At the beginning of March, the members of Local 1708, which represents the clerical and technical workers at all City Colleges, voted to accept a contract for full-time employees that severely erodes the pay, benefits and job security of these workers. It didn’t need to be this way. They had fought a valiant fight since June 30, 2010 when their contract expired. For those 20 months they worked without a contract, their wages frozen. On June 30, 2011, their part-time brothers and sisters also saw their contract expire, and their wages frozen too. Yet, they held steady, refusing to accept what was an unbelievable offer by the CCC administration: a five-year contract with no pay raises and hefty increases in their healthcare premiums.
Then things came to a head by the end of February. 1708 had had it. Federal mediation was going nowhere, and the administration continued its stubborn stance. 1708 attempted to declare an impasse and their intention to strike. Then came in a new player, from within the realm of smoke and mirrors.
Fade in: the Chicago Federation of Labor
As 1708 grappled with the possibility of going on strike in a few days, the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) intervened. They told 1708 to sit tight, while they approached the Mayor. Their conditions: that 1708 did not polarize things and that it did not criticize the Reinvention. What planet do these folks live in? Polarize things? Things were polarized already by a recalcitrant administration intent on imposing a five-year wage freeze on 1708. All 1708 was doing was calling things the way they were, defending themselves. And to have the gall to demand that the Reinvention not be criticized clearly exposes where the idea originally came from. From an administration that has openly espoused a practice in which the only message allowed about the Reinvention is the message of the administration. A 100 percent control—nothing less. Wouldn’t Stalinist Russia be proud? What are they so afraid of?
It is despicable for the CFL to demand that 1708 did not criticize the Reinvention when everything that was being inflicted on the union’s membership was done in the name of Reinvention.
Thus rather than getting ready to gather forces to support 1708’s fight as a portent of things to come, the CFL pressured 1708 into accepting a rotten deal. A six-year contract in which the first two years still remain as a frozen wage period (going back to July, 2010), with annual raises of between 3 and 3.5 percent for the remainder of the contract; increases in the healthcare premiums as high as 15 percent for family coverage; the introduction of a union buster: two-tier wage scales, so new hires will make less than their counterparts.
Even worse, with such an exacting contract, the part-timers are now sitting ducks. This became painfully true once the full-timers approved their contract, for a no strike clause keeps them from striking in support of the part-timers. One thing would have been to have won a successful contract; the benefits of which would have spilled onto the part-timers. But as things stand now the part-timers lost most of their leverage. Not only will the terms of any potential contract look gloomy, but these will come back to haunt the full-timers. Why? Because the wonders of Reinvention have made it possible to vanish many 1708 full-time positions or to turn them into part-time positions. And more of this is yet to come. The corporate hacks at 226 West Jackson are not finished yet restructuring the colleges.
The consequences of this rotten deal for the rest of the CCC unions are ominous. Thanks, but no thanks CFL. With friends like these who needs enemies. This should serve as a warning to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in their struggle against another recalcitrant, corporate-drunk administration, that of CPS.
Another script was possible
It is important to emphasize that the 3 to 3.5 percent that 1708 indeed got for part of their contract did not come out of thin air. What was on the cards was not higher than 1 to 1.5 percent per year. It was the determination of 1708, and their willingness to go on strike if necessary, that made the CCC bosses aware that they could not get away with an absolute rout. It was this determination what the CFL came in to deflate in the name of pragmatism. Pragmatists never lose battles because they never fight them. They just sit down sipping piña coladas, earning humongous salaries from their members’ dues, even while losing many of these members to things like Reinvention.
We cannot predict what would have happened, had a strike by 1708 taken place. But we know what steps were being taken to offer 1708 the best solidarity that could be organized from the bottom up. Solidarity that would have put the CCC bosses on notice that 1708 was not alone in this battle. Things like having the union members working within Occupy Chicago ready to go to the leadership and rank and file of their unions and demand real, physical support for 1708. Things like having the General Assembly of Occupy Chicago approve full support for a 1708 strike and engage in all sorts of solidarity actions. They were ready. On day one of the strike droves of Occupy Chicago men and women were going to show up at the City Colleges and City Hall, and you name it. The kind of stuff that has allowed the Occupy movement to electrify and reenergize all sorts of struggles.
Of course, this was no guarantee that a strike would have been won. It was more of a guarantee that it would have been fought vigorously, without a hand tied behind our backs. Compared to the resources that the CFL could have wielded in a real fight in support of 1708, what we described above is modest. Yet its promise is powerful.
It is a tragedy that things ended up this way. The other unions currently negotiating with the CCC bosses have now a more uphill battle: AFSCME, SEIU and IBEW. Soon enough they will be joined by CCCLOC, representing the adjunct faculty. They need to become aware that the script is not written in stone, that the CFL is supposed to be there to represent us, not to suffocate us. That it still is up to us to fight a full fight because if we don’t we are screwed. And because every time we get screwed, everyone else gets screwed too.
It is the same way if we win. Now, think about that.