it's highly
decentralized; at least in practice. There's a central structure
but things vary from local to local and from shop to shop. At
our shop the way it works is there are open general
membership meetings and that's where all the main voting
happens. Theoretically, decision making lies straight in the
hands of the membership. The problem is most people don't
come to those meetings, so in fact the decision making takes
place in the hands of the activists. There's a union organizer
who is the main representative. We don't really deal with
anybody except for the union organizer. Usually there's a
higher up who will come along during bargaining. Bargaining
consists of the union organizer, his or her supervisor, and the
elected bargaining unit members. They get elected at general
membership meetings. Outside of contract negotiations it's
pretty much just direct democracy. I know that in other unions
it's not always so participatory, even if that structures in place.
Sometimes the union organizer just makes decisions. There's
not total oversight into how that works. For instance another
local would raise dues without having a membership vote,
which I think actually violated the constitution of SEIU, so they
got taken over by the international. Our shop works really
democratically; I think this is because of our organizer. If you
get a bad organizer it can go totally in the opposite direction
unless you already have a militant organized membership.

Firebrand: As militant working class rank and file union
activists, what steps do you see needing to be taken to build a
larger militant rank and file?

Todd: Yeah, it's a hard question. I see unions as an education
process, because the reality of it is you can make improvements
in our class's lives, in the terms of wages, kind of these short
term gains. When it comes down to it real change probably
isn't going to happen in a union due the stresses put on
bargaining and working within these limited frameworks of
getting more wages rather than restructuring the economy or
changing the fundamental nature of the work. You would need
a high level of militancy. So I think in these current
pre-revolutionary times what I have seen unions do best is
show people how they can grasp the reigns for themselves and
take things into their own hands; direct action in it's truest
sense. What I have tried to do is not just teach my co-workers
about unions and the democratic party are the be all end all, but
also as I get to know people and get closer to them, introduce
them to radical unionism and anarchism, presumably not under
those names. At my workplace since it's really high turnover,
what's really positive is you get these people who are really
dedicated to unions and see how screwed up management is
and then as they leave they feel a loss cause there not going to
be in a union anymore you can divert them into these other
causes they find fulfilling and that has actually worked really
well. People have actually gotten into. I think just opening up
the dialogue in unions, people are rather receptive to the ideas
of democracy and direct action, and it just takes bringing those
in a subtle way. Just bringing it up and having people think
about it, not being confrontational. There important and
initiative ideas I think people don't normally run into cause we
live in such a hierarchical society.

Firebrand: What are you're thoughts on SEIU's focus on
organizing? Do you think this hinders building a strong rank
and file within existing SEIU shops?

Todd: I think anyway the union movement grows is probably
positive, the only danger is you don't want massive
bureaucracies like the communist unions of Europe, where
they start to suppress strikes and that kind of thing... American
unions are famous for doing those types of things. But when it
comes to organizing I think it probably would be good to have
industrial organizations, which the SEIU is trying to do, it's
trying to set up internationals, organize cross country to unite
working people so that outsourcing and the race to the bottom
gets slowed... I think that's positive in the sense that once you
have those organs, if you organize rank and file movements
within them, or maybe even apart from the even, that's when
real change can start to happen. (If you look at the Italian
workers movement in the 1920's or something) If you have
these big, massive union organizations, if we were able to
develop a working class movement therein we could start to
restructure the economy and seize power in desirable ways. In
terms of the SEIU it's kinda an uphill battle just in the sense
that it would be contrary to a lot of people's interests even in
the union movement to see a militant rank and file movement
spread on a mass scale. The question is whether the people
working at the peripheries, who are usually great in the SEIU
can, overcome the people who have faith and reliance on the
system who work at the top.

Firebrand: Could you talk about the culture within SEIU, in
regards to it being a service sector union and drastically
different from traditional trades unions?

