Tempest panelists discuss ‘Labor Strategy in the Pandemic’


On Thursday, Jan. 30, the Tempest Collective held a virtual panel on the pandemic and labor strategy, titled “Striking Back! Labor Strategy in the Pandemic.” The Tempest Collective describes itself as a revolutionary socialist organizing project and is largely centered around former members of the now-dissolved International Socialist Organization (ISO).

The panel featured four speakers—two union activists from Chicago and two well-known labor historians and unionists. The first two speakers were Elizabeth Lalasz, a nurse and shop steward organizing with National Nurses United (NNU), and Kirstin Roberts, a preschool teacher and member of the executive board of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Panelists in the Tempest forum.

Lalasz started her talk by giving an overview of last year’s “Striketober/Strikevember” phenomenon and her experiences as part of a strike of over 1200 registered nurses in Chicago in the summer of 2021. The strike, like many in recent months, was over staffing, wages, and benefits with “an employer who was demanding major concessions—doubling our health care [costs], refusing to give us raises … [and who] received over $1 billion in COVID relief money.” She contextualized the nurses’ strike with references to other major strikes at Nabisco, Frito Lay, and John Deere and the new national organizing drive at Starbucks, which were characterized in her conclusion as the “revenge of the essential worker.” These strikes had the common thread of being “mostly economic” strikes in industries where working conditions were horrible before the pandemic and grew worse as companies made record profits.

Lalasz also pointed out that in general the official union leadership is out of touch with and trailing far behind the militancy of rank-and-file workers, and referred to a number of tentative agreements (TAs) that had been rejected before, during, and after strikes. She concluded that the pandemic is a “social crisis” that will continue to bring about militancy and gave examples of workers fighting back. She said that the struggle is “not just about contracts but what continues to develop in the consciousness of workers who are drawing political conclusions by the class dynamic of the workplaces and capitalism as a whole and their willingness to fight against the bosses and for their democratic unions. So it takes politics and not just organizational structures.”

The second speaker, Kirstin Roberts, spoke about the fight against capital-driven school reopenings in Chicago. Through the course of these struggles, educators and staff have developed a number of “very serious debates … among the most active and conscious members of the [CTU]”, a reflection of the types of consciousness raising through mobilization that Lalasz had spoken about in her remarks.

During recent negotiations, the Chicago Public Schools, under the leadership of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CEO Pedro Martinez, locked out teachers from both in-person and virtual teaching after the CTU had voted on Jan. 4 to stop in-person teaching during the height of the omicron wave. Roberts also spoke about the development of building-wide safety committees, which have won the right to democratically vote to move a building to virtual learning during periods of high case counts. The safety committees themselves were won through earlier struggles during the pandemic for more control over workers’ and students’ safety, as the city government showed it was more interested in keeping schools open than safe.

Roberts gave an overview of how the CTU was able to organize the strike in less than six weeks during the pandemic surge, which “requires an enormous amount of solidarity on the part of CTU members and many, many SEIU members, … and our union came out of it alive” despite slanders and attacks from local and national politicians and press. The answer to these attacks “came very definitively the second day we came back to work, when thousands of high school students and middle school students walked out of class in Chicago in favor of increased COVID safety protocols and in solidarity with their educators.”

Roberts concluded by explaining that the Democrats are just as opposed to lockdowns and other public safety measures as the Republicans, with Biden siding wholeheartedly with the Lightfoot administration against the teachers.

The next two speakers were Kim Moody and Joe Burns. Both are well-known labor analysts and historians with their own contributions to the movement. Moody gave an analysis of the current state of the U.S. economy, bringing attention to the record profits that capital is making during the pandemic as well as historically high inflation and low unemployment rates. He also pointed out that there are over 200 contract expirations for unions representing 1000 or more workers among the groups that are most “strike-prone”—e.g., nurses, teachers, telecom, and grocery workers—meaning that there will likely be even more strikes than last year. Among these groups with expiring contracts are “car haulers,” the truck drivers who move completed cars from factories to the sales floor, who are particularly well positioned amongst a difficult time for auto sales caused in part by supply-chain problems.

