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Stop the attacks on workers of all ages

Published Nov 24, 2010 10:30 PM

Phebe Eckfeldt
WW photo: Alan Pollock

Following are excerpts from the Nov. 13 talk given at the Workers World Party national conference, by Phebe Eckfeldt, a leader of the Boston branch and a representative of the Harvard Union of Technical and Clerical Workers, AFSCME Local 3650.

We will all grow older. It’s the dialectics of nature. Some of us haven’t thought about this prospect yet. Others are starting to ponder it. Many are there already, accepting it or not.

Shouldn’t workers have the right to look forward to retirement? Playing with grandchildren, traveling, sleeping late, pursuing long-forgotten interests and organizing against injustice. Aging under capitalism can be terrifying, life threatening, demeaning and degrading. Older workers are expendable, costly and unprofitable; many are being pushed out, laid off and fired.

An Obama-administration-appointed commission just proposed raising the Social Security qualification age to 69, which would rob workers of funds they have earned and deserve.

Marxism explains that employed workers produce a greater value than they receive back in wages. If one works a seven-hour day and produces enough in four hours to equal one’s wages, the next three hours are unpaid; the boss gets these for free. This is “surplus value.”

Bosses’ profits are directly proportional to workers’ unpaid labor. If workers are paid more for their labor, as longer-term workers generally are, the bosses’ profits are lowered proportionally. Wage or benefits’ reductions means bosses get more free labor time. Benefits like health insurance, pensions, paid sick and vacation days are deferred wages that belong to the workers.

Harvard University union activists are fighting against management’s campaign to drive out older workers, which began after the big-bank-run Harvard Corporation lost billions in endowment funds after the stock market crashes.

To increase profits, Harvard has laid off workers, many of them older and many women. In one department three older women workers were laid off and replaced with three younger white men. Other workers, afraid of pending layoffs, felt forced to take retirement plans that they could barely live on. They thought part-time jobs would supplement their incomes, but that became nearly impossible, due to the depression.

Harvard brings in new managers to slash costs by driving out older workers. They use a tactic of tracking errors or using accuracy rates, telling workers their work must be 95 percent to 100 percent accurate. The manager decides what constitutes an “error,” how the errors are measured, and on whom an error is imposed. They target disabled workers, union representatives and senior, long-time workers.

These rates are impossible to meet because the rules constantly change and are a trap. By tracking a worker’s every move, by micromanaging and harassing, the work environment becomes hostile and stressful, sometimes leading workers to quit or be fired. A disabled man with eyesight problems was run out in this way, and so was a 30-year employee.

The managers who are brought in to get rid of workers are aptly described in Fred Goldstein’s book, “Low-Wage Capitalism”: “An office clerk may wear the same white collar as a manager whose job it is to see that the clerk gives every last minute of labor time to the boss. The clerk has sold her or his labor power to the boss and the supervisor is there to see that this labor power is as thoroughly exploited as possible. The superficiality of the category ‘white collar’ will be revealed the moment the clerk and other workers demand a raise, try to organize a union, or go on strike.”

Harvard aims to drive out older workers and replace them with young workers, paying them one-half or one-third of a senior worker’s salary. Management super-exploits young workers who work the same hours but produce more as they are required to know and use many computer programs. Because most young people are very knowledgeable about computers, one worker can do the same amount of work as two or three workers did years ago.

Harvard is violating the union contract, which states that laid-off workers, mostly older, must be given first preference in hiring, but management turns away many qualified senior applicants to hire younger workers. Harvard’s attempt to drive a wedge between older and younger workers is insidious.

However, to management’s dismay, there is strong solidarity between younger and senior workers, among union activists on campus and from students. This bodes well for future struggles.

We look to the solidarity among French workers of different ages in their militant struggles for pensions. The youth will show the way. Together, let’s expropriate the expropriators.