Sundays are slow news days. Still America’s papers put their obituary notices of former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who died Saturday Aug. 14 at age 77, on the inside pages.
An exception was The New York Times, which carried its piece on the front page, implicitly acknowledging Kirkland’s standing as a labor lieutenant of capital. Not a worker himself, Kirkland was an in-house intellectual at the Washington offices of the AFL-CIO, sometimes lent out to the Democratic Party to write speeches.
For years he was an assistant to George Meany, the federation’s top official. Meany was infamous for boasting that he never led a strike.
Meany promoted Kirkland to secretary-treasurer, and then in 1979 Kirkland replaced his boss, who, at age 85, had retired. Dumped in 1995 by a faction led by the current federation chief, John J. Sweeney, Kirkland continued his labors for the boss class with the U.S. delegation to the UN.
Mainstream papers reported Kirkland’s backing of the massive 1981 Solidarity Day march and rally of 250,000 as one of his achievements. However, under Kirkland, nothing came of that awesome display of power. Also noted was Kirkland’s support of the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Although the press correctly described Kirkland as an “ardent anti-Communist,” it failed to remark on Meany’s and Kirkland’s partnership with the CIA in assailing democratic labor and peasant militants in much of the Third World.
For 45 years, Meany and Kirkland were two of the men behind the men who tortured, garroted, and shot thousands of insurgents struggling for a better world. Meany and Kirkland didn’t personally kick dirt over the ashes of burned corpses, but that was cold comfort to the dead.
Kirkland had his chance to earn some respect from American workers during the landmark 1981 air traffic controller’s strike that was crushed along with their union, PATCO. However, Kirkland turned his back on the PATCO members. Ever since then, a bureaucratically led, muzzled, and shrinking unionized workforce has been taking it on the chin.
Not a Eugene V. Debs, a John L. Lewis, or even a Walter Reuther, Lane Kirkland’s name would draw a blank stare from most workers, despite his 47 years of “servicing” organized labor.
GRAPES, TOMATOES & TICKING TIME BOMBS
California has a seatbelt law, but it doesn’t apply to vehicles designed to carry 10 or more occupants, including vans that daily transport farmworkers to and from the produce fields.
In early August, a van crashed into a truck on a Central Valley two-lane back road, mangling and killing 13 farmworkers, four of them women. They had spent their last day picking and sorting tomatoes.
Two Latino state legislators said that they will introduce bills to mandate seatbelts on farm labor vehicles. One of them said, “The state has been derelict. … These vans, every year, are crashing in record numbers. We can’t wait another year.”
Mark Grossman, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers, told the press, “Some laborers are forced to pay a fee to ride in a van, and they must ride in a van even if they have other transportation. Otherwise, they won’t get the job.”
Reportedly, a ride typically costs $6, though one worker related that he paid $32 daily for each 60 mile round trip to last year’s grape harvest. Sometimes he would sit on a bench that ran along the truck’s side, other times he stood, “during the bouncing, harsh ride in the sweltering trucks. … [He] said the vans that transport workers everyday are like ticking time bombs.” (San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 11, 1999).
Today, tomorrow, and the next day, hundreds-if not thousands-of vans with and without makeshift benches will take farmworkers to and from their jobs. Perhaps all of them will have safe trips, perhaps not!
PROJECT NO STRIKE
Project Labor Agreements (PLA) are pretty common these days between building trades unions, contractors, and government bodies. The contractors agree to use union labor. In return the contractors get an ironclad no-strike clause.
For example, a proposed PLA for an estimated $1.5 billion Oakland, Calif., seaport and airport expansion is in the works. An Oakland Tribune (Aug. 11, 1999) account says, “From the port’s perspective, the agreement ensures stability during construction projects by prohibiting strikes, work stoppages, and slowdowns. It even goes so far as to say that workers who refuse to cross a picket line during a wildcat strike-such as the one by [ILWU] crane operators that recently shut down the port-can be fired. Unions that go on strike face fines of $10,000 to $25,000 per shift.”
Needless to say, PLAs are not ratified by the building trades ranks.
UNJUST HEALTH CARE
The Wall Street Journal reports that only one in five allied health care workers-physical therapists, lab technicians, hospital clerks and janitors-has health insurance, according to a report by the University of California, San Francisco. Many don’t get insurance through their jobs and can’t afford it on their own, the report says.