Sparks of resistance in the labor movement?

December 10, 2009

Lee Sustar reports on signs of movement among the union movement's rank and file.

AFTER A grim year for organized labor, those committed to class-struggle unionism can find a few good reasons to be cheerful this holiday season.

At the top of the list are strike victories by Philadelphia transit employees and University of Illinois graduate employees, a "no" vote on major contract concessions at Ford, and election victories by reformers in transit and Teamster union locals in New York City.

The grimness, of course, is the catastrophic wave of union concessions epitomized by the United Auto Workers' (UAW) agreement to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs, slash benefits and give up decades of work rules. Public-sector employers have been slammed with unpaid furlough days and wage cuts of more that 10 percent, from California state workers to employees in scores of cities and counties across the U.S. In most cases, unions agreed to the cuts.

Even as the economy shows signs of recovery, traditionally strong unions in the private sector are still getting hammered. For example, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) recently agreed to the elimination of half of 2,000 union jobs at the Harley Davidson plant in York, Pa.

Graduate Employees Organization and their supporters march on the first day of the strike
Graduate Employees Organization and their supporters march on the first day of the strike at the University of Illinois

As the Wall Street Journal noted, "The contract institutes a new category of casual worker to be used on an as-needed basis, and who will earn about 30 percent less than first-tier production workers. The company eventually expects to employ about 250 casual and 750 full-time production workers." Current workers will get paid about $24 per hour, with new hires getting $19--casuals will earn just under $17.

With high unemployment, employers in both the public and private sector feel that they can extract such concessions without much worry that workers will fight back. The statistics seem to bear them out: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers this year are down 95 percent over 2008--which is the lowest level since records were first kept in the 1940s.

Nevertheless, against the odds, some workers drew the line, fought back--and won.

IN PHILADELPHIA, Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234 went on strike for six days in November. In an era when the strike weapon is rarely used, Local 234 members used their power to shut down the city's rapid transit system, and prevailed, just as they did in strikes in 2005 and 1998. The strikers will have to pay more into their pension fund, which will eat into raises, but they turned back demands for major concessions.

One might expect a union local with a fighting tradition to break the pattern of defeat. But another high-profile strike victory came from unexpected quarters--the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Although it represented only about half of the eligible graduate employees prior to its October strike, GEO members were furious at attempts to force them to accept unpaid furlough days--and were determined to prevent the university from taking away the tuition waivers that make it possible for them to attend school.

When the strike began November 16, scores of graduate employees who had never been union members joined the picket line and signed union cards on the spot. The rallies were loud and militant, the classrooms mostly silent for lack of instructors and students. After two days, the university caved and granted the strikers' key demands.

Meanwhile, hotel workers in San Francisco carried out two three-day strikes at the Grand Hyatt and Palace Hotels in November as part of a contract fight against 31 hotels in the city. Hotel workers, members of the UNITE HERE union, face similar struggles in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.

The strike actions and victories are important enough in themselves. But there's reason to believe that these strikes are an indication of widespread anger among labor's rank and file that's also found expression in voting results in union elections and contract concessions.

That's the conclusion of union activists at Ford, where workers defied an all-out effort from UAW officials to ram through acceptance of huge contract concessions similar to those already approved at Chrysler and General Motors. The concessions would have frozen pay for new hires at $14 per hour--already just half the pay of current workers--for six years. The agreement would have banned strikes and sent wage disputes in 2011 to binding arbitration.

But UAW leaders, who had used the financial crisis to get the concessions at GM and Chrysler, found themselves facing an unprecedented rebellion that saw local union officials defy them--something unseen in the UAW in decades. When the vote totals were announced November 1, the concessions were rejected by a 3-1 margin. The workers' suspicions were vindicated a day later when Ford announced a $1 billion profit for the quarter.

"They say we only lose the right to strike over improvements in wages and benefits. But that's what people want the right to strike for," Eric Truss, a worker at Ford's Dearborn Diversified manufacturing plant, wrote to a UAW Local 600 rank-and-file newsletter. "I campaigned for 'No,' so my co-workers are telling me to run for [union] office."

Another rebellion against concessions in an important union--the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)--didn't succeed when votes were tallied last month. But the campaign for a "no" vote on a two-year contract concession highlighted the growing success of the Longshore Workers Coalition (LWC), a union reform group.

The LWC in previous months forced the ILA leadership to back off a plan that would have suspended a pay increase October 1. But leaders of the East and Gulf Coast dockworkers' union gave shipping bosses what they wanted through other means--a contract that will cut payments to the workers' health care funds and royalty fees that boost compensation.

To sell the deal, ILA leaders finally got employers to agree to bring lower-tier workers' wages up to top levels of pay--but only after nine years. It was the promise of a higher wage in the short term that allowed the concessions to go through, said Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C. "They designed something for tough economic times, and dangled it in front of rank-and-file members," he said. "It's hard to vote against a $2 to $3 per hour raise"--even if it will take nine years for lower-tier workers to reach top pay.

But the reformers made the notoriously conservative and corrupt ILA leadership sweat in order to get the deal through. "I'm very pleased by what the LWC accomplished," said Riley, who became nationally known in the labor movement in 2000-2002 in the successful struggle to defend the Charleston Five, dockworkers who were put under house arrest for walking a legal picket line. "We've got a lot to be proud of," said Riley. "But we weren't focusing on this to send a message, but to vote it down and do a better job."

THE IDEA that unions should be doing a better job was also on the minds of workers in New York City in two powerful union locals.

Members of the 38,000-member TWU Local 100, which represents subway and bus workers, voted to put the Take Back Our Union (TBOU) coalition in control of the union in election results released this month. The election of TBOU marks a revival of union reform sentiment in the local, where workers voted in 2000 to elect Roger Toussaint on the New Directions slate.

Toussaint, a onetime leftist militant, turned into a heavy-handed bureaucrat--and his poor leadership in the illegal, two-day transit strike of 2005 undermined his base of support. Toussaint was briefly jailed in the aftermath of the walkout, and the union's finances were decimated when a judge barred the practice of automatic union dues deduction from paychecks. Facing likely defeat in the current election, Toussaint moved upstairs to the TWU International, and TBOU won election on a program of rebuilding the union.

Just as the TBOU victory was announced, word came that reformers aligned with Teamster for a Democratic Union (TDU) won election in New York's Teamsters Local 804, the main local representing UPS workers in the city.

The reformers' win was all the more sweet because the 7,000-member Local 804 was the home local of the late former Teamsters president, Ron Carey, who was expelled from the union on trumped-up charges in the wake of the Teamsters' 1997 strike victory at UPS. Since then, the local has been aligned with Teamsters President Jim Hoffa. But for rank-and-file members, a concessionary deal on Local 804's most recent contract with UPS was the last straw.

Does all this stirring in the ranks make a trend? Only time--and struggle--will tell. But what's clear is that there's something going on in the union rank and file that those record-low strike statistics don't show.

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