Partnership and the Two-Party Treadmill

By Joe Greene

We have watched -- and some of us have participated in -- labor-management “partnerships” for more than two decades now, barely pausing to examine the impact on American workers. An accounting is overdue.

The era of “partnership” has witnessed a union membership slide to a miserable seven percent of the private sector workforce. The largest transfer of wealth in our nation’s history occurred during the same years. The political influence of labor has nearly vanished, while the political power of capital has grown exponentially. So has capital’s arrogance, disregard for human suffering, the environment, and respect for basic democratic and human rights.

The word partnership implies that labor and management have embraced a system of shared decision-making, shared sacrifice, and shared gain, whether it is profits, bonuses or other remuneration.

Labor has not benefited equally from partnership. Labor does not possess the enhanced decision making-power; it cannot even ensure its members’ right to health care.

The ugly truth is that the intent of partnership is to create a system of work that removes any work rule, rigidity, any restraint that interferes with management’s drive for corporate efficiency, the code word for slashing  employment levels,  even as production, job duties, and responsibilities are increased!

Why would any labor organization, established for purposes of promoting the safety and welfare of its members, entertain such a scheme?

In 1994, the AFL-CIO bestowed its blessing when it issued a report entitled, ”The New American Workplace: A Labor Perspective”. The concluding sentence reads, “And the time has come for labor and management to surmount past enmities and to face the kind of partnership which can generate more productive, humane and democratic systems of work organizations.”

Some  sincerely believed corporate America was willing to invite labor into the boardrooms and to act with as much deference to the rights and needs of labor as to the avarice of its stockholders. Many bought  the corporate arguments that US companies needed to compete globally, acquire new technology, and required deregulation and increased privatization while they set about selling off operations and rendering  entire sections of their workforce idle.

Whatever the sincerity of those taken in by corporate  propaganda, illusions can be justified no longer. The results are in.  The consequences have been absolutely crushing for working people and especially low-income working people.

We need only mention a few of the higher profile labor-management endeavors to get a picture of their consequences. CWA and IBEW (Verizon), UAW and Ford and GM, USW and US Steel, LTV, Machinists and Boeing, Kaiser and SEIU.  

Also illustrative are the results in the federal employee union sector, including the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which I have witnessed as an officer, member, and staffer.

In 1993, Bill Clinton bestowed partnership on federal employees by Executive Order 12871.  It took the agencies, (mine being the Veterans Administration), a couple of  years to write guidelines on how partnership would be implemented. Union leaders rejoiced that they would finally “have seat at the table” since the Executive Order allowed federal worker unions to bargain over numbers, types, grades, means and methods of performing work, areas previously reserved as  exclusive rights of management.

We soon found that the Executive Order had no teeth and that we couldn’t exercise the rights we had been supposedly granted. At the same time, President Clinton and Vice President Gore set about “reinventing government”. The result was the loss of 426,000 federal jobs, while the union “sat at the table” with no authority, in “partnerships” that reflected the personalities of the local directors, many of whom considered their medical facilities to be their own personal fiefdoms.

The government workforce had been shrunk to a level not seen since the Eisenhower administration (1953-61).  Even more painful was the fact that the work done by former federal employees  did not disappear but instead went to private contractors. Thereby,  government, and ultimately taxpayers, lost oversight and control over price, quality and performance, commitment to the mission, and conditions for employees.

According to a book entitled, The True Size of Government, by Columbia University Professor Paul C. Light, concludes the private workforce is two-to-three times the size of the federal staff and nobody even tracks the cost. I know that the budget for the VA has increased by $106 billion dollars since 2002 and veterans still can’t get speedy action on their claims or get into the healthcare system for necessary care.

The Reinvention of Government was not limited to job loss, but included “partnerships” with federal regulatory agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
These “partnerships” resulted in the elimination of 16,000 pages of federal regulations affecting business and the rewrite of another 31,000 pages! How many suffered illness and death due to corporate self-regulation schemes?

As the VA budget has exploded, services have been contracted out, hospitals closed, VA claims workers laid off,  even as we hear groans from some members of Congress and the Obama Administration over the backlog in claims.

In 2001, still under both a local and national partnership, I traveled to Orlando as the Executive VP of my local for Professional Staff Nurses to participate in the rollout of new Qual Standards for VA nurses that had been approved by the National VA Partnership Committee. Presented as a partnership success, the result was a very foul-smelling product that significantly cut into the earning power of VA nurses even as it increased educational requirements for them.

The absurd result was that one of my officers, a former VA Nurse Manager and Registered Nurse  with 32 years of experience could not earn more than a beginning nurse fresh from a college classroom.

Shortly thereafter, the VA took shift differential away from operating room, cath lab, and other workers claiming shift didn’t apply if you didn’t work in a unit that routinely worked twenty-four-hour rotating tours. Of course, we had no right to bargain over that issue.

My union, through its VA component, the VA Council, continues to extol its partnership with management even as employee morale tanks, local union officers are badgered and harassed, and the jobs of front line staff disappear. It  frequently partakes in ceremonies with corrupt agency officials and urges local presidents to write glowing reviews of the same mangers that make their jobs and their lives miserable!

It is easy to find fault with such obsequious behavior. But the underlying reality is that, because of  the two-party system, union leaders are constrained from acting as a passionate advocate for their members or the veterans they are supposed to serve. As a local president I was repeatedly reminded by management that I could not bargain on behalf of patients!

The first presidential act of George W. Bush was to repeal Clinton’s partnership order. The current White House occupant has frozen the wages of federal employees for three years and implemented a two-tier pension system as well as continuing the contracting out, or selling off, of valuable government services and assets.

The two-party system ensures that union representatives will have to grovel before members of Congress that have voted to shut down government. The will have to  to beg support for a bill that would grant some meager, obscure rights to government employees. It is extremely sad that AFGE has given political donations to Congressmen that have voted in favor of shutting down the government.

The sad truth is that neither Big Business party serves as a champion of government employees or labor generally. The policies of these two parties depend on the corporate and financial interests they are obligated to serve. Those interests are clear that public policy must be shaped by the  needs of their class. The political power an elected official enjoys is limited and only temporary in nature and it can be withdrawn by the powers that confer it.

The above explains the lack of substantial change in governmental policy in the absence of any mass movements of working and poor people. The sometimes-incoherent  Occupy movement was able to briefly focus public attention on inequality, but it was unable to energize a stagnant labor movement with ideas to arrest and reverse the union decline.

Until organized labor realizes that workers interest will never be served without an agenda that recognizes the role of class, both in labor-management relations and in politics, it is doomed to witness its own demise. Working people will continue to suffer. Our communities will be decimated.  And possibly, the planet on which we live  will be destroyed.

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