Soaring Joblessness

What Are Workers and Unions to Do?

by Charles Walker

An October 3 report estimates that as many as one million workers in the hospitality industry — waiters, cleaners, desk and back office staff — have been laid off since September 11.  “The Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union [HERE] reports that 40 to 60 per cent of its membership has been laid off in the past three weeks” (Independent News). From New York to Las Vegas and from border to border, restaurant, hotel, and airline employment has been in free fall, adding big numbers to the already growing unemployment due to the recession in manufacturing and electronics. Mainstream economists are leery of forecasting when the layoffs will end.

What are workers and their unions going to do? The hotel union is “handing out emergency food packages to hotel workers facing destitution because their poverty-wage jobs have dried up without warning,” says the report. In Las Vegas the culinary union reportedly has asked the casinos, which have laid off 15,000 workers so far, to cut workers’ hours from 40 to 32 hours a week, with a proportionate cut in pay. HERE is reported to be “joining forces with the owners of some of America’s biggest hotel chains to lobby for federal relief.” The machinists, flight attendants, and other unions also are lobbying at the federal and state level for relief in the form of immediate unemployment payments and medical protection.

Clearly, all workers thrown out of work through no fault of their own deserve whatever they need to maintain their dignity and normal family life. If the bosses of the world’s largest economy don’t do more than throw workers a bone, it won’t be because the bosses don’t have the billions to make sure that workers don’t needlessly suffer. That’s because workers’ amazing productivity gains for decades now have built a multi-trillion dollar economic colossus.

But if history is any guide, the bosses and their bipartisan political cohorts are going to have to have their feet held to the fire, if jobless and destitute workers hope to do more than get by on very meager handouts. So far the union tops don’t show any sign of rallying the ranks to mount the kind of pressure that will get the job done. Clearly, food packages for union workers who are already at or below poverty level incomes are far short of what those workers deserve. For they didn’t deserve to be struggling with poverty in the first place! And it’s outrageous for union leaders to propose that low wage workers cut their wages to reduce joblessness. That’s the bosses’ strategy for dealing with layoffs. Surely, that’s taking labor-management cooperation schemes way, way too far.

A Workers’ Strategy: Shorter Workweek, with No Cut in Pay

A workers’ strategy is to reduce work hours until all involuntary joblessness is abolished — and with no reduction in pay or standards of living. During the depths of the Great Depression, many large unions adopted that strategy and made partial, but notable strides in that direction. In time that strategy became known as “30-for-40.” That is, thirty hours work for forty hours pay.

Since then, however, union leaders have reversed course. Union officers, especially at the highest levels, have caved in to bosses’ demands for mandatory overtime. But still the rising cost of living, combined with the seemingly endless concentration of corporate power, has forced a majority of workers’ families to seek two or more incomes, or fall behind even in so-called good times.

The unions can all but guarantee their members and all workers a decent, secure future, if only the leaders mobilize their millions of members and their allies to challenge the corporate power that refuses to permit workers a full share of the value of their labor, and the bipartisan political power that hamstrings workers’ attempts to wrest meaningful concessions from the corporations.

If the individual unions are smart enough to speak and fight for all workers, then the officialdom of organized labor can mobilize far more working class opinion and power behind it. Far more workers than those in the unionized work force face an uncertain economic future. In fact, today’s jobless are likely to soon be joined by millions more.

Labor leaders should make plans now to mobilize the unemployed and the employed, the unionized and the unorganized to lobby, not in the halls and backrooms of government, but in the streets where the power of their massed numbers can’t be shrugged off. Despite the calamity of September 11, workers are ready to defend their right to a decent living. The best evidence for that are the 30,000 Minnesota public workers who struck on October 1 to protect their right to a secure future. That’s a right that all workers deserve to win, and can win when they march together.

October 3, 2001