Labor Briefing

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To no one’s surprise, AFL-CIO leaders at their October convention endorsed presidential candidate Al Gore and plan to spend $40 million from the union federation’s piggybank in 15 states to aid the Democrats.

As enumerated by a New York Times reporter (Oct.11), the AFL-CIO “has 13 million members, produces millions of campaign leaflets, organizes tens of thousands of volunteers, registers hundreds of thousands of voters and coordinates union efforts across the country. Its endorsement is distinct from, but builds upon, the endorsements made by its 68 member unions.”

Reportedly, a few unions, including the Food and Commercial Workers and Brotherhood of Painters, voiced some doubts about the endorsement. Nevertheless, all but two unions went along: the Auto Workers, which has sought protections from imports, and the Teamsters Union, which favors a ban on Mexican truckers.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa told the convention that the Teamster ranks want more information about candidates before the union makes its choice, but that the union had no principled objection to Gore. “We appreciate,” said Hoffa, “the efforts that this [Clinton-Gore] administration has made to advance the needs of working families.”

Since the convention, Clinton said he will continue the Teamsters-backed ban on Mexican truckers. (Former Teamster President Ron Carey got from Clinton an indefinite suspension of a NAFTA provision that allows Mexican truckers to drive in the United States.) Of course, Hoffa wants something more, such as a commitment to free the IBT from the Fed’s 10-year Consent Degree.

Even if Hoffa ultimately backs a Republican or a Reform Party candidate (Pat Buchanan, perhaps), the union’s regional and local bodies will continue their dependence on long-standing political machines, mainly Democrats.

Finally, if Sweeney hasn’t changed his plan, the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Gore should not be taken as the height of its political ambition. For, after the election of Sweeney’s New Voice slate, he wrote in Labor Research Review, “Our new approach to politics has already split the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party, and we look forward to a day when we can once again support politicians like Nelson Rockefeller, Mark Hatfield, and Jacob Javits.” (Against The Current, March/April, 1997.)

WILL AFL-CIO PLAN COMPUTE?

John J. Sweeney has a fresh inspiration on how to reach the troops. He’s asking unions to offer cut-price computers and internet services to their 13 million members. The idea is that electronic communications will strengthen letter-writing campaigns to politicos, publicize boycotts, and the like.

It isn’t clear how the officialdom’s overall message will differ from that contained in the countless union house organs that devote most space to the comings, doings, and photos of the leaders. Surely, the old message can only short-circuit any hoped for practical results. Still, the idea has this merit: On its face it seems more relevant than an attempt 10 years ago to jump-start the labor movement with a union-backed credit card.

DEMOS BACK BIG BUCKS

Between 1940 and 1980, probably 21 million workers were exposed to asbestos on the job. Asbestos, a fire-retardant mineral, was a common insulation material used in ships, factories, homes and even household appliances. Years after exposure, workers are struck down, sometimes fatally, with lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other truly scary diseases.

Asbestos victims have turned to the courts for compensation, and sometimes have won. Now a piece of legislation is moving through Congress that would give protections not to the victims of asbestos poisoning, but to the GAF Corporation, mostly owned by Samuel J. Heyman, a billionaire.

A Ralph Nader public interest group told The New York Times (Oct. 17) that the proposed legislation, “would cut off more than half of the population injured by asbestos from pursuing their cases.”

Backing the GAF legislation is a bipartisan cabal that in just the last year, reports The Times, has received more than $250,000 in political donations from GAF. Included are prominent, so-called liberal Democrats the AFL-CIO proudly calls “friends of labor.”

At the top of the list are both U.S. Senators from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Schumer, who, reports the paper, “has been a significant recipient of campaign contributions. The Heymans gave $77,500 to his Senate campaign, including $62,500 … in the final week of the race.”

Senator Torricelli and the Democrat’s Senatorial Campaign Committee have “received at least $41,000 from the Heymans and the GAF so far this year.” To date, “the company and the family have made donations to more than 100 current and former lawmakers.”

According to The Times, “Most of the donations came after GAF suffered a stunning setback in the Supreme Court. The court suggested that only Congress was in a position to clamp down on GAF’s mounting asbestos liability. After that decision, more than 93,000 asbestos claims were filed against GAF and its affiliated companies, and by the end of last year the company faced 113,800 cases.”

The AFL-CIO estimates that up to a million current or retired members were exposed to asbestos and that many will suffer from serious aliments. Presumably, the federation’s tops have sympathy and solidarity for the unionized workers, as well as the other victims of asbestos poisoning. Yet those feelings were parked at the door in October when the AFL-CIO voted to spend $40 million in dues money to elect more “friends of labor” in 15 states.

Of course, that plainly means that other workers will find themselves in a similar spot as the asbestos workers whose dues are paying congressional “friends of labor” to lawfully swindle them and their families out of their just compensation.

MINIMUM WAGE

Newsday (Oct. 18) reports that pending legislation to raise the national minimum wage (“the current wage of $5.15 would have to be $7.49 an hour to give a low-wage worker the same purchasing power he or she had in 1968”) will also boost the fortunes of the rich, if it also ends the tax on estates worth more than $1 million, a “tax paid by the 2 percent of Americans who leave estates big enough to be taxed.”

The bonanza doesn’t end there, for there’s a legislative maneuver to “give $2 in tax cuts for every dollar a business might have to pay a low-wage worker.” All in all, “the tax breaks lawmakers are trying to stuff into the minimum wage bill cost an estimated $35 billion -double the $18 billion cost to business from the wage hike.”

The Newsday report also says that “the booming economy has worsened inequality, with more than a quarter of the workforce now earning a poverty-level wage.”

The Census Bureau, says The New York Times (Oct. 18), may revise its take on what “poor people must spend on food, clothing, housing and life’s little extras.” The Bureau’s current income threshold for a family of four is $16,6000. “Sociologists and economists who study what people must earn to escape poverty in the United States … put the threshold between … $21,000 and $28,000…

“Not surprisingly, the White House, which would have to authorize a change in the poverty formula is proceeding cautiously. ‘We have at least a couple of years more work to do,’ a Clinton administration official said.”

SHRINKS PASS UNION IQ TEST

After three years debate, 3200 psychologists are affiliating with the New York Federation of Teachers, hoping to be able to force managed-care groups to provide better mental health care benefits.

One psychologist explained the decision, saying that “with managed care we are being deprofessionalized and we have to face that fact. We are being made into people just paid to do things. We don’t have control over our work the way we should have.” (The New York Times, Oct.19.)

BIG 3 AUTO JOB LOSS TO GO ON

Auto workers ratified proposed 4-year contracts with lop-sided majorities, boosted by a $1350 signing bonus. And who could blame them. The annual wage increases are said to be pegged at 3 percent above the inflation rate. While that looks OK to the individual worker, the workers as a whole are going to end up helping the stockholders pay for the raise. That’s because the new pacts do not stop work rule concessions, outsourcing, downsizing through attrition, and the proliferation of multiple wage tiers in the auto parts sector, the main sources of the unabated shrinking of the unionized workforce.

One estimate is that the deal allows “a 17 percent reduction … over the life of this contract … GM could shed about 30,000 of its 179,000 workers by 2001.” (Labor Notes, October 1999.)

The new money spread over fewer workers building more cars actually means that the workers’ proportionate share of what they produce will shrink, winding up as stockholder dividends.

Most observers believe that the auto corporations had no intention of forcing a strike, with car and passenger truck sales at their highest level ever in the 1999 model year. Nevertheless, the UAW leadership didn’t use that leverage to wrest back any of their past concessions to the auto moguls.

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