Lessons Learned from the AFSCME Strike

June 04, 2018 16:43

Written by Hannah Ehrlinspiel

A year of contract negotiations between the University of California (UC) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, which represents 24,000 of UC's lowest-paid workers, came to a head in late April of this year, when 97 percent of the local voted to strike for three days. The California Nurses Association (CNA) and University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) went on strike in sympathy with AFSCME, swelling the ranks of striking workers to over 53,000 union members and functionally shutting down the largest employer in the fifth largest economy in the world.

After decades of neoliberal hostility toward labor, very few unions now go on strike. In the 1950s, there were as many as 400 strikes per year in the United States involving over 1,000 workers each. Now we're lucky to crack the double digits. Workers' hesitancy to take part in a work stoppage makes sense, with the constant threat of outsourcing, the strengthening of right-to-work laws, and the increasing aggressiveness of employers (backed, of course, by the fat-pocketed legislators who love them). Strikes are incredibly risky for workers, and this risk is magnified by decades of wage stagnation and slashed benefits.

So on the rare instance when strikes like AFSCME's do happen, we have to make sure they are successful in any way we can, whether that's bringing up the energy on the picket line, baking tasty treats, or getting word out to the community. We're at the dawn of the era of Janus, a US labor law case that, if successful, would have the power to bar unions from collecting fees from non-union members, thereby striking a major blow to labor power. It is crucial that socialists amplify and broaden workers' struggles—each successful strike locally is an inspiration to workers globally. From May 7–9, East Bay DSA and other socialist and community organizations stood in solidarity with this Strike for Equality. Here are some actions we took to support the strike and some lessons we learned along the way.

Why Did the Workers Strike?

If you'd like a hint as to the tenor of the administration's attitude toward its workers, the first bargaining session of this period began with UC responding to testimony about unsafe staffing levels by admitting to having intentionally understaffed career positions because career workers are more difficult to exploit. (With record-low rates of union membership in the US, it apparently doesn't take much for management to confess an unembarrassed flippancy toward fatality in the workplace.)

The UC's "last best" contract offer to Local 3299 was yet another insult in this sustained campaign of cynicism. It included, for example: a 2 or 3 percent one-time raise, the ability to increase healthcare premiums and copays every year and to cut benefits, no protection against outsourcing and layoffs, and a risky 401(k) opt-out scheme. And as AFSCME notes, even the poisoned olive branch of a 2 to 3 percent raise is in fact "canceled out by the elimination of step increases for five years along with other cuts and financial risks that UC wants workers to absorb." The schematic thrust of the contract amounts to nothing more than a glorified bait-and-switch.

"Workers cannot take a contract like that with no respect to our work and no consideration for what we do for the university," said Maricruz Manzanarez, a worker at UC-Berkeley and member of AFSCME's executive board; "It's not about wages, it's about our families' well-being."

UC's offer represents a specific instance of the more general institutionalization of inequality: as UC continues to give raises and lavish perks to its highest-paid executives, it burdens its lowest-paid, AFSCME-represented workers with stagnant wages, cuts to benefits, and deep job insecurity through layoffs and outsourcing. What's more, a recent study reveals gross and worsening income, racial, and gender disparities among UC workers, especially black women.

When 53,000 workers go on strike against such brazen redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, it's our job as socialists to stand in solidarity with them.

Socialists Stand Up

Members from East Bay DSA, International Socialist Organization (ISO), La Voz de los Trabajadores (a publication of the International Workers' League), and UAW 2865 gathered a few days before the strike to hear Manzanarez and AFSCME organizer Libertad Ayala speak about the specifics of AFSCME's impasse with the UC administration, as well as their efforts to organize their members.

"If we don't sacrifice the next three days," Manzanarez recalled explaining to AFSCME's rank-and-file members, "we'll be living in hell for the next four years—and there's no guarantee to those four years."