Todd: I've gotten a taste of this culture from going to their
leadership trainings, which are basically trainings on how to be
a shop steward or organizing a contract. It's kind of interesting
just because it's so diverse. I'm in the Oregon Public Employee
Union, but that constitutes home care workers, nurses,
non-profits, all kinds of shops, it's really a monthly crew,
united in the sense that we're all in the service industry, but it's
a very vague term, it's not industry in the sense that carpenters.
It's kind of nice that way because when I would meet all these
people they would tell me about things going on at their
workplace and the commonalities and differences were a good
educational process. I think that's one thing the SEIU can
benefit from is having all kinds of different people informing
and cross-pollinating each others labor ideas. One really great
example of that is the department of health services which
decides whether or not a kid comes to the Perry Center, they
are in the same union, SEIU 503, so we have each others backs
and that makes the boss really scared that if were going to go
on strike, DHS is going to say you can't move those kids,
which means they have to stay at the Perry Center but there is
no one help the kids, so basically the boss would be screwed
and need to sign any contract we asked for. In terms of health
care, it's a real danger. Health care costs are getting out of
control and I think the SEIU is going to have to fight much
harder than other unions for it because it represents so many
members and when the boss is bearing this weight, its gets
kind of scary. If you think about restaurants, often times the
boss just can't afford health care, that's the scary thing. If the
profit margin starts getting so low then unions are gonna find
themselves in a real quandary where they are going to have to
take on the system rather than just individual bosses. SEIU
does have a good strategy for that, and that's going for the
industry level. If you do just hit a shop you can make a shop
rather inefficient and just crumble. If you actually got enough
gains for the workers that you actually deserved perhaps that
would make the business non-competitive. So the business
competitors would drop prices and the business would fail and
the union movement would be crushed in the industry. But if
you hit the whole industry that's when it starts to make sense
because then no shop has any advantage over any other shop
and they all have to treat the workers at the same standard.

Firebrand: What are you're thoughts on SEIU's strong
endorsement of Kerry? Especially since SEIU represents a lot
of public workers, could you address the relation between
public workers and funding for public workers jobs coming
from the state.

Todd: I think it's really complicated. I used to think it was
simple that unions don't have any business endorsing or not
endorsing political candidates. That unions should derive all
their power from their membership and shouldn't have to
grovel with politicos for whatever they need. And I still believe
that to a large extent. Yet, now I've started to see there's really
weird things, like, one of the SEIU locals in Portland endorsed
Francesconi because he's really close with two of the building
owners and because of that they would be ensure to get a really
good contract for janitors. I argued with a bunch of organizers
about it for a long time but it kinda just made me realize that
sometimes to get direct things that really, really matter to
people, unions do have to make political endorsements or have
to establish relationships. It's sketchy, you know? But the
reality is in my industry, social services, all the funding comes
directly from politicians and so having politicians forcing your
bosses to negotiate with you is incredibly powerful and that's
how my union had gone about doing it. I fell like ideally you
wouldn't do any of that, you wouldn't have to ask for any
support from politicians. I'm not totally clear on how I feel
about it, because short of a militant working class movement
there are not too many options for us and I think its one of
those 'in the meantime' things. I don't want to participate in it
personally and I want to raise people's consciousness against it,
working to show why it's stupid for unions to engage in this
kind of activity. But in the same vain what I think is more
important is building a mass base that's motivated and
mobilized rather than quibbling over political ideals. If we spend
too much time just being purists people are going to get left
behind because they are not going to have healthcare. It's about
balancing your ideals against the needs of everyone. There has
to be compromise at some level, just hopefully not at every
level.

I think I missed the Kerry thing all together in that question
actually. Here I wanted to say that against my better judgment
the union has worked closely with politicians. It taught me a
minor lesson that if your workplace deals with government funds,
they're your boss. So you have to use leverage and deal with them.
Some of this has been good, some of it seems to me to be a waste
of time. I feel actually uneducated about these matters, and will
reserve judgment for a bit. This has made me think hard about
government-union relations. I am not comfortable with using union
member votes, or endorsements as bargaining chips. It seems wrong
in fact. But I was trying to point out to militant anti-government
types that sometimes workers have to talk to the feds, and to ask
how should workers do that (assuming you want a democratic
workplace)?
===============================
* issued by firebrand collective, a member collective of the
northwest anarchist federation (formally FNAC)


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