Labor Briefing

Miners’ union scraping bottom?

There was a time when the United Mine Workers Union (UMW), led by the world-famous John L. Lewis, could force even the federal government to bend to its will.

But since the union still led by Lewis began its collaboration with the mine owners to “modernize and consolidate” the coal industry, the course of the militant and powerful union has been downhill.

After five decades of “labor-management cooperation,” the miners union reportedly doesn’t even release its membership figures. “According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal industry productivity-the amount of coal produced per worker per hour-more than doubled from 1986 to 1997, from 3.01 tons per man-hour to 6.04 tons per man-hour.” (Associated Press, March 6, 2000.)

In March, 700 UMW delegates met in Las Vegas and voted to eliminate one of their three remaining national offices, leaving only a president and a secretary-treasurer. The union is too weak to protect the jobs of its members or combat the industry’s widespread union-busting.

One delegate told the convention, “All over, we’ve seen locals having to merge with other locals, districts having to merge, all because of layoffs in the coal industry. I had to lay off my friends, and I even laid myself off to make sure that District 28 could survive.”( AP, March 7, 2000.)

How much longer the 110-year-old union will survive is anybody’s guess. It recently organized about 150 public workers, perhaps an indication that it’s thinking about becoming a general union.

While dues from miscellaneous groups of workers will help pay the rent, those new members will not be in a position to change the lopsided relationship of forces with the mine bosses, who are driving the union out of the mines.



Boeing strikers declare victory

Wise guys said they wouldn’t strike. And after they walked off the job, informed opinion was that they’d be back in a hurry with their tails between their legs, just like in 1993. The “experts,” including Boeing bosses, were wrong. After 40 days of picketing, 18,000 engineering and technical workers won a clear-cut victory over Boeing, the world’s largest airplane builder.

What is being billed as the largest white-collar strike in U.S. history forced Boeing to drop its takeaway demands and then give the strikers pay raises, bonuses, and medical coverage for domestic partners.

The strikers, members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), also won a new understanding of the power that comes from standing together. When Boeing unilaterally declared an impasse and offered raises for those who would cross the lines, the strikers hung tough.

They now know that they can be just as tough as the 44,000 unionized machinists who work at Boeing. The strikers also learned some blue-collar traditions. “I’m getting used to this brother and sister thing,” a SPEEA leader told thousands of union members at a strike rally. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 9, 2000.)

The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions donated thousands of dollars to the fight, and AFL-CIO Vice President Richard Trumka joined the end-game phase of negotiations in Washington, D.C. The AFL-CIO hopes the SPEEA victory will spur other white-collar workers to organize.

Part of the ratified contract provides that Boeing and SPEEA establish a labor-management group called the “Leadership Council.” Traditionally, labor-management committees are used by bosses to separate union leaders from the ranks, as well as get shop-floor ideas on how to get along with fewer workers.

Although the agreement provides that “employees shall be protected from layoffs as a result of decision made by the Council,” the SPEEA members have every right to be suspicious as to Boeing’s motives. Partly, that’s because Boeing is looking to reduce the workforce again. Since June 1998, the firm has shed over 40,000 jobs, and recently told Wall Street it expects to drop 5000 more.

The Wichita SPEEA affiliate of the striking Seattle engineers told Boeing that it would not strike for the duration of the Seattle strike. In return, Boeing said it would give the 1300 Wichita workers the same terms that the Seattle strikers finally accept. If the Wichita workers don’t like the “me-too” terms, then they are free to strike.

The Wichita Eagle (Mar. 14, 2000) quotes Doug Ritter, head negotiator for SPEEA in Wichita, as saying that the deal is a “great thing. We were unsure of the company’s plans for Wichita because they refused to commit. Now, we’ve got them to commit.”

Normally, strikers want as much clout as they can muster. That’s why many union locals with the same employer try (usually without success) to negotiate common contract expiration dates, so they can threaten more of the bosses’ profits. That’s why it’s hard to see from afar how the Wichita “me-too” agreement helped the Seattle strikers.

Puzzling too is why the Wichita SPEEA officials think that they could strike as successfully with the nearly 20,000 Seattle strikers back on the job, than with them putting their power behind the Wichita workers’ demands. Nevertheless, the Seattle strike was inspiring and should give other workers the confidence to fight back.

“Today is the day that the relationship between the Boeing Co. and SPEEA has changed forever,” said Charles Bofferding, executive director of the union, who helped engineer the agreement. “Today they understand what we mean by respect.”(AP, March 18.)

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