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On the picket line

September 16, 2005 | Page 15

Northwest Airlines

By Darrin Hoop and Lee Sustar

BOEING IS trying to ratchet up pressure on striking workers by claiming that the union is demanding $1 billion in concessions from the company. The figure is greatly overstated. But Boeing, which, along with Europe's Airbus, dominates the industry for full-sized commercial jetliners, can afford the union's demands.

The walkout by some 18,500 workers, members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), began September 2 after the company refused to budge on demands to cut retiree health care and retain contract language that allows management to outsource jobs. That job-killing contract went into effect in 2002 even after a majority of union workers voted it down, since IAM rules require a two-thirds majority to reject a contract and go on strike.

This time, workers have dug in for what could be a long fight. "In 2002, there were layoffs already due to 9/11," a shop steward at the Renton, Wash., plant told Socialist Worker. "Thousands were laid off or were going to be, due to the lack of orders. Our demands were minimal. We weren't in a position to get more. Now we're in better financial shape. We want a decent contract. They just paid $22 million to sign the new CEO. Our list of demands is about $24 million."

That new boss, James McNerney, took over July 1 following a scandal that ousted the former CEO. "They can pay top-end people, but can't pay the people who put planes together," the shop steward said. "Our demands are no medical takeaways instead of Boeing's increased co-pays. We need a pension benefit that pays in the mid $70s per month of service instead of the company's $66. No job losses. We want to eliminate letter of understanding No. 37"--which allowed management to eliminate jobs with outsourcing.

Another major issue is the company's demand to eliminate retiree health care for new hires.

Taken together, Boeing's demands are part of divide-and-conquer strategy. "The basic issue is pitting young against old workers with the lack of money for pensions and the bonuses for the younger workers," the shop steward said. The outcome of the Boeing strike will have a far-reaching impact on unions in manufacturing and beyond--and strikers will need support to win.

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Northwest Airlines

NORTHWEST AIRLINES is moving to crush the strike by mechanics by permanently replacing strikers and upping its demands for concessions. The company announced it would begin September 13 to permanently replace strikers, members of the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).

The 4,400 striking mechanics and cleaners walked out last month over management's demands to cut the number of jobs in half, including the elimination of cleaners' jobs. In subsequent negotiations, the company made its offer even worse, insisting on cuts that would reduce the number of AMFA mechanics on the job to 1,100--down from a total of 10,000 mechanics' and cleaners' jobs when AMFA became the workers' bargaining agent in 1998.

The strike was weakened from the start when unions representing pilots, flight attendants and ramp workers crossed their picket lines. The International Association of Machinists (IAM), which represents ramp workers and formerly the mechanics, has even ordered its members to take over some of AMFA's work. The AFL-CIO has endorsed this scabbing.

Still, AMFA members are holding the line, refusing to cross picket lines in advance of the September 13 deadline to permanently replace strikers. "Our mechanics won't scab," a 27-year veteran mechanic in Seattle told Socialist Worker. "What Northwest offered us is too draconian. The issue is our jobs. Our last, best and final offer was a 16 percent pay cut, having us pay 20 percent of medical and cut 1,300 jobs. That still wasn't good enough for Northwest."

Without solidarity from the unions at Northwest, some AMFA members in Detroit took advantage of a provision in labor law that allowed them to picket a freight railroad, briefly shutting down a CSX terminal when Teamsters refused to cross their picket line. More action like that is essential across the U.S. if the union has a chance to win this fight.

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By Sam Bernstein

NEW HAVEN, Conn.--The battle for a decent contract by dining hall workers at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) recently came to a close. On August 29, members of UNITE HERE Local 217 voted overwhelmingly to ratify a contract whose terms are significantly better than what Chartwells had originally offered.

After the previous contract expired in February, the 80 campus dining hall workers were determined to beat back Chartwells' disastrous proposals. The company sought to impose a wage freeze, roll back health and pension benefits, tear up the grievance procedures and assert greater control over the workforce.

The most problematic issue was that of on-call workers. Chartwells wanted a flexible group of workers that could be called up to work when needed and would be placed in a different pay scale. This would have undermined seniority rights, job security and unity.

Throughout the contract fight, management tried to use racism to divide the majority Black workforce from its white counterparts and to isolate and intimidate militant workers. In the face of this aggressive employer assault, workers were determined to never give in, organizing pickets and leafleting events on campus.

In April, workers and students joined the Southern Antiwar Coalition at a protest that demanded money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation. Workers also organized mass pickets at SCSU graduation events.

Meanwhile, paid Local 217 organizers called meeting after meeting, arguing that the workers should accept the proposed contract--concessions and all--because there was no other choice.

Toward the end of the summer, workers began to prepare for a strike in the fall. A week before the strike would have started, Chartwells finally gave in.

The four-year contract was overwhelmingly approved, but is still a mixed bag. Workers will receive 8 percent raises retroactively and for each year, while pension benefits remain the same. Most significantly, the on-call clause was scrapped. However, workers made significant concessions on health care.

Still, many workers feel that their strategy of rejecting all-out concessions and continually stepping up the pressure on Chartwells and SCSU forced the company to retreat.

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