Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 4, 2008

May Day On the Waterfront
When earlier this year the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union passed a resolution to stop work on May Day to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, friends on the West Coast cautioned me not to get carried away with excitement. It was explained that such actions were not really strikes as most understand that term, but are provided for as union meetings in the ILWU’s contract with the Pacific Maritime Association, and have become pretty routine with a different theme every year.

Perhaps that’s how this year’s event was conceived but it soon took a different direction. Job actions against wars in progress make the Establishment very nervous. The PMA refused to agree to contract sanctioned time off from work on the day shift on May Day. They took the unusual step of going to an arbitrator and getting him to instruct the union leadership to tell their members to come to work as usual.

To their credit, the ILWU leaders didn’t back down. They issued a statement saying, “...rank-and-file members made their own democratic decision in early February when Longshore Caucus delegates voted to take action on May 1. Employers were notified of the plan, but refused to accommodate the union’s request despite plenty of advance notice.... For them it’s all about making money. But longshore workers are different. We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops, and our economy are destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of 3 trillion dollars. It’s time to stand up, and we’re doing our part today.”

29 ports–including Los Angeles and Long Beach handling forty percent of America’s imports--were shut down. Union meetings were held up and down the Coast discussing the war. Many ILWU workers formed contingents in their local May Day marches and rallies. That made our workers holiday a bit brighter.

Deal In the Works At Axle?
There are reports that the UAW leadership is close to a deal to end the ten week strike at American Axle. According to local union officials involved in the bargaining it’s shaping up to include:

* Wage reductions to 25.50 per hour for skilled trades, 17.00 for production workers, 14.00 for nonproduction workers. Currently skilled trades make 30.00, virtually everyone else 28.00. These rates would not be a second tier for new hires but would cover all present workers as well.
* Two existing forging plants in Detroit and Tonawanda, New York, would be closed.
* The traditional national UAW agreement would be replaced with separate plant contracts.

The only significant improvement over previous company offers is a “buy down” of 90,000 dollars over three years to soften the impact of the harsh wage cuts. Buyouts of up to 140,000 would be offered to an estimated thousand Axle workers–nearly a quarter of the workforce.

There’s no way spin can make such a deal any kind of victory. After ten weeks on the picket lines tough choices will have to be made. The Axle workers have fought bravely and all labor should support their struggle as long as they choose to continue.

CAW Cuts A Deal At Ford
The Canadian Auto Workers split from the UAW back in the Eighties in opposition to the concessionary approach in Detroit. This past week they negotiated an early settlement at Ford that will run until September 14, 2011. While not as draconian as the UAW surrender to the Big Three it nevertheless contains some major give-backs. Basic wage rates are frozen. Forty hours of annual vacation was given up. New hires will start out at 70 percent of the wage rate, reaching full wages only after three years on the job. Cost-of-living payments are frozen for the remainder of the current contract, and first year of the new contract There will be a new ten dollar copay for prescription drugs. General Motors and Chrysler have indicated the Ford deal may be too rich for their blood.

Consumer Spending Up, Unemployment Rate Dips
Some papers were using just such headlines over the past week and they are accurate–as far as they go. Consumers really aren’t buying more goods and services–they’re just paying more for them. Discretionary income–what’s left over to spend after buying groceries, filling your gas tank or buying your bus pass, settling your utility accounts, taking care of your mortgage or landlord, and other essentials–is at its lowest since they started compiling such statistics.

And check this out from the Los Angeles Times.

“Workers with job-based coverage for their families saw earnings rise 3 percent from 2001 to 2005, while their health insurance premium contribution increased 30 percent, according to the study by researchers at the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota.

“The average cost nationally of family coverage during the period increased nearly $2,500, to $10,728 from $8,281.”

The unemployment rate continues to drop even as net losses in jobs are reported each month–the latest showing 20,000 more jobs deep-sixed. This is because those jobless not finding work before their unemployment benefits expire are no longer counted as unemployed. These unfortunate workers are designated as “discouraged,” and are stricken from the rolls of those actively seeking employment.

Not to worry though. The bipartisan stimulus package has checks in the mail. Most will get six hundred bucks with the hope that they spend it on something nonessential.

Chairman Andy Watch
Threats by SEIU president Andy Stern to put the dissident-led 140,000- member United Healthcare Workers West local under trusteeship came under fire from more than a hundred labor oriented scholars, artists and writers. They warned such a move would “be viewed, by many, as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU.” They went on, “We believe that there must always be room within organized labor for legitimate and principled dissent, if our movement is to survive and grow.” You can read their statement by clicking

Be sure to check out our Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central Monday-Saturday, for postings of interest to working people.

That’s all for this week. 

KC Labor Home

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

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