Moody mentioned that this may also be an important test for the new O’Brien/Zuckerman leadership that recently was elected to head the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. His talk continued by using the supply-chain issues affecting virtually every industry and service to reaffirm the fact that capital is vulnerable and depends on labor. In this context, even the “very conservative” unions involved with the railways are talking about having strike votes. Moody concluded by saying that while conditions are unusually favorable for struggle, workers can expect severe opposition from companies, whose war chests are brimming with pandemic profits, and the government—as the Chicago Teachers’ example shows—and therefore a political struggle remains that is not limited to contract fights.

The last speaker on the panel, Joe Burns, is a long-time labor historian and lawyer, known among other things for his books “Strike Back” and “Reviving the Strike.” He spoke on the topic of his upcoming book, “Class Struggle Unionism,” in the context of the recent strike wave, which is to “build a militant, democratic, and class-struggle-oriented labor movement.” Burns summed up the “class-struggle unionist” perspective as the “belief that … workers are the source of value in society and [that] employment under capitalism is inherently exploitative.” He compared this to “business unionism,” which has a much more limited vision of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

On the current strike wave, Burns points out that this is the first time since the 1980s that a significant number of industrial workers have gone on strike, although it still is not near the level of historic strike waves. Workers are making ambitious demands. Examples include IATSE’s fight over control of residuals, and other sectors that are fighting against two-tier wage contracts. These issues have been largely ignored by the labor bureaucracy, which Burns agrees is deeply separated from the ranks.

These concessionary contracts—for example, two-tier—he identified as a result of decades of business unionism, while the strike wave moving against this pattern is being driven by the rank and file. Burns uses the fact that a key feature of the 2021 strike upsurge is failed tentative agreements, where workers democratically rejected the more compromising agreements put forward by staff driven negotiating committees.

The business union way of negotiating has a number of problems that were identified by Burns. These include the fact that the issues that are being bargained remain “state secrets,” when workers do not even know what is being discussed at the table. (On a personal note, this author, was recently at an informational picket line where members were speaking to union staff with the expectation that they could not and should not know what was being discussed in the then ongoing negotiations.)

This method is counterposed to one where workers’ input and direction is maintained at every step in negotiations through big democratic meetings and bolstered by actions. Although Burns did not mention it in his talk, a very powerful example is from the Guadalupe general strike of 2009, where negotiations were broadcast on television and the whole working class was involved.

Burns compared the current “left organizer” perspective, perhaps exemplified by the views of Jane McAlevey, as one of building “organizer skills” and “coaxing” workers to go on strike, with that of a class-struggle unionist perspective of building rank-and-file power, building struggle on the shop floor, and contending with the union misleaders who do not want to fight. Burns identifies this latter perspective with organizers who were building rank-and-file power in the 1960s and ’70s, a topic of his book “Strike Back.”

Taken together, these panelists provided important insights into why there has been an upsurge among U.S. workers, and how to rebuild unions in accordance with a class-struggle perspective. The points about expanding democratic spaces in locals, organizing shop floor actions, building power through struggle between contracts, and the need for the working class to fight capital politically independent of the Democratic Party are all essential. Similarly, centering on workers rather than union staff is essential to clarify how socialists should intervene in the labor movement.

At the same time, a large gap in the discussion was on the fundamental question of revolutionary organization. The first two speakers are co-affiliated with both Tempest and the DSA, but did not speak about the specific role of either group in their labor work. This is part of a larger problem facing Tempest and the whole revolutionary socialist left. While the objective crises of capital deepen and spaces for class struggle open up, many revolutionaries are taking a “wait and see” approach about what type of organization is needed to build and help guide the struggles. Instead of building a national combat party based on shared program, perspectives, and experiences, precious time is being spent focusing on building only local groups—with individuals, rather than a party as a whole, taking full responsibility for important activist work.

Another gap, somewhat surprising given the title, was the lack of focus on specific strategies and programs for workers to adopt in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. While there were important examples of how workers could win control over shop-floor conditions, these were not major parts of the discussion and could have been developed more. The building safety committees Kirstin Roberts spoke about are a demand that should be generalized to all industries, with powers including shutting down and starting production but also with the ability to implement broad safety measures. These can include mass testing, ventilation, and refitting buildings to be more pandemic safe.

Labor also has a responsibility to take up all aspects of the current social crisis, which means fighting for housing, health care, and child care as basic human rights. Further discussion on these points in the context of concrete struggles and building a revolutionary organization based on a program to win workers to fight for these fundamental needs would have greatly strengthened the panel.

Top photo: Chicago teachers cheer during strike vote in September 2019. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Chicago Sun-Times)

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