Trucking bosses send a message on Labor Day...
By Lee Sustar | September 13, 2002 | Page 12
THE TRUCKING giant Consolidated Freightways sent a message to 15,500 workers on Labor Day. We're going bankrupt. And you're out on the street. This was the final act in the company's 20-year war on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Consolidated Freightways became a separate company only in 1996, when it was spun off by its parent company CNF, which had shifted the company's prize assets into nonunion subsidiaries. "This wasn't the result of a weak company in a bad economy," said a 23-year veteran driver for the company in the Midwest who lost his job in the bankruptcy.
"This is part of a plan and a policy that went on for decades. And they pulled it off in the end. They cherry-picked the profitable freight lanes, gave them to [the subsidiaries], took every last cent of their startup money for infrastructure, certainly worth hundreds of millions of dollars--all came from unionized parts of the company. Then they turn around and say the nonunion subsidiary can't compete. Hell no, it can't--not in those circumstances."
As a final insult to Teamsters members who are out in the streets, CEO John Brincko decided to break the news to workers in a telephone message--on Labor Day. "Thank you for dialing in on this holiday weekend," he said. "I hope you and your family are enjoying the time together. I have some extremely urgent and sad news to share with you today Your employment ends immediately."
The impact will be devastating. "I'm lucky--my wife is a school teacher, and she has health insurance," the laid-off driver told Socialist Worker. "I think we'll be able to keep the house. But a lot of guys out there--their wives are working for $8 or $9 an hour at K-Mart, or they're at home. These people aren't facing tough times--they're facing desperation.
"And this is being duplicated by the thousands across the country. I don't want to call it a blue-collar catastrophe, because it doesn't just affect blue-collar workers. It's a societal catastrophe. You will see houses for sale, divorces and traumatized children. And keep in mind that the CEOs walk out with their pockets full."
The workers who lost their jobs in the Labor Day massacre will face the worst long-term unemployment in decades. According to the Labor Department, 3 million people have been jobless for 15 weeks or more--a 50 percent increase from a year ago. And 1.5 million have been unemployed for more than six months.
The Labor Department also reported that nearly 10 million jobs were lost between 1999 and 2001--many of them good-paying manufacturing jobs, often at union companies. The jobs created since then usually pay less and have fewer benefits--like those at the nonunion freight companies owned by Consolidated Freightway's former parent CNF.
Michael Belzer, a former truck driver, Teamster activist and author of a book on the trucking industry titled Sweatshop on Wheels, said CNF's long-term strategy for attacking union power has been used industry-wide.
Deregulation of the trucking industry in the late 1970s opened the door for CNF to reduce its unionized workforce through what became known as "double breasting"--opening nonunion subsidiaries like Con-Way. "Con-Way got the new trucks, and Consolidated Freightways got to keep the debt," Belzer told Socialist Worker.
Teamsters President James Hoffa blamed deregulation for Consolidated Freightway's bankruptcy. But that's far from the whole story. Hoffa's allies in the conservative old guard ran the Teamsters union when CNF began moving assets into Con-Way--and let them get away with it, according to Mark Serafinn, a former driver at Consolidated Freightways, who later bargained with the company as president of Local 722 in LaSalle, Ill., in the 1990s.
Serafinn and activists associated with Teamsters for a Democratic Union pressured International officers to strike over grievances about subcontracting at Consolidated Freightways, while launching an organizing drive at Con-Way. But the Teamsters old guard did nothing.
After CNF sold off the company, Consolidated Freightways got the Teamsters to agree to a "change of operations" in 1998, closing a major terminal organized by Local 722. "We put on the record what this change would do to [the company] and predicted they would be out of business in two years," Seraffin said.
"By then, the terminals, trailers and trucks were all in bad shape. Then they started borrowing against their land values. They were already in the process of liquidating assets, long before Labor Day."
The collapse of Consolidated Freightways leaves the Teamsters representing only 80,000 drivers under the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA)--down from a peak of around 500,000 in the 1970s.
Under reformer Ron Carey, the Teamsters tried to rebuild the union's strength in freight with an organizing drive at Overnite Transportation. Some 40 percent of the terminals were organized when Carey was forced from office by the federal government on trumped-up corruption charges that were later dismissed in federal court.
When Hoffa took over the union presidency, he fired the Overnite organizing staff--then called a strike with no preparation in October 1999. The strike is still dragging on with no end in sight, while scab Overnite trucks cross the country.
The collapse of Consolidated Freightways and the failure at Overnite will lead the rest of the union companies under the NMFA to demand concessions, Serafinn said. "The companies will say, 'Con-Way is a huge outfit, you didn't organize them, so you owe this to us--we want a concessionary agreement,'" he said. "And they'll get it."
Even UPS--where Hoffa claims to have negotiated the "best contract ever"--is moving work to a nonunion subsidiary called UPS Logistics. In fact, Hoffa's deal doesn't give the Teamsters the right to organize UPS Logistics workers without interference.
Teamsters officials shrug off UPS Logistics as insignificant--just as they dismissed Con-Way some 20 years ago. "I told a UPS brother the other day that Hoffa negotiated a horrendous deal because it did nothing about the double-breasting with UPS Logistics," said the laid-off Consolidated Freightways truck driver.
"He said that it wouldn't be a problem because UPS is too big and too profitable, and UPS Logistics was too small. But when I went to work at Consolidated Freightways in 1979, it was the biggest and baddest in the industry--just like UPS is now."
The disaster at Consolidated Freightways is a warning signal to every Teamster--and union workers everywhere. Corporate America will go to any length to attack organized labor. It's time to start rebuilding unions that can defend jobs and win a decent standard of living for working people.