LABOR BRIEFING: SWEENEY RINGS WALL STREET’S BELL

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From Gompers to Kirkland, the wealthy have periodically lauded organized labor’s chieftains. The heads of labor’s federations have been wined and dined at public fetes and private repasts, been awarded parchment scrolls and beribboned medals.

But the captains of industry and commerce have never welcomed one of the union movement’s commanders-in-chief into the belly of the beast, Wall Street’s New York Stock Exchange. Never, that is, until the last trading day before Labor Day 1999.

On that historic day, the AFL-CIO’s John J. Sweeney was given the signal honor of kicking off the Big Board’s business day by striking the opening bell with a stout wooden gavel. The New York Times (Sept. 4) was told that Sweeney was invited because it was Labor Day, but that the exchange’s chairman “was also mindful of the billions of dollars in pension funds controlled by labor unions.”

The Times mockingly wondered why Sweeney “put aside thoughts of the class struggle and entered the hallowed halls of capitalism.” A Sweeney spokesperson sincerely replied that “we’ve been delivering a lot of messages to corporate America about improving wages, health care and pensions, and we’ve also delivered messages about ways that all of us can cooperate more. We thought we might as well be where they are, if we’re going to get some attention.”

What got the capitalists’ attention, however, was a government report that job growth had slowed and, noted The Times, “investors were heartened by the job slowdown.” Heartened indeed! The stock market index vaulted upward by 235 points!

SAME OLD SONG IN

If contract negotiations were named after dances, the latter day auto talks could appropriately be called a minuet. That’s because the steps are rigidly formalized, no improvisations, and consequently no surprises.

Nevertheless, the mainstream press typically will print breathless articles reporting insiders’ tips and speculations about which auto giant the union will take on first and whether the union made the right choice. If anybody really cares, or thinks that it’s really decisive, they can not have followed the talks and their results for the past three decades.

Unfortunately, the big news about the national auto talks is also not new. That is, on the shop floor, fewer and fewer auto workers will be locked in turning out ever larger numbers of cars and trucks.

But that has never stopped the United Auto Workers Union from claiming that it’s successfully pitting one auto maker against the other and coming out on top. So expect that the auto union bureaucrats will once again proclaim that they have won a “historic contract.”

PAY FOR CEOs SOARS – WORKERS’ PAY DRIBBLES

On Aug. 30, the Associated Press reported on a study comparing trends in pay for CEOs and factory workers. Since 1990, the workers saw their raises averaging 28 percent, “just outpacing the 22.5 percent inflation rate. But compensation for the highest-level corporate executives has more than quadrupled….”

During the years studied, “average compensation packages for the top two executives at the nation’s 365 biggest public companies-including manufacturing and other industries-rose from $1.8 million in 1990 to $10.6 million in 1998. That’s the equivalent of a 481 percent raise.”

The Washington Post reported, “Had worker pay risen at the same pace as executive pay, the average production worker would earn more than $110,000 a year today, compared with what he or she actually makes. And the minimum wage would be $22.08 an hour, rather than the current $5.15.”

One corporate critic of the report said, “Obviously there is a considerable distinction between the lowest and the highest paid, and my reaction to that is-so what? It’s a market-driven society.”

The New York Times (Sept. 7) reported on a study that found that, “the U.S. worker works more hours than his or her counterpart in other industrialized countries and he or she also leads the way in terms of productivity … producing an average of $49,905 of goods in 1996-more than other countries for which statistics were available.”

As work hours have increased, workplace inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), part of the Labor Department, have declined since President Clinton took office.

Inspections over a 30-year period have typically ranged from 40,000 to 80,000 a year. In 1998, there were 33,697 inspections, reports consumer group Public Citizen. (The New York Times, Sept. 6.)

DC37 REFORMERS LOSE:
In late August, New York Social Workers Union President Charles Ensley, a reform candidate, hoped to replace the disgraced Stanley Hill as head of District Council 37, the umbrella organization of 56 local unions with 123,000 members, and a nearly $100 million annual budget. DC 37 is affiliated with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Ensley’s opponent was DC 37’s secretary Helen Greene, a Hill loyalist.

The Village Voice (Aug. 25-31) reported, “The reformers were confident they had the votes, but by 11 p.m., Greene’s followers were running through the halls ululating in triumph, past Ensley’s supporters, who sat in a windowless room in the building’s sub-basement, griping about how they had been outmaneuvered. Only hours before the vote, the rules got changed.

“The two locals with the most votes (and the most indictments) switched to ‘block voting,’ which meant that each delegate would cast the same ballot. So the delegates who supported Ensley couldn’t express their choice. Greene beat Ensley easily, 59 to 40 percent, but take away the votes cast by the two power locals and Ensley would have won with 68 percent…..

“Ray Markey, dean of the DC 37 dissidents, summed it all up: ‘Tonight shows not just who has the power. It shows that to keep it, the new leaders resorted almost automatically to the same old undemocratic methods that corrupted DC 37 in the first place.'”

Last November, AFSCME put DC 37 in trusteeship, after it became public that Hill and others had rigged a contract vote by vote-stuffing that resulted in a two-year wage freeze. It’s widely believed that Hill committed the vote fraud to aid his political ally, New York’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

According to The New York Times (Nov. 20, 1998), “The contract also proved to be pivotal for Mr. Giuliani. He had relied heavily on its two-year wage freeze to end the city’s budget deficit, and he has pointed to the contract with the largest municipal union as the cornerstone of his peaceful relations with labor. That contract set a pattern for contracts later accepted by other unions representing the city’s other 180,000 workers.”

Despite the admitted fraud committed against at least 400,000 city workers, the workforce is still yoked to the dishonest contract. Other DC 37 officials have since pled guilty to various crimes, including embezzlement and taking kickbacks. One official pled guilty to selling thousand of turkeys (giving out turkeys is an annual Thanksgiving tradition) to local unions for as much as $40 a piece. He testified that he split the yearly holiday gravy with other officials.

AFTER A YEAR, RUBBER STRIKERS CLAIM VICTORY

After 360 days on the bricks, 1450 rubber workers are claiming victory. According to The New York Times (Sept.15), tire workers at a German-owned Continental General Tire factory in Charlotte, N.C., are “rejoicing that after a painful year they had achieved their bargaining goals. Under the proposed six-year contract, the workers’ pensions, which have been far lower than those at other unionized tire plants, will climb to the industry average.”

The Times report implied that the new contract would raise wages and benefits to industry levels. If so, industry standards have eroded enormously since the unionized rubber workers’ heyday. For later reports announced that the new pact, which was ratified 3-1, institutes a 12-hour day, eliminates 150 jobs and allows scabs to replace strikers who do not return, or opt for a job buyout plan.

The wonder is that the workers represented by the United Steel Workers of America gained their jobs back, seeing that they were yoked to a passive strike strategy of not challenging the scabbing. Even when a passive strike plan is accompanied by corporate campaigns and community rallies with appeals for simple social justice, workers most often fail to outlast the modern corporation with its multiple sources of profit and bipartisan political support.

No doubt the workers’ ace-in-the-hole was their anger and their deep-seated determination not to take another step backward without a fight, after giving up $90 million in wage and benefit cuts in their previous contract.

During the year-long conflict, only 15 workers left the lines to join the 900 scabs, herded and watched over by the notorious Vance International jack-booted goons. “The main thing in my view,” said one striker, “is we finally earned the company’s respect.”

– CHARLES WALKER

Socialist Action News

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