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The steel crisis and labor's challenge

By Lee Sustar | December 14, 2001 | Page 11

I STILL remember the faces of the workers filing out of U.S. Steel's South Works in Chicago the day 18 years ago that the company announced the shutdown of that mill and several others--two days after Christmas.

"15,000 on the slag heap," was Socialist Worker's then-shocking front-page headline. The closure of South Works and the decimation of the steel industry epitomized organized labor's disastrous retreat--surrender, really--under AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland.

Some 300,000 steel jobs were eliminated. By 1987, three-quarters of all union contracts covering 1,000 or more workers contained wage cuts. For manufacturing workers, the figure was 90 percent.

Then, employers declared that the cuts were needed to help the U.S. compete with Japan economically and with the old USSR militarily. Immigrants were "stealing" jobs, they said. Kirkland, a staunch anticommunist, pushed that line throughout organized labor--and stifled any real debate.

Today, the Japanese economy is a mess, and the Cold War has been over for a decade. But the bitter and angry looks on the faces of workers at LTV's East Chicago, Ind., mill this month were the same ones I saw outside the old South Works plant.

The LTV workers had learned a few days earlier of management's plans to shutter the company for good, wiping out 7,000 jobs. This could signal further plant closures that could wipe out thousands more steel jobs. How the United Steelworkers of America and organized labor respond to this crisis will affect organized labor everywhere.

By coincidence, the AFL-CIO was holding its biennial convention in Las Vegas when news came of the possible LTV shutdown. Unlike Kirkland, Sweeney admitted that some of labor's wounds are self-inflicted. "I must stand before you this morning and say in all honesty, the American labor movement is failing to help new members organize at anywhere near the level we need to," he said.

Sweeney also restated the AFL-CIO's commitment to amnesty for immigrants. But he offered no strategy to deal with the job crisis.

The convention focused instead--as usual--on Democratic politicians. Leaving aside the big question of the benefit of putting more Democrats in office, focusing on an election 11 months away won't defend jobs and wages today.

And although Sweeney condemned corporations for using September 11 to "prowl for profits," he strongly voiced support for the war itself. Yet the war will only worsen the problems that face organized labor--from economic inequality to a crackdown on civil liberties.

But the war was never debated. Opponents of the war were harassed and red-baited--just as in the Kirkland days.

In fact, the AFL-CIO moved to limit debate at a time when labor needs it more than ever. The convention approved a constitutional change to hold conventions every four years rather than two, and limited the number of executive council meetings from three to two.

But while union officials in Las Vegas weren't willing to allow controversy or provide leadership, some groups of workers set a fighting example themselves.

Some 5,000 machinists at Pratt & Whitney who make jet engines for the military went on strike despite charges of being "unpatriotic." Striking New Jersey teachers went to jail rather than knuckle under to a judge's injunction and the law-and-order atmosphere.

Struggles like these show that workers aren't in the mood to accept another round of employer demands for concessions--or to wait for a green light from top union officials. That shows the real potential to revitalize the labor movement at time when unions face their greatest test in years.

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