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2002: The year of the almost-strikes

By Lee Sustar | February 21, 2003 | Page 11

WILL 2003 be the year that labor finally fights back? Certainly employers are pushing unions to the wall. From wage cuts ordered by bankruptcy judges at United Airlines and US Airways to the wipeout of retiree benefits in the buyout of bankrupt steel companies, Corporate America is finding ways to push the cost of economic crisis onto workers' backs--and the unions are going along.

Public-sector unions are feeling the squeeze as well, with states facing their biggest fiscal crisis since perhaps the Great Depression of the 1930s. And the Big Three auto makers are gearing up for contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers by announcing their intent to close assembly plants and reduce pensions. In the crisis-ridden telecommunications industry, even relatively healthy companies like SBC and Verizon will use the slump to try to extract more concessions.

Spurring on these attacks is George W. Bush, whose bans on strikes in the airlines, intervention in the West Coast dockworkers' struggle and elimination of union rights in the Department of Homeland Security has only emboldened Corporate America.

Despite this onslaught, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hasn't sounded the alarm--let alone tried to mobilize a response. Instead, each union is desperately trying to maintain a "partnership" with employers no matter the price paid by the rank-and-file.

On the surface, union officials seem to be getting away with this retreat unchallenged by a rank-and-file revolt. The year 2001 saw the lowest number of workdays lost in strikes since records were first kept in 1947. And while figures for 2002 aren't available, the numbers won't be too different, except for a 10-day lockout imposed by West Coast shipping bosses.

But a closer look at last year's struggles shows that anger is on the rise--and union leaders had to twist and turn to avoid strikes, some of which would have had a major impact on U.S. politics. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, for example, conducted an impressive mobilization for a possible hotel strike in Chicago before cutting a deal.

At United Airlines, leaders of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) had to talk strike before pushing concessions a few months later--and then rejecting them until a bankruptcy judge forced the pay cuts.

IAM officials at Boeing twisted and turned during last fall's contract fight--calling for a no vote, canceling the results, and calling another that failed to get the two-thirds majority required to reject a contract and strike.

A few weeks later, officials at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), having failed to call a strike vote, found themselves forced to back a work-to-rule initiative by the rank and file after a series of management provocations--which then provided the pretext for a lockout. Under the gun of Bush's intervention with the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, the ILWU accepted a concessionary deal.

In New York City, the reform president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, Roger Toussaint, vowed to call an illegal strike in December rather than accept concessions--but negotiated through the contract deadline and cut a deal instead.

Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America spent millions on an advertising campaign and called numerous rallies to stop layoffs at Verizon--but rolled over when the job cuts came down.

None of these outcomes was inevitable. If the union bureaucracy felt it necessary to talk tough and even mobilize to a certain extent, it's because workers' bitterness at the employers is on the rise. But if the officials could sidestep any real fight, it's because workers are just beginning to rebuild the organization and develop the politics necessary to take the initiative.

However, the process has begun--and widespread support for labor antiwar resolutions reflects union members' desire to take up tough issues. There's no telling exactly when and where the anger in the rank and file will finally boil over into a real confrontation with employers. But the more systematically we prepare for those battles today, the greater chance of our success tomorrow.

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