Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
October 16, 2005

A General We Can Support
How about a general strike? It looks like we may at least get a limited trial run of one tomorrow (Monday, October 17) in the Vancouver-Victoria, British Columbia area. The BC Federation of Labor is not only planning a mass demonstration in solidarity with striking teachers; they are also urging workers to take the day off to support the action.

The teachers were saddled with a deal rammed through the legislature by the governing Liberals to extend their contract with no changesĖand no raises. The union refused to accept this dictatorial act and called a one hundred percent solid strike. Despite having their strike declared "illegal,"having their strike funds frozen, and facing threats of fines and even jail time, the feisty teachers are hanging tough.

But to win they will need lots of help. So far, the leadership of the BC labor movement has been talking a good fight. Now the rhetoric needs to be followed up in action. Mobilizing the entire BC working class in a solidarity general strike could not only save the day for the teachers; it could signal an end to the unions being pushed around by bosses and their stooges in government and courts.

While the teacher union is currently barred from accepting donations to their strike fund you can send a message of support to BCTF president Jinny Sims at: jsims@bctf.ca

A General to Confront
How about General Motors? Americaís biggest unionized private employer is in talks this weekend to extract major health care give-backs from the UAW. But this skirmish is only a probing action in what is likely to shape up as one of the biggest class wars in the U.S. in decades. Last week I promised to write more on the crisis in the UAW. Iíve begun what may become a series of articles. Here is a sneak preview of the introduction:

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Until the past few weeks, the United Auto Workers could legitimately claim to have fared the best among the major industrial unions in American manufacturing. Pointing to their Big Three contracts. and agreements with Big Three spin-offs, they could brag about high wages, the best health insurance, and some of the top pensions and paid time off. They have even had funds to supplement unemployment compensation during times of layoffs.

Of course, these benefits are enjoyed by far fewer workers than even twenty years ago. A combination of lost market share by the Big Three, technological changes, off-shoring, and outsourcing, have taken a huge, and ongoing toll on UAW membership. Solidarity House has been seeking to prevent this decline from becoming a free fall by pursuing a strategy of responsible partnership with the employers.. They hoped for some kind of eventual soft landing that could avoid the draconian take-backs won by bosses in steel, electrical, rubber, meat packing, and other traditional bastions of industrial union strength.

But this has been a crisis deferred rather than escaped. One doesnít have to look overseas for a threat to the profit margins of GM, Ford, and Daimler-Chryslerís American operations. So-called "transplants" of Asian and European automakersĖthe UAW has failed to organize a single one--are cranking out millions of cars in the U.S. with far lower labor costs.

The wage differential paid in those plants, while substantial, is only a small part of this threat. The difference in benefit obligations is enormous. The Big Three are committed to paying an ever-growing number of retirees tens of billions in pensions and health care. The current retiree to active worker ratio at GM is 2.5-1.

Korean based Hyundai recently opened a state of the art plant in Alabama. They, of course, will have no retirees any time soon. In any case, they do not provide a defined benefit pension as UAW workers enjoy. Like most of the transplants, Hyundai workers are enrolled in a 401(k) planĖthe kind of retirement security that Enron workers once counted on. The transplant bosses also contribute far less toward out of control health care costs than the Big Three are required to cough up.

The Big Three have seen this coming. More than a decade ago they started to spin-off the unionized sector of their parts manufacturing with the long range goal of seeing these outsourced operations drive down labor costs. But when GM spun off Delphi in 1999 they had to agree to a transition periodĖat least through 2007--where they would continue to guarantee basic obligations they had accepted under previous contracts.

Delphi has now entered bankruptcy and is demanding huge cuts in wages and benefits. Thatís not only bad news for the 24,000 UAW members (and several thousand in other unions) at Delphi. If GM is held to its guarantees of Delphi pensions then General Motors itself may threaten to go the bankruptcy route. That could have far reaching ramifications for all American workers.

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No Roe Behind Bars
Name, age, and skin color have not been published but we do know the gender of a prisoner in one of Missouriís "correctional" institutions who sued to get the right to an abortion. Governor Blunt has issued executive orders prohibiting abortions within the jails and forbidding transport of inmates to clinics providing such medical services outside his hospitality. The ACLU obtained an emergency order from a federal judge directing the state to take the prisoner to an abortion clinic. But Blunt, ably represented by attorney general Jay Nixon, a liberal Democrat "friend of labor" and "friend of womenís rights," sought out a friend of their own on the Supreme CourtĖClarence Thomas. This Justice, well known for his own friendship and sensitivity toward women, stayed the lower court order until he has a chance to look into it further. Court experts say this could take several months, probably making it a moot point. I donít recall Justice Thomas staying any of Missouriís numerous executions during his time on the bench. But then the death penalty is not a pro-life issue.

More From the North
In BCís neighboring province of Alberta another important labor struggle has erupted. Not as big, and certainly not as civil as the teacher strike, UFCW members at Tyson Foods Lakeside Packers cattle slaughterhouse and processing facility in Brooks, Alberta are in a fight for their lives for a first contract. Arkansas based Tyson, now a multinational meat giant (Lakeside processes forty percent of Canadaís beef), stonewalled the union and a federal mediator for nine months before forcing a strike October 12. Tyson has attempted to operate with scabs from day one. On that first day a company official driving a scab-filled bus plowed into pickets, injuring several. Last Thursday, local union president Doug O'Halloran was hospitalized after company vehicles forced his SUV off the road. The RCMP responded by arresting perpetrators and victim alike. Now a court has issued an injunction against the unionís picket line. A good example of free tradeĖTyson exports violence to Canada while importing meat.

Thanks once again to our friend Rod in Vancouver for keeping us supplied with labor news from Canada.

Brutality Knows No Borders
A few weeks ago we reported on how Sutterís California Pacific Medical Center had lured some destitute New Orleans evacuees to scab on SEIU strikers. Now the bosses have reached out globally for help in trying to break this strike. They hired temporary security personnel from Steele Foundation, an expensive international security firm that sends private armed guards to volatile areas around the world. In 2001, Steel Foundation guards were engaged in fighting a paramilitary coup attempt that resulted in the death of four people at Haitiís National Palace. According to the union, "Steele Foundation guards have shoved, spit on, sexually harassed, and threatened Nursing Assistants, Licensed Vocational Nurses and other hospital caregivers." At a recent picket line rally striking dietary aide Lorenna Hernandez was hospitalized with abdominal injuries after being kicked to the ground by military trained security at CPMC.

As always, much of the material for this column was inspired by postings on the Daily Labor News Digest.

Thatís all for this week.

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