Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 14, 2008
Let’s start with a couple of all too rare victories for our side.
The Republic For Which They Sit
Turning points in mass movements can pop up in surprising places at unexpected times. The Montgomery bus boycott, for example, which triggered the modern civil rights movement in the South, was not the result of a broadly planned national strategy but was an initiative taken by a small local cadre of activists that caught the world’s attention and inspired others to act.
Some from the civil rights movement visiting the sit-down occupation of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago compared their struggle with the one that made Rosa Parks a household name. It’s premature to assign that kind of impact but it certainly can’t be ruled out either.
For about a week, the 240 workers at Republic were in the top headlines throughout the world. They not only attracted attention but struck a chord of sympathy and solidarity with workers elated to see somebody fighting back against bosses and bankers. The popularity of their struggle kept the forces of “law and order” at bay. Politicians found it prudent to cheer them on. And, at the end of the day, the stone hearted Bank of America and JP Morgan coughed up 1.75 million dollars to make the workers whole for their severance.
Some say this was a “partial victory.” Of course--there are no other kinds in our class divided society. The greatest of all sit-down strikes–the legendary occupations of General Motors plants in Flint in 1937–gained little more than union recognition but is universally recognized as the defining moment for the UAW.
Most workers–and most bosses–see the Republic settlement as a victory for the workers, as they well should. What remains to be seen is whether the Republic workers will be emulated as well as applauded.
Just as the Montgomery boycott was not a spontaneous act by a brave individual there were forces at work at Republic that nurtured the bold action taken there.
First, their union, the UE, is not typical. Most unions strive for “partnership”with the boss; the UE takes an adversarial approach, on and off the shop floor. It is undoubtedly the most democratic union and is the only national union with a salary cap on officials of no more than the highest paid worker they represent. The UE leaders at all levels were not afraid to suggest and support the occupation. Unfortunately, that would not be the response in most unionized workplaces.
Another factor at Republic was the heavily Latino workforce was greatly influenced by the immigrant rights movement in that city that has at times mobilized hundreds of thousands in the streets. They took courage and organizational lessons from these struggles and applied them to the fight at Republic.
Both UE and immigrant rights activists helped publicize the Republic occupation and along with forces such as other unions, Jobs with Justice, and the coalition around Rev Jesse Jackson, won important solidarity for the workers sitting down.
Whether or not the Republic victory leads to a new rash of similar actions their lessons will not go unnoticed. We should celebrate their victory as if it were ours–because it is.
‘We Made History’
That’s what Wanda Blue, an African-American worker in the world’s biggest packinghouse, told Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times as she celebrated the victory of the UFCW in a representation election at Smithfield’s operations in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
Sister Blue was not exaggerating. This was never supposed to happen. Both bosses and most union officials are convinced workers can’t be organized in “right-to-work” states, especially not in North Carolina.
In addition to the usual obstacles put up to union organization Smithfield had assembled a workforce of immigrant and Black workers and not so subtly tried to manipulate tensions between them. Two prior organizing attempts in 1994 and 1997 had been crushed.
To their credit, neither the Smithfield workers nor the UFCW gave up. About three years ago, the UFCW turned to the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO Food & Allied Service Trades (FAST) to head up a bold new Justice at Smithfield campaign–the remarkable Gene Bruskin. I know Gene from his indefatigable work in launching and building US Labor Against the War. He somehow summoned the energy to turn the Tar Heel situation around too, combining an affective corporate campaign embarrassing the company throughout the world with rebuilding a powerful organization on the shop floor.
In October, 2006 the company cooperated with ICE in a workplace raid that led to fifty workers being taken into custody–and many others ultimately quitting. In response, over a thousand workers, Brown and Black, walked off the job and rallied with community and clergy supporters. Smithfield agreed to back off their threat of more “no match” roundups and guaranteed no reprisals against those who had protested.
