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Is Labor Finally Showing Signs of a Comeback?

As labor activists from around the country and world converge on Dearborn, Michigan in early May for the Labor Notes Conference, it’s worth reflecting back on a year that has brought back hopes for a revitalization of the labor movement.

Several months ago, the Wall Street Journal described an increase in strikes in the United States. But the modest revival of grassroots activity in the U.S. labor movement at the end of 2005 has largely been missed by the mainstream press.

STRIKES UP

According to the Bureau of National Affairs there were 271 work stoppages in the first three quarters of 2005 as compared to 227 in all of 2004. And the BNA’s numbers do not include many of the high-profile strikes at the end of 2005 which involved roughly 70,000 workers: Northwest Airlines mechanics and cleaners, Boeing aircraft manufacturing workers, California hospital workers, Philadelphia and New York City transit.

What’s prompting all this activity? Emboldened by four years on the attack since 9/11, many employers used aggressive bargaining tactics in unprecedented ways in 2005. Proposed wage and health care cuts were far deeper than in previous years–in some cases, unions were faced with the near-to-total loss of retiree health care, pensions, and at times the near-destruction of the unionized jobs themselves.

Caught off-guard by employers’ intransigence at the table, a number of unions found themselves in last-minute “desperation strikes”: badly prepared, yet seen as necessary for survival of the union.

Even if these strikes didn’t produce the contractual gains that workers wanted, they did have some positive effects. Striking workers at Boeing and New York transit strikers, for instance, described seeing new excitement and participation from fellow workers following their successful, high-profile attempts to shut down their employers.

Many activists involved in strike support for the Northwest Airlines mechanics’ strike saw striking mechanics and cleaners move month by month into greater militancy and awareness of the broader labor movement. Indeed, rank-and-file strikers from AMFA Local 5 in Detroit formed their own Solidarity Committee that attended other union’s pickets, Jobs with Justice events, and various social movement events in the Detroit area.

SURGE IN REFORM

Strikes were only one example of increased activity. Auto part manufacturer Delphi’s announcement of bankruptcy—and plan for 63 percent wage cuts and massive layoffs—unleashed a wave of rank-and-file organizing.

While the UAW leadership remained paralyzed, unable or unwilling to mount even a desperation fight, UAW members launched a new dissident organization: Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS). SOS successfully organized a highly publicized picket of several hundreds at the Detroit Auto Show, another large picket at Delphi’s headquarters, and has been organizing trainings for UAW members in how to use work-to-rule strategies to fight the company inside the plants.

Outside of auto, reformers in the East Coast longshore union, the International Longshoreman’s Association, continue to build the dissident Longshore Workers Coalition. In January, transit workers in New York followed up their three-day strike by voting down the concessionary contract pushed by union leaders.

In Los Angeles, reform-minded teachers swept elections in the second-largest teacher union in the country, United Teachers of Los Angeles.

Rank-and-file work has also seen an uptick in the Teamsters as that union heads towards its 2006 elections. Teamster reformers have mounted the Strong Contracts/Good Pensions slate with Tom Leedham as their candidate for General President.

The 2006 campaign began with reform victories in local elections in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Louisville, and elsewhere. The grassroots campaign gathered over 50,000 member signatures in two months and received election accreditation in December.

IMMIGRANT WORKER VICTORIES

Some of the biggest labor success stories of 2005 were made by predominantly immigrant farm workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ successful Taco Bell boycott and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s 5,000-worker organizing victory in North Carolina broke new ground for immigrant labor organizing.

Both groups won by organizing in the fields and communities at the same time–building successful national campaigns that mobilized faith-based, student, and other community-labor groups, while maintaining internal member-driven education.

On the waterfront, wildcat strikes at ports and inter-modal yards over the last two years have won victories on both coasts for mostly immigrant workers. Wildcat strikes at the Stockton, California inter-modal yard in the spring and summer of 2005 were organized from a Sikh temple, for example.

The massive immigrant marches that sprang up around the United States in early 2006 give further evidence of a growing, vibrant immigrant rights movement. On April 10—the second round of protests—an estimated two million or more people marched in 140 cities.

INDUSTRIAL UNITY

2005 also saw the emergence of new rank-and-file groups advocating an old vision: industrial unity. These cross-union formations have evolved in the strategically important transportation industry, where union members face myriad challenges.

The Teamsters’ absorption of two major rail craft unions (the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees) has sparked interesting organizing among rank-and-file activists in the rail industry. Frustrated by a century of craft division and feuding, union members began reaching out to other members across the craft and union divide last year by forming Rail Operating Crafts United.

In the embattled airline industry, union members and supporting activists have built a new cross-union, cross-craft group: Airline Workers United. AWU emerged in response to ongoing problems made clear by the Northwest Airlines strike–the collapse of solidarity, the unresponsiveness of many airline union leaderships, and the lack of an industry-wide union strategy.

AWU is currently made up of flight attendants, mechanics, gate workers, and customer service agents from a number of airline unions at Northwest, but it has also begun spreading to pilots and mechanics at United and American.

SOCIAL MOVEMENT UNIONISM

Beyond traditional union reform, labor groups fought for democracy and social justice in new and exciting ways in 2005 (labor’s participation in the above-mentioned immigrant marches is one example of this).

Unions and other labor organizations continue to oppose the war in Iraq, with U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) playing the biggest role. USLAW is reaching out to veterans and military families, sponsoring public events with Military Families Speak Out, Iraqi Veterans Against the War, and other veterans groups.

In 2005 USLAW also organized a successful tour of Iraqi labor leaders and an intervention at the AFL-CIO Convention. Due to pressure from USLAW, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution against the war in Iraq at its convention, a groundbreaking moment for the federation.

Responding to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Community Labor United (CLU)–a Jobs with Justice-like community-labor coalition in New Orleans–stepped up its own regional organizing. CLU has already been involved in a number of local fights around Gulf Coast reconstruction, and continues to demand that the people of New Orleans determine the future of their city.

For all these positive developments, this remains a difficult period for U.S. labor. Union membership has hit historic lows, and employers (along with the government) continue their assault on workers’ living and working conditions.

But precisely because this period looks so bleak, it is important to examine these victories, small and large, and learn what we can. In hard times we need the lessons these victories provide, and we also need inspiration.

CHRIS KUTALIK is co-editor of Labor Notes magazine in Detroit. He can be reached at: chris@labornotes.org

 

 

 

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