MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Notes of the Quarter

The employers strike back

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Union leaders hailed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters strike victory over United Parcel Service (UPS) last August as a sign of a revived and increasingly powerful labor movement. In the weeks following the UPS strike, unions won several strikes, including those at the San Francisco Bay transit system, the Toro lawn mower plant in Minnesota and in Philadelphia Catholic high schools. And labor’s role in defeating fast track trade legislation last fall pointed up the potential for real political clout.

Yet, six months later, the situation looked very different. Statistics showed that union membership fell by 159,000 in 1997, and that union representation dropped from 14.5 to 14.1 percent of workers. The same union officials who basked in the glory of the UPS victory shied away from major strikes amid a series of sharp legal and political attacks by the government and business – and made not a peep of protest over the ouster of Teamsters President Ron Carey.

It is precisely because labor made modest gains that the employers are stepping up their offensive against unions. But the AFL-CIO’s response has been to run for cover. After standing at Ron Carey’s side to pledge labor’s backing in the UPS strike, Sweeney kept silent while the government ousted the man who led the biggest strike victory in 25 years. The AFL-CIO’s passivity has only encouraged labor’s enemies.

Last fall, Michigan Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra’s hearings on Carey’s alleged involvement in a scheme to use union funds to finance his reelection campaign in 1996 established the political climate that led to Carey’s ouster. Meanwhile, investigators named AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Gerald McEntee as alleged participants in the Teamsters’ illegal fundraising scheme.

Conservatives also stepped up efforts to pass so-called “paycheck protection” restrictions on the use of union dues for political donations. Since such a measure couldn’t survive a Clinton veto in Congress, the GOP is pushing paycheck protection at the state level. While backers of such laws wrap their program in the rhetoric of “workers’ rights,” they are seeking revenge for labor’s attacks on the Republicans and to limit unions’ ability to defend Social Security and public education. Already in Washington state, officials used such a law to fine the Washington Education Association $800,000 for spending union funds to fight a referendum establishing school vouchers. Similar paycheck protection measures are pending in 20 states.

Other legal attacks on labor abound. In Congress, the Republicans are seeking to outlaw “salting” – the practice of sending union organizers to take jobs at nonunion companies – although Clinton is certain to veto the measure. The Pacific Maritime Association, the organization of West Coast shipping bosses, is suing labor activists for picketing a ship that handled scab cargo in the two-year Liverpool dockworkers’ struggle. And nursing-home operator Beverly Enterprises sued Cornell University labor researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner for defamation in her testimony about the company’s union-busting activities.

The GOP-led political attacks might seem to give credibility to labor’s support for the Democratic Party. But Clinton himself has used the law against labor, repeatedly invoking his legal right to ban transportation strikes, most recently at Amtrak and at American Airlines. And while congressional Democrats welcome labor’s funding and support, they get far more money from Corporate America and have always been a pro-business party.

Workers are already paying a high price for labor leaders’ failure to stand up to the political attacks. With Carey abandoned by top AFL-CIO officials, the Teamsters entered negotiations on the National Master Freight Agreement with leading trucking employers in disarray. While a tentative deal avoided major concessions and won pension improvements, it didn’t make the advances of the UPS strike. The chilling effect of the political attacks has reached other unions as well. In Philadelphia, the Transport Workers Union won a major victory in 1995 with a militant, active strike. But this time, the local transit authority has made systematic preparations for scabbing. In response, union leaders granted an “hour-by-hour” contract extension that is in its third week as this is being written.

If the union leaders are reluctant to take on the employers, rank-and-file workers are increasingly angry at demands for concessions. But this anger needs to be organized, as the recent battle over the ratification of a contract with Caterpillar, Inc. showed. After a seven-year fight that included two long, bitter strikes, United Auto Workers (UAW) leaders endorsed a contract with massive concessions on wages and working conditions and dropped 441 unfair labor practice complaints against the company. Striking workers had rejected a similar contract by an 80 percent vote in 1995, only to have union leaders force a return to work by cutting off strike benefits. Rather than authorizing mass pickets to shut down production, UAW International leaders surrendered instead and disappeared for two years.

After a fight that destroyed thousands of lives and led to 12 workers’ suicides, workers found concessions alone difficult to swallow. But the sticking point in the deal for many workers was union amnesty for scabs without the unconditional rehiring of all 160 workers terminated in the struggle. Thus a network of activists around a newsletter, Kick the Cat, worked to mobilize the “no” vote that forced union leaders to renegotiate an agreement that brought back all the fired workers. While the deal, ratified the following month, includes the concessions, the company must now accept the return of militants it has tried to get rid of for years.

Winning back the jobs of fired workers is a key first step in rebuilding the union at Cat. And by defying union leaders to achieve that goal, Cat workers have set an example for the rest of the labor movement. Companies like Caterpillar, which back the political and legal attacks on labor, simply aren’t interested in “partnership” with unions unless the companies dictate the terms. If labor leaders won’t rise to that challenge, rank-and-file workers must be prepared to push them aside.

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