Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 18, 2019

Smash the two-tier labor system!

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

I first became aware of the two-tiered wage system in 1997 when UPS workers, organized by the Teamsters, went on strike to challenge the growing reliance on part-time workers who earned only $8 per hour. In a good article on the strike for Jacobin, Joe Allen, who worked for UPS for a decade, summed up the victory that a militant, 1930s-type struggle had won:

The company reached a tentative agreement with the Teamsters on August 20, 1997, fifteen days after the strike began. UPS agreed to the union’s main demands to create ten thousand full-time jobs out of low-wage part-time positions, the largest wage increases in UPS history, and protection against subcontracting of union jobs. The company also backed off its plan to hijack the full timers’ pension fund.

Ron Carey hailed the agreement as an “historic turning point for working people in this country. American workers have shown they can stand up to corporate greed,’” he said.

It was the biggest labor victory in a generation and led many people to believe that the US labor movement was finally poised for a dramatic comeback. Referring to the aftermath of the air traffic controllers’ strike smashed by Ronald Reagan in 1981, historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote that the strike ended “the PATCO syndrome, a sixteen-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization.”

As it happened, Lichtenstein was wildly over-optimistic. Instead, since 1996 the two-tier system has continued and deepened as a way of keeping workers divided. Even the bourgeois Washington Post allows Jacobin editor Alex Press to take note of this in August 2018 despite Jeff Bezos’s embrace of what might be called a one-tier system that screws everybody working for him. Press writes:

“Two-tier” refers to contracts that divide a workforce into distinct wage and benefit tiers based on their hiring date. Workers in both tiers are union members, but they toil under separate conditions. Usually, the lower-paid tier comprises workers to be hired after the contract’s negotiation, leaving them little recourse, even as they are forced to accept lesser terms.

The latest two-tier crisis centers on one of the United States’ largest private-sector unionized employers, UPS. If the company gets its way, it will be a signal to employers nationwide: You can’t directly bust your employees’ union, but here’s a way to divide and conquer, undermining them from within and locking in division between workers in the process.

Ironically, despite a majority of UPS members rejecting a contract that would continue to make concessions to the boss on part-timers, it was ratified anyway. A Teamster vote is only official if it has a certain percentage of members voting and in this case it was beneath that threshold. The vote remained low for obvious reasons. The Teamsters Union is a bureaucratic nightmare and most workers would rather stay at home watching a football game than vote. This wasn’t the case in 1997 when a reformer like Ron Carey led the union. But after he was forced out for campaign irregularities, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. took over and turned into what it is today, a typical business union.

No doubt the men running the UAW are not much different from Hoffa, probably worse. Despite this, the UAW is on strike now with the two-tier wage system being a primary grievance. Once again, Jacobin, despite its woeful tail-ending of the Democratic Party, continues to be a useful source of left analysis of working-class struggles. Jane Slaughter, a long-time journalist on trade union struggles, has an article titled “GM Workers Strike Against Low Wages and Two-Tier Contracts” that is worth reading. She writes about the boiling discontent at the shop-floor level that finally put sufficient pressure on the stiffs at the top to call a strike:

GM was bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $50 billion in 2009. It made over $8 billion in profits last year, while paying no federal income taxes yet gifting CEO Mary Barra $22 million. For GM to demand concessions from its overworked employees now is a sign that it thinks the UAW is an easy foe.

After all, UAW president Gary Jones may be distracted. His house and that of former president Dennis Williams were both searched by the FBI on August 28. Jones’s top lieutenant before he became president, Vance Pearson, was charged with using union funds for personal luxuries, and it’s widely believed that Jones and Williams will be next. Pearson was the sixth UAW official to be recently charged or convicted of graft.

Crawford said as the strike kicked off, “Yes, the UAW is corrupt. It’s disgusting beyond belief. But this is not about them. It’s about us. We can and will clean house. But we have a more immediate fight on our hands right now.”

Undoubtedly, the UAW strike is a reflection of a change in the relationship of class forces with teachers, airline attendants, grocery store and hotel workers raising hell. It is difficult to gauge where this is all going but it just might be the actual break in the status quo that Nelson Lichtenstein wrote about in 1997.

For background on how the UAW, one of the most militant unions of the 1930s, became so bureaucratically degenerated, I recommend Michael Yates’s Monthly Review article titled “Who Will Lead the U.S. Working Class” from 2013. It is a review of two books about the trade union movement with Gregg Shotwell’s “Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream” most relevant to its current sorry state. Michael writes:

Union givebacks ultimately led to the decimation of the UAW during the Great Recession. GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy, and the federal government demanded—and received—draconian concessions from the union in return for a bailout, in which the owners suffered nothing. And in a final blow to workers and the union, partnership and the resultant worker demoralization helped make possible the recent enactment of a right-to-work law in Michigan, the very cradle of industrial unionism.

