Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 2, 2008

Axle Of Evil
One of the first big auto parts spin-offs occurred in 1994 when Dick Dauch bought five plants in Michigan and New York from General Motors to form American Axle. Since then the company has expanded operations in eleven countries. Those original five plants are the sole supplier of axles for GM’s full size trucks and SUVs and also furnish parts to Chrysler plants in Delaware and Mexico. Last Tuesday 3600 UAW members shut down those plants.

An old school paternal type boss, who often wanders around the shop floor chatting with workers, Dauch had been popular among the workforce. Initially many workers expected a symbolic strike of short duration, similar to those at GM and Chrysler during the Big Three negotiations last fall. But now most are reconciled to a tough, protracted struggle.

Dauch told the Detroit News, “the labor battle is about making the company cost competitive with other unionized U.S. suppliers, such as Dana Corp.” Dana is where the UAW actually recruited a private equity outfit, Centerbridge Capital Partners LP, to take over the company in bankruptcy--and then proceeded to cut a deal establishing a VEBA for health care and a two-tier wage structure. They went on, of course, to negotiate similar variations of that deal with Delphi and the Big Three. It should surprise no one that Dauch, currently stuck with GM legacy wage and benefit rates, expects the same consideration. He’s demanding a fifty percent wage cut.

The American Axle workers are not without some power. Already four GM plants have had to shut down and it’s estimated a third of GM’s workforce could be soon idled. GM can’t get replacement parts from anyone else and can ill afford to lose this highly profitable segment of an otherwise shaky market. There will be repercussions at Chrysler, and AA’s suppliers as well.

But the fact that they are striking not only against company greed but the pattern their own union has already agreed to for just about all the rest of the industry puts the American Axle workers in a tight bind. The chickens hatched from Ron Gettelfinger’s previous sell outs are determined to rule the roost at American Axle as well. We wish the AA strikers luck in what could shape up as a long, bitter fight.

In January, a group of UAW activists met in Flint to regroup after the historic defeats at Delphi and the Big Three. Out of that gathering came a call, circulated last week by the Center for Labor Renewal, for a new campaign against two-tier wages. You can read their appeal by clicking here.

Not Ducking
Some readers pointed out that I had not commented on the now public debate in SEIU last week, as I had indicated I would in a prior column. I’m not trying to duck the issue. Last week’s WIR was already quite long with more time sensitive material so I laid aside Stern Vs Rosselli until now.

As it turns out, there was much more in the news about SEIU this past week with articles about the faction fight in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal; the launching of an SEIU opposition website; and a story in the New York Daily News exposing a strike-breaking raid by SEIU against the Puerto Rico teachers union.

Steven Greenhouse, in the Times piece, spoke with both Rosselli and his supporters, and defenders of the Stern leadership (Chairman Andy was not available for an interview.) One oppositionist was Michael Torres, a respiratory therapist at USC University Hospital in Los Angeles, part of the Tenet Healthcare Corporation. Torres complained “that union leaders had sought to make a deal that called for not pushing for pensions or retiree health coverage; in exchange Tenet would not fight unionization of 23 facilities in Florida.”

In response, Tom DeBruin defended Stern, “This comes down to, are we just going to focus on helping workers in one or two places in the country where our union is strong and let the vast majority of workers in the country go down the tubes?”

This seems to me a curious position. I would think that winning better benefits at Tenet in California could only enhance an organizing drive at that company in Florida. Generally you organize best on a track record of success, not restraint. Trading off benefits one place to gain additional dues payers somewhere else is not organizing in my book. It’s what us old timers call a sweetheart deal–a win-win for the boss and the bureaucrats but little for the workers represented.

Chairman Andy was not directly involved in the despicable wheeling and dealing in Puerto Rico. That was handled by progressive Dennis Rivera, long time top brass of Local 1199 health care workers in New York, now head of national SEIU Health Care, and a major patron of the Working Families Party. Rivera is also a good buddy of the Governor of Puerto Rico, Anibal Acevedo Vila.

The Governor likes to run a tight ship with public employees and when the island’s underpaid teachers started complaining about being without a contract for over two years he imposed even harsher new working conditions--and decertified the union. When teachers responded a couple of weeks ago with a strike, Acevedo Vila took prompt steps to break it. Most of the Puerto Rican labor movement strongly protested.

