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The challenges ahead for labor

August 30, 2002 | Page 3

CONCESSIONS BARGAINING will overshadow Labor Day 2002 as unions face some of their toughest battles since the 1980s.

Airline unions, including the International Association of Machinists (IAM), are facing demands to surrender billions in concessions. The IAM is also in what one union official calls a "fight for survival" at Boeing, which has slashed the number of commercial airline production jobs in half since 1990.

On the West Coast docks, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has already agreed in principal to sacrifice more than 1,000 well-paid clerks' jobs. But the employers' Pacific Maritime Association--backed by a coalition of giant retailers and other big importers--won't take "yes" for an answer. They're using the threat of strikebreaking by the federal government under the Taft-Hartley Act to take an even harder line.

Even the agreement hailed by Teamsters President James Hoffa as "the best UPS contract ever" contains concessions in disguise. If approved, it will increase the wage gap between full-timers and part-timers and drive up the percentage of part-time employees to more than 60 percent--the very issues that led to the popular 1997 strike.

With business scandals shattering Corporate America's credibility, a fighting union movement could again rally widespread support against the employers' attempts to make workers pay for the crisis. Instead, labor has taken its political cues from the Democratic Party, making corporate greed just another issue in a handful of competitive election campaigns for Congress.

The AFL-CIO's premier Labor Day event will be in New York City--a patriotic commemoration of union members who died in the September 11 attacks. But wrapping unions in the flag only plays into the employers' hands--as in the case of the West Coast dockworkers, where strikebreaking threats are justified as a war measure.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has taken small steps to capitalize on the scandals. But many top labor leaders are themselves caught up in an insider trading scandal involving ULLICO, a union-run insurance company.

The result of all this has been the isolation of different labor struggles--and a few local strikes aside, a union retreat. Nevertheless, the arrogance and aggression of Corporate America could lead to confrontations anyway at Boeing and on the West Coast docks.

And the strike threat by members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 1 union in Chicago shows the potential to wage a fight for decent pay, benefits and job security, even in this lousy economy. The atmosphere was electric August 23 when some 4,000 members of Local 1 marched down the city's ritzy Michigan Avenue.

That's the kind fighting spirit that our unions need today. With employers determined to roll back union power, we have a fight on our hands. It's time to rebuild union power to meet that challenge.

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