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On the picket line

December 7, 2001 | Page 11

United Airlines
AFL-CIO convention
V&V Supremo Foods
University of Illinois
Columbia University teaching assistants

Pratt & Whitney

EAST HARTFORD, Conn.--More than 5,100 workers went on strike against Pratt & Whitney jet aircraft engine plants here as Socialist Worker went to press. The plant is a major supplier of engines for both civilian and military aircraft.

The workers, members of International Association of Machinists District 91, rejected a proposed contract with a 70 percent "no" vote. The proposed deal would have granted a 10 percent wage increase over three years and included a $1,000 signing bonus.

But workers rejected the pact because it would do nothing to guarantee job security. Pratt has eliminated 1,500 jobs since the last contract was ratified in 1998.

It is the first strike at Pratt since 1985, when workers at two plants walked out--and the first all-out strike since 1960.

"What they've done to our jobs is disgusting," machinist Scott Smith told reporters. Gary Allen, the national aerospace coordinator for the IAM, told strikers: "This is your defining moment as a union. You've got to send a message."

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United Airlines

UNITED AIRLINES is preparing to demand concessions from unions--and George W. Bush is backing the company by promising to ban a machinists' strike.

United announced the layoff of 20,000 workers following the September 11 attacks. Since then United has forced mechanics in International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 141-M, which represents 15,000 workers, to take a six-day workweek with no overtime.

Former CEO James Goodwin, who demanded concessions, was ousted in October by unions that hold seats on the company board. But the new, supposedly labor-friendly boss John Creighton is now calling for "sacrifice," too.

United unions in 1994 took $4.9 billion in pay and work-rule concessions in exchange for an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP). But ESOP rules prohibit workers from selling the stock until they leave the company or retire--so they watched retirement accounts evaporate as United's stock price plunged.

Now mechanics in IAM District 141-M--which has been negotiating a new contract for two years--face more demands for cuts. IAM leaders last week rejected an offer of arbitration from the federal National Mediation Board, triggering a 30-day countdown to a strike.

But union officials have done nothing to prepare for action. "We found out about it on CNN," Jennifer Biddle, a mechanic in San Francisco, told Socialist Worker.

Many longtime union rank-and-file activists at United have joined the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association, an independent craft union, and are sitting out this struggle. This is a dangerous, divisive approach.

The stakes for mechanics at United are huge. Under the Railway Labor Act that governs airlines, Bush can invoke a Presidential Emergency Board that can prevent a strike or lockout for up to 60 days. Afterward, workers are free to strike--but then Congress can step in and impose a settlement.

If the IAM and other unions grant concessions, employers everywhere will demand similar cuts. It's time to draw the line.

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AFL-CIO convention

By Jessie Muldoon, Oakland Education Association

THE AFL-CIO's 24th Constitutional Convention was preceded by a weekend dedicated to building state and local labor councils and to a civil and human rights conference.

At the "Union City" conference, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and ILA Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley were part of a panel discussion highlighting local campaigns. The speeches acknowledged the successful campaigns of the last year, most notably the victory for the Charleston Five and the ILA.

But the conference's main focus was on the recession and the challenges faced by organized labor after September 11. Sweeney drew applause when he stated the labor movement is "standing with our president in the war on terrorism at home and abroad." He then noted that there has been a war on workers in the U.S. for the past 50 years--a war the labor movement needs to win.

Ken Riley recounted the struggle of the Charleston Five against the racist, anti-union state of South Carolina to a standing ovation. "We're going to crisscross this country on a victory tour," he said. "These five men need to see the people who supported them" during nearly two years of house arrest.

The victory of the Charleston Five demonstrates the power of a real grassroots struggle. Unfortunately, Sweeney's rhetoric doesn't measure up. While he talks of giving working families a voice, he drums up support for the anti-union Bush administration.

The weekend conferences displayed two faces of the labor movement: One face looks to collaboration with the government and partnership with the bosses; the other looks toward building a militant, rank-and-file labor movement.

How workers fare in the worsening recession will depend to a large degree on which direction organized labor goes.

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V&V Supremo Foods

By Eric Ruder

CHICAGO--Returning to work after a nearly seven-month strike, workers at V&V Supremo were shocked to learn that the company reneged on its promises.

Employees had voted to return to work last week because V&V Supremo agreed to recognize a union for production workers and to negotiate a contract with wage increases.

This followed on a victory for distribution workers who went back to work with a contract that contained wage increases of 25 to 35 percent over the life of the three-year contract.

But when they arrived at work Monday, distribution employees found that the company had locked out the production workers, prompting Teamsters Local 703 to file yet more charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

"First, they gave us as a pretext for locking us out that they would negotiate in good faith to agree on a contract as soon as possible," Mario Pallares, a worker at the plant, told Socialist Worker.

A return to the picket line by distribution workers would give more leverage to the production workers--but the union has no plans for such action.

But production workers aren't about to quit fighting.

"We think that the company tried to divide us when it signed a contract with the drivers. Leaving us outside, the company thought that the strike would lose strength," Marcelino de la Rusa, another worker at V&V, told Socialist Worker.

Workers now must return to their strategy of mobilizing community support and solidarity from other unions.

A fundraiser at a Teamsters union hall last week raised more than $10,000 for the strikers.

The struggle is key for Latino and immigrant workers everywhere.

"Now that winter is coming they think that we'll feel rotten and ditch the strike," said Marcelino, "because that's what the company wants. But we won't do that. We'll struggle until justice arrives."

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University of Illinois

By Tracy Egan, Graduate Employees Organization

URBANA, Ill.--Chanting "We keep this campus open, and we can shut it down!" striking members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) forced the cancellation of dozens of classes at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on November 28 and 29.

The strike--the first of its kind at Illinois--was called to protest the administration's refusal to recognize GEO and bargain with its members over working conditions and pay raises.

Some 300 to 400 GEO members and their supporters held spirited pickets despite miserable weather. Many faculty supporters either canceled class or moved classes to other locations in support of the GEO strike.

GEO members were energized by an Illinois House of Representatives resolution that recognized their right to organize and bargain collectively. What's more, many undergraduates joined the picket lines or refused to cross picket lines. Many undergraduates are sympathetic to GEO's argument that overworked teaching assistants and large class sizes are the real threat to education.

Separately, GEO members at the University of Illinois-Chicago occupied the administration's offices for several hours in solidarity with the strike. Dozens of undergraduates in Chicago also joined the protests.

GEO members will need to convince other graduate students of the need for a threatened spring 2002 strike--that could go on for much longer than two days.

The university and its team of union-busting lawyers aren't sparing taxpayer dollars to bully the union. But GEO has already won paid training, vision and a dental plan for graduate student workers.

And the November strike has shown the administration that graduate employees have the power to bring the campus to a halt--and that we're prepared to do it again.

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Columbia University teaching assistants

By Peter Lamphere

Teaching assistants at Columbia University, fed up with long hours for too little compensation, started a union drive last semester. But the university administration doesn't even think that they are workers, and so has put up a nasty campaign in the courts.

Union activists are expecting a favorable ruling from the NLRB within weeks and are gearing up for a big campaign for the union election.

One of the key challenges is how to keep the administration from pitting undergraduates against graduate students. So progressive students have started up a solidarity committee in support. They are blanketing the campus with postcards for undergraduates to send in.

The organizing drive at Columbia comes on the heels of a major victory of TAs at New York University last year and is one of several other exciting drives around the country.

Graduate students at Brown University are voting on whether to join a union next week, while a month-old unionizing campaign at Tufts already has a majority of TAs signed up.

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