Throughout all of this, the automobile manufacturers continued unilaterally to pursue their interests. While the union bashed the Japanese, the corporations partnered with Japanese companies. They took the profits they made from union concessions and invested them in foreign operations, which, the author informs readers, are now the major source of their profits, and where corporate assets are not subject to U.S. bankruptcy laws. They began to spin off their parts components, converting them into quasi-independent corporations that now supplied modular components to them (such as steering wheel assemblies and seats). These new entities either operated union-free or, with UAW cooperation, remained union but with much lower wages and benefits, and weaker work rules.

Although not the lunch-bucket stereotype of the old left’s concept of the working class, the members of the Professional Staff Congress in New York, including my wife, are also dealing with a two-tier wage system. CUNY (the City University of New York) relies heavily on adjuncts and they are like the underpaid part-time workers at UPS but put in the same hours as tenured professors like my wife.

James Hoff, who teaches English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and is tenured himself, has been an untiring advocate for raising the pay and benefits of adjuncts. He has an article in Left Voice titled “Will CUNY Go on Strike?” that is must-reading. His article begins:

More than two years ago, rank and file members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union of the City University of New York began to organize around a set of bold demands for worker equality. At the center of these demands was a call for a minimum $7,000 per three-credit course for adjunct faculty—an amount that would bring them close to parity with their full-time colleagues. Long exploited by management, the use of underpaid adjunct faculty at CUNY has increased dramatically over the last several decades, creating a two-tier wage system that has undermined the PSC’s ability to fight for more funding for the university and divided the union. Recognizing the transformative nature of the demand, which would require a complete restructuring of the university, activists began to rally around the slogan “$7K or Strike!” ($7KOS). These rank and file union members, many of them adjuncts themselves, argued that the most effective way to approach such a demand and still win a good contract for the rest of the bargaining unit, was to begin the negotiations on a militant footing and quickly move toward organizing the membership for a confrontation with management that included the credible threat of a strike.

Even though a strike would present challenges to my wife and me, this is a fight we would gladly take part in. Just two years before she finished her Ph.D. in 2007, she began working as an adjunct at Metropolitan College. In a stroke of luck, she got a tenure-track position at Lehman College that was arduous to say the least. Just two years ago, she became tenured and protected from the vicissitudes of adjuncthood and the tenure-track. I feel a deep solidarity with CUNY adjuncts as should be obvious from this article and wish them victory.



  1. I hope the workers take and keep control of this strike. It would be nice to think that they will win the strike (which they might) and then clean house in their union. But just as the Democratic Party is immune to a house cleaning, so too may be the UAW. It’s a one-party state, plain and simple. Revolution could do the job, but not reform.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — September 19, 2019 @ 12:21 am

  2. The first major concession to a two tier wage system was the Mechanization and Modernization pact of 1960 between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime association, which actually was a 3 tier system of consisting of A men B men and casuals. The A men had full coverage with guaranteed hours wages and first call on all jobs, the B men had some partial coverage and the casuals could only work if the A & B lists were exhausted and otherwise had no benefits. Twelve thousand jobs were lost. The ILWU once a model of militancy and rank and file democracy started its precipitous decline into business unionism. Few things are more nefarious in the trade union movement than a two or multi wage system the antipathy caused is palpable and the divisions created are a huge impediment to any working class unity at the point of production. In my opinion the abolishment of the two tier wage system and the ability to settle grievances on the shop floor as they occur using all tools up to and including a work stoppage are key to any meaningful trade union resurgence. The other thing that must be changed is wage increases by percentage if everyone gets a 4% wage increase the higher paid workers get more and overtime considerably more. Most of our current “union leaders” think the most important wage on the shop floor is the highest wage and try to maximize that but the truth is the opposite the most important wage is the lowest and maximum effort should be to getting that increased as much as possible. A small part of that includes that raises be in dollars and cents not percentages. So if a millwright gets 40 an hour and a janitor is making 15 a 5% raise would give the millwright 2.00 but the janitor only .75. Over time we get a doppler effect. Much better if everybody gets the same dollar amount increase and that amount would be determined by the strength and unity of the membership and would be much close to $2 than .75 cents. Of course none of this begins to happen without a radical change in the leadership and program of the trade union movement. I’m not holding my breath.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — September 19, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

  3. […] „Smash the two-tier labor system!“ am 18. September 2019 von (und bei) Louis Project ist ein grundsätzlicher Betrag über das Lohnsystem – nicht nur in der Autobranche, der Beitrag beginnt mit den persönlichen Erfahrungen vor über 20 Jahren bei UPS – das prinzipiell auf Diskriminierung abgelegt ist: „Neue“ bekommen immer weniger. Dies mit Billigung verschiedener Gewerkschaften eingesetzte Lohnraub-Programm (das er auch in den Auswirkungen ausführlich schildert) müsse schlicht und ergreifend zerschlagen werden, so die Schlussfolgerung des Autors. […]

    Pingback by LabourNet Germany Der Streik bei GM in den USA: Steht und wird unterstützt – trotz Propagandakampagne, Erpressungsversuchen und Streikbrechern des Unternehmens » LabourNet Germany — September 20, 2019 @ 9:21 am

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