Union ‘Victories’ Mask Continuing Losses

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Some recent high profile union “victories,” at Boeing, Verizon, Firestone, and United Airlines mean that other workers will do as well, says the AFL-CIO.

“We,’re going to be seeing other impressive union contracts,” Richard Bank, director of the AFL-CIO,’s collective bargaining center, predicted. “Union settlements are running higher than they were several years ago” (The New York Times, Sept.9).

Most observers say recent gains are due to the economic expansion and the relatively tight labor market. But some analysts, such as Richard Hurd, a Cornell University professor of labor and industrial relations, suggest that something else is also at work. Hurd thinks that union leaders have at last figured out how to outwit the ever more densely concentrated economic power of corporate America.

Hurd says, “These are definitely lucrative contracts. They are the result of the good economy and of unions becoming more sophisticated in their negotiations over the past 20 years.”

It’s not clear what the professional analyst means when he says that union leaders are more “sophisticated” in their bargaining strategies. However, what is abundantly clear is that union negotiators, in the main, are not abandoning their class-collaborationist outlook at the bargaining table.

For example, The Times reports that “Bernard Kleiman, one of the steelworkers’ chief negotiators, said another reason that wages had risen strongly in the recent contracts is a social compact between unions and major industries. He said unions had agreed to cooperate with companies to help them cut costs and restructure to make them more competitive.”

“In industries like steel and rubber,” Kleiman said, “we’re globally more efficient than the rest of the world, and in return we demand job security and good wages, and that’s the responsible way to go.” (If Kleiman’s statement reads like a rough-and-ready definition of business unionism, that’s because it is.)

Unfortunately, the “job security and good wages” that the “responsible” union bureaucrats are so proud of go to an ever shrinking unionized industrial work force-and not just in the steel and rubber industries, where the weakened rubber workers’ union in 1995 merged with the steel workers’ union, itself much smaller than it once was.

For example, the recent auto agreement is almost certain to help General Motors eliminate up to 30,000 unionized jobs by 2003, though auto production is expected to increase. While no one knows exactly how much of the nominal wage increases (wages unadjusted for inflation) is merely money the corporations saved from wages that once went to “downsized” auto workers, there’s can be no reasonable doubt that it’s considerable.

Nor can there be any doubt that a big share of the wage increases comes from work-rule concessions, multi-tiered wages and benefits, and the replacement of shop-floor militancy with labor-management cooperation schemes.

For decades union leaders have been getting nominal wage gains partly by selling the bosses many of the hard-won gains that date from the industrial upsurge of the Great Depression and the post-World War II strike battles.

The eight-hour day, union hiring halls, premium pay for Saturdays and Sundays, and much more might as well be Smithsonian exhibits for many unionized workers born since the 1960s.

Despite the nominal raises won by union negotiators, workers’ share of the $9 trillion U.S. national domestic product has fallen in recent years by hundreds of billions of dollars. And the fresh surge of officially measured inflation means that no end is in sight.

“The Consumer Price Index, which rose less than 2 percent a year in 1997 and 1998, is now climbing at an annual rate of more than 3.5 percent, nullifying all or most of this year’s wage gains,” The New York Times noted (Sept. 10, 2000).

No wonder then that the workers’ uncertainty and anxiety of the early 1990s has not faded despite the economic upswing. For while workers can afford mass-produced products, the basic necessities of life are increasingly difficult to afford.

According to Jeff Madrick, professor of social science at Cooper Union, “Even the poor own VCRs, microwave ovens and Sony Walkmans. But the costs of products and services that some may view as even more critical to modern life than a VCR-housing, education, medical care and public transit-have all risen much faster than incomes since the early 1970s. … [T]he inescapable fact is that if women did not work, most family incomes would not have risen at all in the 1980s and 1990s” (The New York Times, Aug. 31, 2000).

All economists agree that the present economic expansion will be followed by a contraction; expansions always are. That’s when the consequences of the falling real incomes of the past decades will hit home the hardest, and even the so-called well-off unionized industrial workers will be hard put to scrape by.

A case in point is the Raytheon electricians who, after one week on strike, are wondering how to get by. “[S]ome union members said their first week without a paycheck has left them frustrated as they figure out how to keep up with loans and health insurance premiums. ‘People are frustrated. People are agitated,'” an IBEW picket told reporters (Reuters, Sept. 8).

Despite workers’ inevitable frustration and agitation, hard times do not mean that a full-blown upsurge by unionized workers is then automatically in the cards. If the 1997 UPS strike is any indication, something else is needed-specifically, a militant leadership.

It took months of preparatory work by the Teamsters officialdom prodded by Ron Carey before the ranks were mobilized to militantly take on UPS. (That, by the way, was the first national UPS strike since UPS was founded early in the last century.)

Despite the ceaseless erosion of working conditions, real wages, and union power, labor leaders are not preparing the ranks to militantly defend what they have, let alone make real, not merely nominal, gains.

No wonder so many workers today feel that the union officialdom and its “sophistication” is just another hand in their pockets.

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