Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 22, 2006

Too Much Shaking and Stirring Spoils the Recipe
I’ve been in some transit negotiations and I know some of the time honored strategy applied by both boss and bureaucrat. Generally both sides of the table zero in on producing just enough to secure a majority of those most likely to vote. This is almost always the high seniority workers who have started their prelaunch countdown toward retirement.

That was certainly the case in New York. Demands for pension give-backs triggered an "illegal" strike. The post-strike tentative agreement maintained the present pension plan plus cooked up a deal to "refund" over 130 million dollars of excess pension deductions made between 1994-2001. Also included was the guarantee, for the first time, to maintain health benefits for retirees who relocate outside the New York area.

The Toussaint leadership–who, as you will recall, started out as "rank-and-file reformers"--hailed this as a great victory. The boss media joined in this dubious claim. It was calculated that all those within spitting distance of retirement would rally around the agreement, enough to overcome the outrage of younger workers who focused their attention–correctly--on the giant give-back of accepting employee premiums for health care. The TWU Local Executive Board spent thousands of their member’s dues dollars to purchase media ads urging a "yes" vote and threatened to fine dissident union leaders who criticized the deal.

To be sure, a lot of the ranks were demoralized and considered the give-back agreement a done deal. About a third of the membership didn’t bother to vote. That was both expected and hoped for by Toussaint and MTA management.

But a lot of members were still fired up from the once promised fight to draw the line against concessions. They didn’t risk an illegal strike so that they could begin paying 1.5 percent of their wages for health insurance. They voted "no" because they wanted to draw a line in concrete–not the shifting sands of Toussaint sound-bytes. It turned out there were seven more of them voting than the targeted constituency Toussaint and the MTA counted on.

There’s no doubt everyone was shocked by this democratic insurgency. Toussaint blamed unnamed forces for his embarrassment, "We believe this result is a byproduct of a number of negative and inappropriate interferences."

A more likely explanation is that a majority of those voting responded to the negative but highly appropriate expose of the deal by courageous dissidents among the union’s elected leadership, such as Marty Goodman’s widely distributed leaflet, Reasons to Vote 'No' on Contract.

Now everything is up for grabs. The rejected deal was carefully crafted and balanced. Mayor Bloomberg planned to take the health care give-back and ram it down the throats of municipal unions representing 300,000 workers. More than a little tweaking is required to be assure a new deal would be accepted by the membership.

The MTA is renewing its demand for binding arbitration. Historically, arbitration has been rejected by the TWU because it takes decision making out of the hands of the membership. But, in this unprecedented situation, Toussaint’s acceptance of arbitration can’t be dismissed out of hand. As The New York Times notes,

"Strange as it may sound, not just the authority, but perhaps Mr. Toussaint as well, may have little desire to negotiate an agreement that is far more generous to the workers. The authority certainly does not want a renegotiated settlement to cost more than the rejected one, while Mr. Toussaint might not want a more generous settlement because it might make him look weak - as if he had negotiated too stingy a deal the first time around."

It’s hard to predict where this struggle goes next. But, once again, the gutsy "working class heroes" of TWU Local 100 deserve another tip of the hat.

Spring Mobilization Against War
Early this coming week, an initial call will go out for a national mobilization against the war in New York on Saturday, April 29. It will be staged in Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The central theme of the action is: End the war in Iraq--Bring all our troops home now!

This event is happening because of an initiative taken by US Labor Against the War, following through on plans projected at the USLAW steering committee meeting in December. Initial cosponsors include: United for Peace & Justice, Rainbow/Operation PUSH, National Organization for Women, Friends of the Earth, U.S. Student Association, Peace Action, and the Midwest Joint Board of UNITE-HERE. Once the first formal call goes out efforts will be made to obtain additional endorsements–and commitment of resources–from hundreds of local unions, peace, civil rights, feminist, environmental, and student organizations that oppose the war.

This action comes at a critical time. While a growing majority of Americans oppose the war most politicians in an election year don’t want to touch the out now demand with a ten foot pole. They would like to be able to ignore the war, the Republicans anxious to defend our morals, the Democrats preferring to blast Republican corruption. The most you will hear from any of them about the war is vague talk about phony "phased withdrawal."

