Tuesday, February 10, 2004
More criticism of the UFCW
One of Griffin's main concerns is that the UFCW leadership is going to cave, and that the AFL-CIO's involvement is a signal that a 'betrayal' is on the way. We'll have to wait and see. I think it's going to depend more than anything else on how committed the workers are to staying on the picket line. I hope they are committed, because I think this strike is a bellwether. But I also know that they need paychecks.
Griffin's other main line of criticism has to do with the tactics the UFCW has employed in this campaign and elsewhere. He writes:
Well before negotiations began, UFCW leadership should have been developing a strategy to deal with the enemy on a number of fronts. Coalitions with union and legislative allies, as well as the shopping public should have been formed.
You must know your enemy and where to apply the thousand points of pain it takes to defeat a determined enemy...there are no "silver bullets" in labor disputes, as local Teamster leadership perceived their valiant but poorly timed efforts when they refused to haul from grocery warehouses.. Thus far, UFCW and Teamster leaders have engaged a powerful, well-educated enemy with tactics that have not worked for decades, if ever. Unfortunately, they sent their troops into battle nearly unarmed and with no credible battle plan.
First off, I don't really think it's possible to knowledgeably praise or criticize tactics from thousands of miles away. Griffin may have some personal contacts on the inside, so he may be better placed than I am. That said, I'm left wondering what he means by "tactics that have not worked for decades." My best guess is that he's talking about basic things like withholding labor, putting up pickets, and asking other unions to show solidarity.
There's a line of thought in the labor movement which favors applying pressure beyond the work-site, especially at places where the real decision making power lies. This may be what Griffin is talking about with the 'thousand points of pain.' Actions like the prayer vigil a few weeks ago and last week's rally on Wall Street are small potatoes examples of these kinds of tactics.
I agree with Griffin that such tactics are useful, especially when you're outgunned. But I also think it is essential that workers remember that their real power lies in the fact that they're the ones who do the work. The basic tactics -- withholding labor, picketing, seeking solidarity with other workers -- aren't optional. They flow from what the labor movement is.
Another problem with the thousand-points-of-pain approach is that some of its advocates seem to offer it up as a way to avoid the hard work of organizing. Griffin doesn't, I don't think, fall into this group.
Consider what he has to say about the UFCW's long term priorities:
The UFCW should have, but failed to understand, the serious threat of Wal-Martization of their industry. That threat is the vehicle driving the powerful coalition determined to win at any cost.
Organizing attempts by the UFCW have been as feeble as their efforts to win struggles. Many UFCW members live with poor wages, little representation and unjust working conditions.
To me, this suggests the real problem. Wal-Mart is a marauding elephant trampling everything in its path. While it's not fair to say that UFCW has been unaware of the Wal-Mart threat they haven't done enough to meet it. Rather than putting all of its efforts into bringing down the beast, the UFCW has invested most of its resources in servicing workers already protected by unions. Those misplaced priorities have allowed Wal-Mart to grow into a specter frightening enough to cause the grocers to instigate a fight with the UFCW.
The UFCW may yet win the California grocery strike. If they do win, it will be because they've managed to inflict severe damage to the bottom line of the three supermarket chains. But, ironically, if they succeed in doing that they also fail, because they make it that much easier for non-union Wal-Mart to move in.
Bonus Wal-Mart Bashing
The Sunday Washington Post ran this article about Wal-Mart's labor practices in China. It turns out that Wal-Mart is no more union-friendly over there. Consider:
Kong Xianghong, the No. 2 official for the party-run union in Guangdong province, acknowledged that low wages, long hours and poor conditions are common in factories that supply Wal-Mart and other U.S.-based corporations.
"It's better than nothing," he said. "Labor protections, working conditions and wages are related to a country's level of economic development. Of course, we want better labor protections, but we can't afford it. We need the jobs. We need to guarantee people can eat."
Still, Kong said, the party-controlled union has been frustrated that Wal-Mart has refused for three years to allow it to set up branches in the 31 Wal-Mart stores in China -- even though he has assured the company that the union wouldn't help workers struggle for better pay. Wal-Mart has also fought efforts to unionize its U.S. stores.