Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 26, 2008

The World In Revolt conference in Toronto I attended over the past few days was very educational, inspiring–and exhausting. There were speakers from Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and the USA on a wide range of labor and social topics. I had no ready access to the Internet at the low budget campus dorm room where I stayed but I picked up the New York Times and Toronto Star each day. As usual when I go on the road, there were major new developments, including some stories we covered in last week’s column. After making a down payment on the big sleep deficit accumulated, and dealing with over a thousand e-mail messages in my in boxes, I’ve begun to sort through some of them. Tomorrow, Tuesday, I’ll resume updates on the Daily Labor News Digest

The Worst Deal Ever
The UAW has been the historic pace setter for American labor. After the horrendous surrender to the Big Three last fall we said virtually every boss will now be demanding the same level of give-backs.

Sadly, our prediction was confirmed in only a few months at the profitable parts supplier spin-off from GM, American Axle. There the employer demanded the same concessions granted bankrupt spin-offs such as Delphi and Dana.

But Solidarity House leaders said that’s not fair. We’re willing, of course, to talk about substantial concessions--but not as much as we gave those threatening to go under. They belatedly tried to draw some kind of line.

So we saw a serious strike in the auto industry after all. It was to become the industry’s longest strike since 1970–when the UAW won the thirty and out retirement they gave away last year. The 3600 UAW Axle workers fought courageously and, even as their stoppage led to shut downs of many GM plants they won sympathy and solidarity from other UAW members, the broader labor movement, and the communities too.

The UAW leadership orchestrated local strikes at General Motors, including Fairfax in Kansas City where the popular Malibu and hybrid Aura are built, to further pressure them to inject some cash in to the deal. GM did in fact cough up 218 million to be used for buyouts.

But all this was too little and too late. The Axle workers could not defy the pattern their own union had already agreed to throughout the rest of the industry. As the details of the final deal worked out were revealed over the past week it became clear it was an even bigger, and certainly more mean spirited defeat than the Big Three settlements. It is probably the worst give-back contract yet–in any industry.

The legacy workforce left over from GM days will be offered buyouts, subsidized by GM, that could go as high as 140,000 dollars. Those classified as production workers choosing to stay on will see their wages slashed from 28 dollars per hour to 18.50. A new classification of “support workers” would sink to 14.35 at two Detroit plants. At the Three Rivers plant--where the union leadership said they would accept the deal and return to work regardless of what the other locals did--support workers will earn ten bucks an hour–a mind boggling cut of eighteen dollars an hour from the old legacy contract rates. Even the skilled trades take a six dollar hit.

But wages were not the only give-back by a long shot. Pensions are frozen, to be replaced by a 401(k).

For the first time, these workers will have deductions from their paychecks for health care–25 bucks a week for family coverage–and 12 cents of COLA will be diverted to health costs as well.

Overtime pay after eight hours in a day was eliminated. Time and a half will be paid only as required by law after forty hours in a week.

But even that’s not all. The company did a number on just about every section of the contract. Less vacation, fewer holidays, less break time, less money for safety shoes, and many more nickel and dime concessions. In one plant they even eliminated the indoor designated smoking area forcing workers on break to go outdoors during Michigan winters to light up.

The justification for concessions is always to save jobs. Not only are two forging plants being closed, as we reported last week; there will be drastic reductions at the three remaining plants. At the end of the day Axle plans to eliminate the majority of present jobs–about 2000 out of 3600.

Retired former Local 235 president Wendy Thompson led an effort in the biggest Axle local to reject the deal. A special issue of the newsletter Shifting Gears did a good job detailing the give-backs and explaining their ramifications. Even the UAW top leadership acknowledged it was a bad deal but argued it was the best they could do.

After three months with no paychecks or benefits, and not seeing any viable alternative to staying the present course, 78 percent of the Axle workers voted to ratify. I know from personal experience what it’s like to go through a lengthy strike. I would never criticize strikers for being forced to accept a rotten deal. They are victims of a ruthless class enemy.

The leadership of the UAW–and most of the mainstream union bureaucracy in the USA–have been appeasing this enemy with give-backs over the last three decades at least. They desperately wanted to be “partners” with the enemy. But a mad dog that has tasted blood always comes back looking for more.

A precondition to stopping this savaging of the American worker is to recognize the enemy. The interests of the workers and the boss are in constant conflict--even more today than when our parents and grandparents were occupying plants in sit-down strikes, and battling cops and the national guard, to found our unions in the first place. An effective union needs to be an adversary for the interests of the workers, not a pliable junior “partner.”

He Who Steals My Social Security Number...
A follow up on the ICE raids at Agriprocessors. Most of the undocumented workers rounded up and incarcerated at the Waterloo Cattle Exhibition Hall have been charged with “identity theft” for using bogus Social Security numbers. They are headed for five months of jail time before being deported.

Identity theft is typically a nasty white collar crime used to plunder bank and credit card accounts. These packinghouse workers did nothing of the sort. If the numbers they used coincided with valid ones already issued their Social Security contributions would be credited to the “victim’s” account, upon which benefits are based. Most of the Social Security paid in for undocumented immigrants simply winds up as surplus in the Social Security Fund.

Adding on jail time for victimless crime is not just mean spirited. It is another measure of tough selective enforcement by la migra on steroids. Many of the ICE workplace raids have been aimed at unionized packing plants or those in an organizing drive by the UFCW, as was the case in Iowa.

Last week there was a solidarity march of 400 in Waterloo, a town of only about 70,000. A contingent of 25 from Minnesota brought a truck load of supplies for the families of the imprisoned workers.

A Whopper Of A Victory
If you’re a patron of fast food you can now go to Burger King with a clear conscience. After a three year fight BK signed on to the Penny A Pound campaign for tomato pickers organized by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. The multinational giant will pay Florida tomato growers an additional 1.5 cents a pound. A penny a pound will go into the workers’ pockets. The extra half-cent is intended to cover additional payroll taxes and administrative costs for tomato growers. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents ninety percent of the state’s growers, simultaneously announced they were dropping their opposition to the campaign.

The pennies add up. If enforced, it’s estimated it will boost the farm worker’s pay 71 percent, the first major raise in decades. Even so, these workers, who are outside the protection of the minimum wage law, would still average less than 20,000 a year.

In Brief...
* If you missed the segment of Bill Moyers Journal on the California Nurses Association PBS has both the video, and a text transcript posted online

* Legendary labor singer and IWW activist Utah Phillips died peacefully in his sleep on May 23, 2008. Labor Beat celebrates his memory with clips from their video archives over 20 years. You can view it by clicking here.

* I recently finished reading an excellent new book by the New York Times labor beat reporter Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze, Tough Times For the American Worker. I hope to finish a review soon. In the meantime, you can get a good book, and help this site out, by purchasing it through our Amazon link here.

That’s all for this week.

KC Labor Home

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Cleveland June 28-29

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