Cards Stacked Against Labor

All kinds of techniques are used to reverse losing streaks in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Switching decks, tables, or croupiers is one way. Another is to take your action somewhere else. It’s still a gamble, but maybe with better odds.

The problem with the labor movement is that it never leaves the table or takes its action elsewhere. Predictably, labor’s latest legislative goals in Congress have been pushed aside. There seems little chance for either a viable government alternative to private health insurance or of democratic reforms of the National Labor Relations Act. Of course, the house odds in Congress always strongly favor big business and unions are seldom able to gain an edge. That’s the record and everyone knows it. Yet, unions can still recoup their losses by putting aside their skittish "friends" in Congress for a moment and returning to what originally made them so strong—active members and hard bargaining.

It is time to focus on preparing already-organized union members for tough contract negotiations, the only time powerful threats of strike action hang ominously in the air. With union numbers in serious decline, there is no time to waste. Private sector membership is now below 8 percent. Labor’s share of the auto industry, for example, shrank from roughly 60 percent of the workforce in the early 1980s to about 30 percent in 2006, with even less representation for hundreds of thousands of parts workers as Chrysler, Ford, and GM spun off these divisions.

There are three issues that can begin to galvanize union members to retake valuable territory previously ceded without much of a fight.

One Union, One Standard

A benefit of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) is that it stipulates national contracts. Airline and rail workers from the same carrier and in the same bargaining class and craft—north and south, east and west—all enjoy the same wages, benefits, and working conditions. This is a powerful unifying factor and should be the example for all negotiations. The other major national labor law, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), applies to most other union employees outside of airlines and rail. It does not have this national requirement and each local employee unit fends for itself. It is, therefore, each union’s choice whether to take a stand defending industry and trade labor standards across the board.

The UNITE-HERE international union operates under the NLRA and successfully incorporated this strategy several years ago. The national headquarters fully supported its San Francisco Local 2 in 2004-2006 during an employer three-day lock-out, a strike, and a two-year boycott. Local 2 ultimately won demands to have the same contract standards throughout the city regardless of how large or how small the hotel. But most major unions have long abandoned such an approach.

One example is the United Steelworkers union (USWA) which decided to go "along with a decidedly less adversarial tone [when] the 1986 bargaining round produced separate agreements with LTV, National, Bethlehem, Inland, Armco, and US Steel, which cut the standard…." (Robert Bruno, Labor Studies Journal, Spring 2005). In abandoning uniform industry wage rates, the union allowed each Steel company to cut its own deal according to their individual economic problems.

This approach accelerated the decline of the USWA and of its members’ standard of living. It also divided steelworkers doing the same work into different wage categories, thus hindering their solidarity. As an alternative, national industry bargaining for common standards would challenge employer attempts to use economic formulas to divide workers according to region and company.

Common Expiration Dates, Coordinated Bargaining

About the only good that came out of airline bankruptcies during the last several years is that the collective bargaining agreements were all lined up by the judge to expire around the same time. Because creditors of United Airlines (UAL) demanded five-year contracts at the minimum, all UAL unions opted for the same shortest possible duration of the concessionary contracts. That five-year span is up at the end of 2009. Negotiations are now being conducted with UAL by all the unions representing the overwhelming majority of UAL’s 48,000 national workforce. In order of size, they are: the baggage handlers and customer service employees (IAM), flight attendants (AFA), pilots (ALPA), mechanics (IBT-Teamsters), and engineers (IFPTE).

It is a good thing that all the unions are bargaining at the same time, but it could be even more effective if negotiations were coordinated, which they are not. In 1969, there was a 102-day GE strike by 150,000 workers represented by 13 international unions. It was hugely successful because there was a coordinating bargaining committee (CBC) representing all the unions, who were united on the issue of reaching parity with workers in steel, auto, and aerospace.

This powerful example of coordinated bargaining still impacts today’s GE bargaining. A United Electrical workers (UE) 2007 newsletter explains that "prior to the start of negotiations, each CBC union sends representatives to a series of CBC meetings to discuss contract proposals. Each union, in their separate negotiations with GE, is free to submit whatever proposals their members want, but through the CBC we try to achieve unity on the key bargaining issues. A union that feels strongly about a particular bargaining goal will try to convince the other unions to adopt it as a proposal so that the union will face GE as a united front on the issue."

This united bargaining approach is seldom adopted. In fact, labor’s decline has been accompanied recently by more bitter divisions than solidarity. Andy Stern, the leader of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for example, has embarked on a strategy of raiding members of other unions rather than staying focused on the 100 million-plus unorganized.

Leaving aside these tragic examples of crumbling union principles, contract negotiations should establish common expiration dates throughout their particular economic sector. Different union bargaining objectives could be resolved through genuine labor coordination as past history demonstrates.

Organize to Negotiate

Congress is not likely to pass legislation reducing employer harassment and threats aimed at union organizers. Staggering numbers of workers are terminated each day for attempting to legally organize a union. Many "estimates suggest that almost one-in-five organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign" (Center for Economic & Policy Research, January 2007). Failure to pass urgently needed democratic reforms such as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is another reason labor must be more aggressive at the bargaining table.

There are currently several international unions who have successfully negotiated majority sign up at a number of locations, but they are too few. This is a job security issue. Union workers have seen their wages, benefits, pensions, and working conditions steadily deteriorate because of competition from non-union sectors of the economy.

Unions must win at the bargaining table what has been negotiated away by their "friends" in Congress. Contract negotiations should require employer neutrality and majority sign up procedures at all new expansion plants and with all contracted vendors. This would give union organizers a fighting chance to expand the union power base. Had the United Auto Workers union (UAW) employed such a bargaining strategy several years ago, they could have prevented expansion of non-union auto plants throughout the south and among the essential auto-parts production sector.

Of course, all these steps are predicated on a militant and mobilized membership ready to strike. It can only be accomplished through a sustained, long-term campaign to inform and interact with members. It will certainly be difficult to reverse decades of disinterest, apathy, and unresponsiveness among millions of union members. Some would consider it a long shot, but it really is our best bet to improve the lives of working families in this country. Even more emphatically, I would argue, it’s our only real chance.


Carl Finamore is former president (retired) of Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.