Even though the AFL-CIO went on record at its convention last summer as favoring "rapid withdrawal" from Iraq, John Sweeney tries to help his Democrat "friends" slip the hook on this embarrassing issue. Mark Gruenberg, covering a Sweeney speech/press conference at the National Press Club, opened with this summary, "Destruction of good jobs in the U.S., and the refusal of political leaders from both parties to do anything about that, outweighs all other issues facing the country, including the war in Iraq, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney says." I’m sure every candidate will support Brother Sweeney’s desire for good jobs in the USA but they will give scant attention to even the mild-mannered suggestions offered by the landlord of the house of labor.

The April 29 action has the potential to mobilize hundreds of thousands in a show of force that can’t be ignored by cowardly politicians or timid union bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City KCLAW is pulling together a Labor-Community Speak Out Against the War on March 18. Hopefully, details will be available by our next WIR. This event will be in addition and complementary to a vigil/march being organized by pacifist and lobbying groups the following day. That weekend marks the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

No Blood For Coal!
Nearly 48 hours after a conveyor fire broke out at Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, West Virginia rescuers recovered the bodies of two missing miners. The victims were identified as Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Hatfield, 47. Both were fathers with more than a decade of mining experience and had worked in the Alma mine for five years. The mine is nonunion, part of the notorious union-busting Massey Energy empire.

The Charleston Gazette reports,

"The Alma No. 1 Mine used its conveyor belt — the area where a deadly fire broke out Thursday night — to draw fresh air to the working face, the area where coal is actually mined.

"When mines are arranged this way, and a fire breaks out on a belt, the belt tunnel can carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners’ work area, or to vital evacuation routes.

"Since at least 1969, such mine layouts were generally illegal. Regulators approved them only on a limited, case-by-case basis, and conditioned upon numerous special safeguards. But in 2004, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rewrote federal rules to allow widespread use of such ventilation plans. The move gave the coal industry a regulatory change it had sought for more than 15 years, records show."

Such fires typically result from worn belts and/or accumulation of coal dust in the air. Both situations can be avoided through adequate maintenance.

Two weeks ago Cornelius Yates, 44, was killed at the Maverick Mine in Pikeville, Kentucky when a section of roof, measuring approximately 20 feet wide, 4 1/2 feet thick and 10 feet long, fell on him.

Of course, three weeks ago twelve miners lost their lives at the Sago mine in West Virginia. That makes the January fatality total for American coal miners equal to the number of GIs killed in Iraq so far this month.

No blood for oil–No blood for coal!

Auf Wiedersehen To Good Food–And Good Jobs
Every time I visit Chicago I pester my good friends Carrie and Adam to take me to Berghoff. There’s no meal anywhere I’d rather have than their Wiener Schnitzel, served with fried potatoes and creamed spinach. There’s fine old oak paneling on the walls, crisp white napkins, and aloof waiters–essential components of a first class German restaurant.

For such selfish reasons I was deeply disappointed to hear this venerable institution will be shutting down for good on February 28. Then I read an insightful article in the Chicago Tribune that led me to understand that there was an even greater loss than my having to seek out new sources of spring bock beer and Sauerbraten.

Those grim faced, competent waiters and bus boys–along with the kitchen staff I’ve never seen--are members of UNITE-HERE Local 1. They earn decent wages–the top waiter made 62 grand last year with tips–have an excellent health insurance plan, and paid vacations. Not many in the restaurant business make that good a living and those leaving when Berghoff’s doors are shut will undoubtedly have to adjust their living standards considerably.

After Berghoff pulls the plug only nine out of Chicago’s six thousand restaurants will have union contracts. But that’s nine more than UNITE-HERE has in Kansas City today.

Coming Up In KC
Rollback Wal-Mart Conference, January 27-28, at UMKC

Bloody Sunday Commemoration, Monday, January 30, from 5:30 pm–6:30 pm at Mill Creek Park, 47th & Main

As usual, much of the material used in this column is based on stories posted on the Daily Labor News Digest.

That’s all for this week.

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