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When will unions fight back?

September 20, 2002 | Page 3

EMPLOYERS ARE out to gut the strength of the some the most powerful unions in the U.S.--but labor leaders are surrendering without a fight.

Last week, a 62 percent majority of workers at Boeing Co.'s commercial jet aircraft division voted to reject a contract that would allow the loss of thousands more jobs--on top of 30,000 layoffs announced since the September 11 attacks last year. But because the rules of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) require a two-thirds vote to authorize a strike, the contract will go into force anyway.

The responsibility for this disaster rests with IAM officials, who did nothing to prevent their "partners" in Boeing management from violating job protections established in the previous two contracts--including those won after a 69-day strike in 1995.

This time around, IAM officials held one vote on a proposed contract--only to refuse to count the ballots while they appealed to management for further negotiations. This led to bitterness and distrust among the rank and file.

IAM leaders are also pushing concessions for their members at United Airlines, where management is demanding givebacks totaling $9 billion from employees over six years.

Meanwhile, another bulwark of the labor movement, the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), has already conceded demands for the elimination about 1,000 clerks jobs--and kept dockworkers on the job after the contract expired July 1.

But the employers--backed by Bush administration threats to ban any strike on the grounds of "national security"--are demanding even more givebacks. ILWU leaders have denounced these threats. But they tried to claim the mantle of "terrorism prevention" for the union--as if that was the real issue for the union busters in the White House. When union militants questioned this strategy, they were hounded by officials.

Even the Teamsters contract at UPS, hailed as a "victory" by union leaders, allows management to roll back gains for part-time workers won in the groundbreaking 1997 strike.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has ducked the debate around Bush's drive for a war on Iraq, used the September 11 anniversary to declare labor's patriotism and embraced the Democrats' mushy program for the 2002 elections.

Yet despite the paralysis at the top, the potential to take on Corporate America is there. A recent opinion poll for the AFL-CIO found that 58 percent of workers aged 18 to 34 would join a union if they could.

And in Chicago, some 7,000 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 1--most of them poorly paid immigrants--last month mobilized for a strike in a contract campaign that culminated with an electrifying march downtown.

Unfortunately, Local 1 leaders, under pressure from politicians and the local labor leaders, kept talking past the contract deadline and settled without a strike. The contract made dramatic gains, but a strike could have won more--and given a much-needed display of workers' power to stand up in a recession-wracked economy.

Union officials may be reluctant or unwilling to lead struggles. But rank-and-file workers have no alternative but to organize and fight back--and build unions that can take on the employers.

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