Strikes Multiply Amid Increase in Labor Fights

Luckily for U.S capitalism both the U.S. anti-war movement and the established labor organizations do not think that there is any relationship between the oppression of the Iraqi workers by the War on Iraq and the oppression of U.S. workers. Whew U.S. capitalism would sure be in a lot of trouble if the anti-war movement and the workers struggles in the United States began to UNITE. What if ant-war demonstrations/rallies were combined with STRIKES and shut downs and work stoppages in vital sections of the United States economy (the ports and harbors of the United States for instance)? How about an anti-war movement that shut down the U.S. harbors, the rail heads, the busses and the taxi system? The workers are generally ready to do that but for some reason the U.S. anti-war movement does not want to do work stoppages and STRIKES against the War on Iraq. Why? Why aren't anti-war actions include work stoppages and STRIKES in addition to the marches, holding ups signs and listening to speeches that the anti-war movement does at this time? The port truckers and the bus drivers (well a dissident section of the bus drivers at any rate) and the taxi drivers are ready to talk to anti-war movement activists but so far few anti-war activists have been willing to put in the time to talk to the port truckers, the bus drivers and the taxi drivers. Maybe it is time to start talking and to start to UNITE.

Jim DeMaegt

Strikes Multiply Amid Increase in Labor Fights
November 15, 2005

The number of work stoppages in the U.S., including strikes by unions and management-sponsored lockouts, is on the upswing as tensions rise between workers and companies that are seeking to cut wages and benefits.

The trend extends beyond the troubled auto and airline industries, as continuing strikes by telecom workers at Sprint
Corp. and machinists at Boeing
http://online.wsj.com/quotes/main.html?type=djn&symbol=ba Co.'s rocket division attest. Last week, graduate teaching assistants at New York University walked off the job and musicians at Radio City Music Hall remain locked out by Cablevision Systems
http://online.wsj.com/quotes/main.html?type=djn&symbol=cvc Corp. Unions representing copper workers at Asarco LLC, meanwhile, finally reached a tentative agreement with the company to end a four-month strike.

It remains to be seen if a surge in strikes will exacerbate labor's battered image, experts say. At a time when many workers question the relevance of unions in a mobile service economy, such increases could reinforce stereotypes of militant industrial workers. And yet, workers could be drawn to unions willing to strike to resist cuts to health-care benefits, in particular.

"A strike is a dangerous thing in terms of public relations," says Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Unions are presented with the opportunity to demonstrate strength, but if they lose, strikes can "point out tremendous weakness," he said.

Work stoppages, including both strikes and lockouts resulting from deadlocked negotiations and other labor disputes, are up 14% this year, according to Bureau of National Affairs Inc., a Washington, D.C., publisher of legal and regulatory information. There were 231 work stoppages initiated through the end of August, compared with 202 in the same period last year, with the vast majority being strikes. The group tracks work stoppages at companies of all sizes mainly from government reports, union publications and news reports. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by contrast, only tracks work stoppages involving 1,000 or more employees.)

The United Auto Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the International Association of Machinists and the United Steelworkers of America have all engaged in more work stoppages through August than they had last year, according to BNA data. The Teamsters were involved in 47 work stoppages through August of this year, far more than any other union, up from 38 the prior year.

The recent upswing is "a sign of frustration, almost to the point of desperation," says Prof. Chaison of Clark University. "For many workers there's no alternative. They feel that they were badly beaten up in past negotiations or that companies are making tremendous demands on them."

Many labor leaders said the strikes have been effective, pointing to the more than 18,000 Boeing machinists who recently renegotiated a more favorable health-care benefits package after striking.

More major unrest could be on the horizon. Some analysts predict the showdown between the UAW and Delphi Corp., which is seeking sharp cuts in union pay, health-care benefits and pensions, could culminate in a strike -- potentially crippling auto plants that depend on steady supplies of Delphi parts.

The vast majority of the more than 20,000 contract negotiations each year result in new contracts. Yet the increase in strikes is a stark turnabout from the steady declines of recent years. Labor experts attributed the drop to the difficulty of waging successful strikes as the percentage of union workers at many workplaces declines, and as companies increasingly hire replacement workers to thwart strikes.

Despite media focus on strikes in ailing industries, the increase in strikes could also partly be driven by the improved economy, since unions often view strikes as a more effective threat when companies are faring well and labor markets are tight. "Strikes tend to rise during economic expansions rather than contractions in the economy," says Joseph Tracy, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

But others, including union leaders, argue that the increase indicates the harsher negotiating climate. "Employers are taking a much harder bargaining position, and that's naturally going to be met by an elevated level of worker militancy," says Ron Blackwell, chief economist for the AFL-CIO. "Given what we see going on this year, you have to expect the level of strike activity would increase."

At Sprint, union members said that after absorbing rising health-care costs for several years, they are unwilling to accept concessions when the company is profitable. "If they can prove where they're hurting, we might be able to help them out," says Eddie Hicks, president of Communications Workers of America local 3871 in Bluff City, Tenn., where about 300 workers have been on strike since Oct. 10.

A total of roughly 500 workers, mostly technicians, remain on strike at Sprint, though the company says it has reached tentative agreements with two of four striking bargaining units. Sprint spokeswoman Debra Peterson said the company is asking striking unions to accept conditions that already apply to the vast majority of its employees, including many union-represented workers. "We believe that we are offering a very competitive compensation and benefits package for our employees," she says.

While several recent high-profile strikes have failed, including at Northwest Airlines
http://online.wsj.com/quotes/main.html?type=djn&symbol=nwac , where the company hired replacement mechanics to keep operations running, that may not deter frustrated workers, several labor experts said.

The aggressive public-relations tactics of unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO this year -- including the SEIU, Teamsters and Unite Here -- to create a rival labor federation called Change to Win Federation, could carry over into increased strikes at companies that can't easily bring in replacement workers, says Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University. "Is this an aberration this year or is it going to be sustained?" he asks. "If defensive strikes are effective at holding onto benefits," work stoppages could well increase next year.

The breakaway unions say they left the AFL-CIO because they wanted to devote more resources to organizing new members for more aggressive campaigns. "There have been efforts in a number of industries by employers to take a hard line unnecessarily. Unions are fed up with it," says Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, a Change to Win union that represents 450,000 mostly hotel and apparel workers. "Unions are in a fighting mode."

Write to Kris Maher at kris.maher@wsj.com


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