But Brother Rivera found a way to take some of the heat off of his friend and swell the ranks of SEIU at the same time. A deal was cooked up to give jurisdiction over the teachers to their immediate bosses–the union of principals and supervisors. The newly expanded “union” then affiliated with SEIU.

While perhaps more outrageous than most, Rivera’s Puerto Rico caper is a good fit in to the culture of Chairman Andy’s “Stronger Together” SEIU. A good chunk of the 800,000 members “organized” on Stern’s watch have come through deals made with governors or state legislatures with little knowledge, much less participation, from those being signed up.

These deals, along with the increasingly centralized, authoritarian internal functioning of the union, are sharply criticized by Sal Rosselli, head of the SEIU Health Care Workers local in California, claiming 140,000 members, and the recently organized SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART) opposition formation.

Some of my friends in California think this is merely a squabble between rival bureaucrats, asserting that Rosselli has long been guilty of the same kind of offenses he now condemns Stern for committing. I haven’t followed California that closely but such cynicism may well be justified.

However, regardless of Rosselli’s past history, or even present motives, the challenge of a genuine debate, with the potential for ranging beyond the control of any bureaucrat’s agenda, hidden or otherwise, should be welcomed. Important questions are being posed. Looking for those answers can lead to even more probing questions, debate, and perhaps ultimately action. We’ll continue to follow this debate with interest and comment on it from time to time.

Good Jobs, Green Jobs
That’s the title of an ambitious conference being coordinated by the Steelworkers and Sierra Club in Pittsburgh March 13-14. It projects three “critical goals,”

* Provide a forum for strategic interaction between the different constituents with a stake in the developing green economy.
* Showcase key policy initiatives for the rapid expansion of green economic development.
* Demonstrate to the public the importance and promise of the energy green economy.

They hope to emerge from this gathering with a “Green Jobs Policy Book,” made up of briefing papers commissioned by conference participants. Among the speakers scheduled are respected scientists and prominent union officials.

But this is not a “movement” event driven by hard working volunteers. BP and Alcoa each contributed 50 grand to sponsor the confab. The investment bank Piper Jaffray chipped in 5,000. US Steel coughed up 2,500 and even poor little Oregon Steel scrapped up a thousand. Numerous politicians are included in the agenda as is the CEO of ArcelorMittal North America.

None of the corporate sponsors are noted for being friends of either the environment or labor. Of course, we have to deal with corporate America. The main function of our unions is to negotiate agreements with those who run the economy. But we generally don’t sit down with the bosses in advance to discuss what our bargaining strategy with them should be.

We need to develop our own, working class “Green Jobs Policy Book” before we can have useful dialogue with the corporate and political Establishment. The fact of the matter is that there is no real agreement among even the union sponsors of the Pittsburgh conference. The Teamsters, for example, who contributed ten thousand dollars to the conference budget, are members of the so-called Unions for Jobs and the Environment--who champion more coal and drilling in ANWR.

About a month after the Pittsburgh event hundreds of working class activists will gather in suburban Detroit to take up “Rebuilding Labor’s Power.” One of the workshops deals with “Labor and Environmental Coalitions.” I have the honor of sharing the workshop panel with Les Leopold, who closely collaborated with Tony Mazzocchi in building labor-environmental alliances, and Mark Dudzic, also a veteran of work in this area and national organizer of the Labor Party. We’ll discuss not only the viability of green economic conversion but also the key question of a Just Transition to defend the interests of the working class in this process. If you attend the conference I hope you will drop by and join the discussion.

In Brief
* The National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation got a big boost this week with the endorsement by US Labor Against the War.

* 1500 Minnesota nurses flooded the state capitol in support of adequate patient/nurse staffing ratios.

* 5,000 CNA nurses are preparing a third strike against eleven Sutter Health facilities in the Bay Area–this time for up to ten days.

* A “Summit On Immigration and Racism” will be held in Kansas City at the Cristo Rey School,211 West Linwood, next Saturday, March 8 – 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. For more details click here.

As usual, much of the material for this column came from postings on our Daily Labor News Digest.

That’s all for this week.

KC Labor Home

Rebuilding Labor's Power
Dearborn, MI April 11-13

National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation
Cleveland June 28-29

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