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Defeating the boss’ counter-attack


Last week, The Chief reported that UPS is planning to automate 200 facilities in New York City and six other states. According to Nando Cesarone, a senior vice president and the president of UPS U.S., that will “significantly reduce our dependency on labor.” 

This kind of response by the boss to a successful strike threat is both vicious and predictable. It demonstrates that the struggle is hardly over once the ink dries on a new collective bargaining agreement. This is why it’s commonly said that a contract is a temporary truce. For the workers, that truce should end the next day because it certainly does for the boss. 

Saying that the struggle never ends is not going to be popular with workers who put in abundant free time to organize. We are all exhausted and look forward to getting back to the rest of our life. After all, life is not all about struggle. We each do what we can but it is critically important that the infrastructure for organizing we build not be dismantled otherwise we will quickly lose what we have won.   

The boss is known to attack with pay cuts, layoffs and new onerous work rules before workers organize often leading to strike threats and strikes. Retaliation for successful struggles can result in outsourcing and automation intended to reimpose control, extract more profits from less labor and undo the workers’ gains.  

Automation increases workload and extracts more profits from the same or less labor. Focusing on higher wages and benefits while ignoring workload has resulted in productivity annually rising four times faster than wages since 1980, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In other words, more goods and services are being produced with the same or less labor, which translates into more profits as wages stagnate. These profits don’t go to wages but rather to executive pay, shareholder dividends or tax-haven bank accounts offshore. 

The give and take between the boss and workers is dynamic rather than just a back and forth. As we organize, act and gain power, or “recompose” our power, the boss adapts to find new ways to undermine or “decompose” our power and restore control. If the boss succeeds, our power has been “decomposed.” Conditions have changed so the struggle must be reinvigorated with new tactics, strategies and objectives.  

This means that the same tactics and strategies that might have worked the last time may no longer be effective. Workers are laid off or replaced, shifts change, work processes are altered and new technology introduced. I discuss these changes, which are called the new “technical composition” of capital, in my second book, “ Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle.” Understanding them shows us how the boss’s tactics, strategies and objectives have changed so  we can adapt how we organize and struggle under these new work conditions. 

While the CBA can be useful for locking in our gains, they can quickly become moot when the boss adapts. The UPS workers see this with the inability to get strong language on automation. As I wrote recently, notification of such changes is not consent, so without requiring that every change be bargained over the boss has a free hand to undo all the new gains especially if there is a management rights clause in the CBA. 

Unions too often trade increased pay and benefits for increased workload instead of tying them together. Since the 1950 UAW and GM “Treaty of Detroit,” unions have made these trade-offs to their own peril. The boss has consistently responded by increasing workload with automation and, as I have written about, more recently with AI. The result is that the workers’ gains evaporate as productivity increases faster than pay resulting in the need for fewer workers to do the same or more work.   

Workers must always be vigilant to any new changes not only after the CBA is ratified but before organizing begins. This can be done by conducting a workers' inquiry into how work is currently organized by closely examining the current systems of pay, staffing, workload, job rules and the use of new technology. The inquiry alerts us to our weaknesses and shows us where the boss might attack after the new contract is signed. It also shows us where the boss is weak so we can organize and apply leverage at critical choke points to disrupt business as usual to achieve our objectives.  

A workers’ inquiry done from below can prepare rank and file workers to respond to the boss’s inevitable counter-attack when it comes. That’s why campaign action teams should not be dismantled after a successful strike campaign. The CATs should instead be transformed into what J.T. Murphy called a “workers' committee” in his 1917 pamphlet of the same name that can work alongside and complimentary to the union. The workers’ committees composed of rank and file workers from across the entire shop can act quickly to defend and expand on their gains. 

The boss’s counter-act will surely come so we need to always be ready to take it on. No language in a CBA can substitute for having an organized rank and file ready to take action to beat the boss. 

Robert Ovetz is author of the forthcoming book “Rebels for the System” (Haymarket Press) about nonprofits and capitalism. He is also the editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” co-editor of the new “Real World Labor (Vol. 4)” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back: and “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” Follow him at @OvetzRobert.

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