Getting nervous, the bosses filed a RICO suit, charging gangster tactics, against the UFCW and Gene Bruskin personally--but the union campaign carried on.
Finally, in November, the company dropped the suit, and agreed to a fair election. Both sides pledged to refrain from public attacks. Last Thursday the votes were tallied and the union prevailed 2,041 to 1,879.
The Tar Heel campaign shows we don’t have to wait for an Employee Free Choice Act that will likely never come. With the right perspective, sufficient resources, and dedicated energy, workers can be organized right now, anyplace. Hats off to the Smithfield workers and our old friend Gene Bruskin.
Unfortunately, this concludes the good news section for this week.
Ron Carey 1936-2008
When Carey took office as Teamsters president in 1992 he soon confirmed the worst fears of the Old Guard–many of them with Mob connections. He not only ousted more than seventy corrupt bureaucrats. He also sold off the union’s executive jets, cut his own salary by a third, and even let go the haute cuisine chefs in the national headquarters dining room.
But he did a lot more than that. He organized the last major national strike victory in this country at UPS in 1997. For all of these things he gained the enmity of not only the Old Guard but the bosses and government overseers as well.
Carey made one major mistake. He turned over much of his reelection campaign to “professionals” of Citizen Action who ran it like a political campaign. In the course of fund raising they took a little bit more than the law allowed and this was the pretext used for annulling Carey’s reelection victory. The overseers also brought criminal charges against Carey and, even though he was acquitted on all counts, expelled him from the union.
Sadly, even many on the “left” abandoned this honest and effective fighter for workers in his time of need. He deserved better and history will set the record straight.
Lame Duck, Lame Detroit
As this is written the short term fate of GM and Chrysler is still uncertain. The Treasury Department is poring over their books and no decision on a last ditch effort for an emergency loan–now up to the White House–is expected Monday.
The bipartisan deal once expected to pass in congress of course broke down when the Democrats couldn’t muster sixty Senate votes to end debate. Four Democrats voted with the Republicans and the votes of Obama, Clinton, and Biden were unavailable. Had all those been on board they would have won. That was the last gasp of the lame duck congress.
Some opponents of aid to the Big Three were ideologically motivated. I commented on them in a blog posting during the week, Scribes, Profs Fear Government Control Of Auto.
Others appeared mean spirited. In earlier negotiations Tennessee freshman Senator Bob Corker offered to let the deal live if the UAW agreed to accept the same wages as the Asian and German transplants next year. Corker’s state is home to Nissan’s major U.S. operations and Chattanooga, where he was recently Mayor, is the site of a new VW plant. The Democrats argued the workers shouldn’t have to take wage cuts until 2011–when the present contract is up.
The contract negotiated by the UAW last year established a second tier where new hires are paid considerably less than the prevailing wage at the transplants. The Big Three hasn’t been able to take advantage of that because they aren’t hiring any new workers. But even the senior Big Three wages aren’t much different than Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. There’s a little difference in current benefits but the main difference is the “legacy burden” of Big Three retirees which is virtually nonexistent for the transplants. Only by chopping off the old folks could there be any substantial improvement in labor cost competitiveness for the Big Three.
Mitt Romney, on Meet the Press, proposed just that. “Let's get rid of that cost disadvantage,” he said.
President Bush has proposed that the UAW allow the Big Three to substitute stock for cash in future contributions to the VEBA that’s supposed to support retiree healthcare. GM stock is currently selling for about two bucks a share.
In the meantime, GM is shutting down nearly all of its North American plants through January. And anti-bailout Republican Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, once beloved Hall of Fame pitcher for the Tigers, has been “disinvited” from a Detroit gathering where he was to sell autographs. Stay tuned.
There are other important stories we’d like to comment on–the conclusion of the Poznan climate conference; more revelations about shenanigans in SEIU; the US Labor Against the War steering committee meeting; new rules on guest workers; and more. But we try to keep these columns to a reasonable length so we’ll defer some to next time.
That’s all for this week.
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