This meeting led to another: members from East Bay DSA, ISO, and La Voz formed a small socialist strike support "committee." We worked together to drive turnout for the picket line and lined up representatives from each organization to read solidarity statements. We also organized the Socialist Solidarity Rally for Striking Workers event as part of AFSCME's evening rally after the first day of the strike. This event drew socialists from across the Bay Area to reforge the once-strong link between socialism and labor. Over 100 socialists turned up to amplify the union's energy, and the rally was truly, as they say, "lit."

Preparing to Strike

Of course, before we could show up to the picket line, we had to prepare for it. A member of East Bay DSA's Steering Committee hosted an assembly party the Sunday before the strike, where about 20 people gathered to fold bilingual Medicare for All trifolds, staple brochures on "Labor & Medicare for All," paint posters, make pickets, and bake cookies.

AFSCME organizers stressed the fact that this would be the first strike for many members and asked that we make some fun signs, so alongside "EBDSA Stands with Striking Workers" and "Health Over Wealth," we made posters with messages like, "More Like UC-JERKeley." (Update: it was a big hit!!)

We used time at the assembly party to increase turnout, text comrades about the actions, and make Facebook events about the rallies, teach-ins, and picket line. We also signed people up to the strike support spreadsheet, which ensured that we had members present on the picket line around the clock. Our turnout efforts, which continued through the course of the strike, resulted in more than 70 East Bay DSA members marching in the picket line, working our education and sign-up tables, and building relationships with striking workers and labor leaders.

Escuela Popular

At the socialist solidarity meeting, Manzanarez and Ayala invited us to help coordinate a series of teach-ins as part of the Escuela Popular, or People's School, over the course of the strike. Political education—and its capacity for cultivating class consciousness—has always been intimately tied to mass-action organizing. When you demand the conditions for a more equitable life, who wants to raise you up and who wants to drive you into the ground like a tent peg? The Escuela Popular gave East Bay DSA members the crucial opportunity to lend a socialist analysis to the demands of a massive amount of workers and to connect their specific struggle to the broader struggle of workers all over the world.

Over the course of the three days, we led three different teach-ins: one on Medicare for All; one on Housing and Costa Hawkins Repeal (a law that basically makes it impossible to pass comprehensive rent control in California); and one on socialism, which we co-taught with members from other socialist organizations. All of these teach-ins coalesced around the goal of winning majority non-socialist workers over to the idea that a larger socialist movement is necessary to achieve the truly equitable conditions demanded by labor.

The first teach-in concerned Medicare for All because healthcare has become the biggest cause of recent strikes in the US, as costs continue to rise much faster than wages and the general rate of inflation. Recall that impossible premiums and the creepy injunction to download a step-counting app catalyzed the West Virginia teachers' strike.

A single-payer healthcare system like Medicare for All would dramatically shift this terrain of bargaining: imagine what workers could demand if healthcare for them and their families was not on the bargaining table?

East Bay DSA members Matt Stone and Abigail Gutmann-Gonzalez conveyed this vision to a crowd of about 75 AFSCME workers at our Medicare for All teach-in, connecting the collective fight for single-payer healthcare to the collective action of going on strike: "This is what this statewide strike is: working people coming together to demand more!"

Matt and Abigail particularly energized the crowd with the politics of class struggle, driving home the point that, "When we say ‘free at the point of service,' what we mean is taxing the rich!" While they were speaking, other members of East Bay DSA distributed Medicare for All trifolds in both English and Spanish and asked workers to sign our petition. By the end of the three days, we handed out over 300 trifolds in Spanish alone.

Our second teach-in revolved around Housing and Costa Hawkins repeal. You may know that UC is the largest employer in the state of California, but did you know that it is also one of the state's largest landlords?

Speaking with workers on the picket line, we found that a recurring refrain from management is that "housing is not a worker issue"—but how are people expected to work in a place where they can't afford to live? At this teach-in, East Bay DSA members Robbie Nelson, Valeria Spall, and Keith Brower Brown talked about the university's housing policies. They explained that the administration's decision to treat housing as a business instead of as a need plays into the struggle for affordable housing. It forces workers into long and arduous commutes (gas ain't cheap!) and unsustainable leases, which exacerbate other points of economic instability (like healthcare) and decimate basic standards in quality of life. All of this, in turn, has led to decades-old communities, especially working-class communities of color, being crushed by capitalist speculation on land.

