Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
August 8, 2005

Divisions In the Face of the Enemy
Confirming the fears of many, rival unions are continuing to engage one another in at least some low intensity conflict since the split in the AFL-CIO. Last week we wrote about the refusal of the IAM to support an imminent strike by a breakaway union of mechanics at Northwest Airlines. Hereís a couple of fresh examples.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority contracts out a tiny percentage of its bus routes. Recently, the MTA switched contractors on four routes in the San Fernando Valley from First Transit to Transportation Concepts. The new bosses demanded that three dozen affected drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 848, take big cuts in pay, sick leave and vacation time. The workers responded with a strike.

Clearly such a small group in a big industry needs solidarity if they are to have any hope. The five thousand bus and train operators employed directly by the MTA should be natural allies. But those workers are represented by the United Transportation Union. The Teamsters and UTU are battling one another in the rail industry and, before their recent split from the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters diligently blocked UTU efforts to reaffiliate with the Federation. The Los Angeles UTU leadership wasted no time issuing a statement, "Our members have been instructed to report to work and do their jobs."

The Teamsters are also involved in a bitter strike in St Louis against a local distributor for Anheuser-Busch beer products. I hear reports that area AFL-CIO unions have been instructed that they canít make any contributions to the strikersí solidarity fund.

Taken along with the expulsion of the unions that have withdrawn from the AFL-CIO (Teamsters, SEIU, Carpenters, and UFCW up until now) from state feds, central labor councils, and building trades councils, these spiteful rejections of appeals by small groups of workers fighting for the very life of their unions spells danger ahead for the whole labor movement.

As those of you who follow this column know, I donít have much sympathy for the Change to Win group that carried out an unprincipled and ill-advised split from the AFL-CIO. But they arenít the enemy. Even less so are their local unions that are forced into combat with the employers. An injury to one is an injury to allĖeven if not all recognize the importance of the principle of solidarity because they are disoriented by dead end factionalism. To paraphrase a wise workers leader, "division in the face of the enemy is never an intelligent or effective strategy."

Remembering the First Spam Blockers
Thereís a program in St Paul August 22 Iíd sure like to attend (Iíll be at the UE convention in Chicago at the time instead). Itís a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Hormel Strike by UFCW Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota. Though ultimately defeated by a combination of corporate power, state intervention, and, above all, treachery of their own international union, this was the kind of fight about which stories are told, and songs are sung for generations to come. I was living in the Twin Cities during much of this fight and had an opportunity to follow it closely.

The struggle was remarkable not only for the courage, energy, and determination of the strikersĖand Iíve never seen one hold together better. Also impressive was the great solidarity movement that was organized independently of the established union institutions. Individuals who saw solidarity as more than sending an e-mail message stepped forward to pull it together. Fighters such as Tom Laney, then president of the UAW local at the St Paul Ford plant; Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College always deeply involved in workers struggles, and who later wrote an excellent book about the fight, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement; Dave Riehle, now a UTU Local Chairman on the Union Pacific; two veterans of the historic 1934 Minneapolis Teamster Strike, Jake Cooper and Harry DeBoer (unfortunately no longer with us); and many others, built an impressive Twin Cities P-9 Support Committee. That group organized contingents for picket line battles in Austin, including facing the National Guard, and sent several caravans bringing food to the strike kitchen. The inimitable Ray Rogers, who now heads up the Killer Coke campaign, helped take a boycott of Hormel products to a national level. Strikers began speaking around the countryĖincluding to other locals at Hormel plants continuing to work under different contracts. Artists came to Austin to paint an inspiring solidarity mural on the wall of the P-9 headquarters.

When it became clear that the P-9 strikers were never going to surrender the UFCW international leadership pulled the plug on the local union itself. They organized a new local to sign a contract with Hormel and end the strike. One of the thugs sent in to Austin to clean house was Joe HansenĖnow international president of the UFCW and a leader of Change to Win. Brother Hansen took his job very seriously, including recognizing the urgent need to obliterate the solidarity mural on the unionís property. When union building trades workers refused to do the job Hansen is reputed to have personally organized the sandblasting.

Even though the boycott ended some time ago I still canít bring myself to buy any Hormel productĖand I used to enjoy a grilled Spam sandwich now and then. I wish the event in St Paul well and recommend a serious study of this struggle to anyone interested in working class solidarity.

Meet Me In St Louis?
One group that may become increasingly important to post-split solidarity efforts is Jobs with Justice. JwJ is holding its annual conference in St Louis September 22-25 and I plan to be there.

Because of a scheduling conflict with the September 24 March on Washington against the war, JwJ is also organizing an antiwar rally at the conclusion of the conference, 2PM, Sunday, September 25, near the Gateway Arch. KC Labor Against the War and the KC Labor Party, are organizing a day-trip by car to this event. If you are interested in hooking up with this effort contact Tony Saper,, 816-221-3638.

Thatís all for this week.

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