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Charleston and Chicago show two faces of labor today
Time to rebuild union power

June 22, 2001 | Page 3

CHICAGO IS famous for being a union town.

Yet when 1,000 gas workers went on strike against the utility giant Peoples Gas in May, the city's union leaders didn't lift a finger.

Peoples Gas is hated in Chicago. Last winter, it jacked up heating bills so high that it sparked protests that forced the company to extend payment plans.

So gas workers were in a good position to fight. But solidarity was critical to beat a corporate giant like Peoples Gas.

It didn't happen.

At several rallies, labor leaders gave militant-sounding speeches.

But fearful of offending Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, they didn't mobilize union members to support the strike--nor did they come up with much money to support Local 18007.

So demoralized gas workers felt that they had no choice June 8 but to vote for a rotten deal.

This lost opportunity in Chicago is another example of labor's retreat and disarray since George W. Bush stole the White House.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa has embraced Bush's destructive energy plan--as has Carpenters President Doug McCarron, who led his union out of the AFL-CIO itself.

Even United Steelworkers' President Leo Gerard--the most left-wing member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council--says he wants to work with Bush.

But on June 9, organized labor showed another face--not in a union stronghold, but in viciously anti-labor South Carolina.

More than 7,000 union members and supporters rallied to defend the Charleston Five--dockworkers facing trial on felony riot charges for the "crime" of picketing scab labor.

The union involved--International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422--is overwhelmingly African American and a key force in the civil rights movement in South Carolina.

That's why the growing national campaign to defend the Charleston Five takes up racial justice as well as workers' rights.

The difference between the fights in Chicago and Charleston is that ILA Local 1422 organized to push the struggle forward and build solidarity, despite the opposition of top union officials.

By winning grassroots support from civil rights and social justice groups and rank-and-file activists in several unions, they succeeded in pressuring the AFL-CIO to endorse their fight.

Now the West Coast dockworkers' union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union--along with international dockworkers' unions from Sweden to Spain--are preparing to shut down the ports if the case against the Five comes to trial.

That's the kind of muscle that can teach corporate bosses and racist politicians a lesson.

The struggle in Charleston is a fighting example for union members across the U.S. who are struggling to rebuild their unions from the bottom up.

It's time to draw the line against the attack on our unions--and Charleston is the place to do it.

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