The final teach-in on the third day of the strike, which East Bay DSA member Jeremy Gong co-taught with members from ISO and La Voz, addressed the question, "What is socialism?" It is precisely at these critical junctures of intense political action that working people are open to new ideas, curious about explanations for why things are they way they are, and eager to seek collaborators in their fight. A lot of workers who showed up at this final teach-in had been present at all three.

Jeremy spoke about the deep connections between socialism and labor, explaining that socialism is what striking workers are already doing. "Most of what socialism means is what you guys have already been talking about for the last three days on the picket line: socialism means putting people above profit." Jeremy ended on a particularly high note, hitting on a resounding message: "We should tax the rich because all the money that they have, you made for them, and you deserve every penny of it!" (cue thunderous applause).

The speakers who followed Jeremy addressed fighting racism within the working class, international solidarity, and immigration.

After three speeches, workers joined the discussion. One talked about how his mistreatment at the hands of an employer turned him from a young conservative to a left-leaning person. Another, who along with his wife had worked at UC for 50 years combined, asked about how we can fight to ensure that people like him can send their kids to UC Berkeley. A third asked why companies pick up and relocate after workers get organized and win better contracts and what we can do to stop it.

I often think of Bakunin's melodramatic quip that "the revolutionary is a doomed man," but the fact that these militant strikers were eager to talk about socialism, Medicare for All, and taxing the goddamned rich, says a lot about this historical moment.

Next Steps

Organizing in solidarity around the Strike for Equality was an excellent opportunity to build coalitions with AFSCME workers; workers represented by UPTE, CNA, and UAW; and other socialists in the Bay Area. In East Bay DSA's recently adopted priorities resolution, we resolve, among other things, to increase our diversity and to strengthen our relationships with labor. By standing in solidarity with AFSCME workers, 91 percent of whom are women, people of color, or immigrants, our work around these strike efforts offers members an opportunity to engage meaningfully in these points of our resolution.

And this work doesn't end when the strike does. After the strike, East Bay DSA worked with AFSCME, UPTE, UAW, ISO, and La Voz to organize a post-strike event called "UC Workers on Strike! Forum on Lessons & Next Steps," where we invited workers, students, union activists, and socialists to talk about lessons learned from the strike, share a meal, and discuss how we can continue to build a powerful movement of campus workers and organizers. We plan on having more of these events in order to continue developing our relationships with workers and union members and to reinforce our strength as a coalition of left-leaning labor groups.

It Takes Time

One of the main lessons we gathered from AFSCME's strike efforts is that organizing is all about relationships. Mass actions may traffic heavily in theatrics—coordinated clothing, clever posters, righteous chants—but there's no deus ex machina in political theater. In a hostile political situation, picket lines don't materialize out of thin air; workers don't suddenly drop from the sky, resplendent in full political consciousness, ready to strike. Of course, neoliberal capitalism seeks to hide the nature of class struggle, and a point of going on strike is to make this struggle visible via spectacular actions. But the spectacle itself is the result of hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes organizing and relationship building.

"When workers go on strike, what people see are these big actions," said Manzanarez, "but they're totally dependent on these small conversations." When the bosses are banking hard on Janus and its potential to eviscerate the power of labor unions, this type of peer-to-peer accountability is more crucial than ever. And when workers statewide shut down the everyday functioning of the largest employer in the fifth largest economy in the world, socialists have to show up and support these working-class heroes.

In the capitalist tradition, Janus represents the apex of unparalleled attacks on labor in this country. But in the mythic tradition, Janus represents an allegorical character of wisdom and growth, a two-faced figure looking simultaneously to the past and to the future. (This is where we get the name January, that threshold month of change). We are now at an exceptional crossroads. But if we look to the past and revive that old and intimate bond between socialism and labor for the purpose of addressing workers' material needs, we can face the future with tenacity. After all, as Trotsky reminds us, "Learning not to forget the past in order to foresee the future is our first, our most important task."