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Finding Workplace Power
T he recent AFL-CIO debates have generated much smoke and thunder. What’s lacking is a short- to medium-term strategy that gets at how workers and unions can tap the strength they find on the job. Unions and workers have always had the power to stop the wheels of industry. But with traditional “all-out” strikes on the decline in the United States, the labor movement has had to find new ways to exercise this power.
One of these places can be found in what the business press calls “the logistics revolution”—the expanding system of docks, railways, trucking barns, intermodal yards, warehouses, distribution centers, dispatch offices, and other work- places that keep massive amounts of goods flowing into retail outlets.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer and employer, pushed its way into market dominance in large part due to its mastering of this revolution, according to a paper by Tom Reifer, a researcher specializing in logistics. Making use of technologies that track goods all the way from the factory to the point of sale (including the world’s largest privately-owned satellite communications network), Wal-Mart has refined its “just-in-time” distribution much as manufacturers have refined lean or “just-in-time” production. Suppliers and competing retailers have been forced to adopt, in part or in whole, similar systems. But while these supply chains are becoming hyper-efficient, they are also increasingly exposed to potential disruption.
T here is power and leverage to be had in this sector,” observed Edna Bonachich, professor of sociology at UC Riverside, in comments about the rail and trucking industries ( Labor Notes , April 2004). “The corporations have created extended supply chains and depend on timely delivery. Inventory has been cut to the bone, so that any blockage in the system can cause them major problems.”
More and more goods are coming into this country—mostly from Pacific Rim countries like China. Textile imports from China alone, for instance, increased more than 63 percent in 2004, according to a U.S. Commerce Department report. This trade is flowing into more concentrated points.
By 2002, 80 percent of all Asian cargo (over 50 percent of total imports) was coming into the United States through container ships unloading in West Coast ports. The great bulk of this West Coast traffic is further concentrated in one giant port, Los Angeles/Long Beach. Traveling through congested ports and rail lines, this system has become ove-stretched and fragile, placing more potential power in the hands of workers.
Size Not The Issue
F or instance, a two-hour walk-out by 100 train dispatchers in Fort Worth, Texas on March 2, snarled traffic up and down the 32,000 miles of track operated by BNSF Railways, one of the nation’s largest rail carriers.
BNSF had tried to unilaterally implement changes in paid leave and comp time in its contract with the dispatchers’ union, the American Train Dispatchers Association. Instead of rolling over, workers at the Network Operations Center walked and BNSF trains stopped all over the country.
to company reports, close to 50 percent of rail traffic was stopped
in the Pacific Northwest—thousands of miles from the Texas-based
dispatch center. Similarly, commuter trains operated by the railroad
in Chicago, Seattle, and Tacoma, Washington were shut down, stranding
passengers throughout all three cities.
This kind of disruption is not limited to the rails, as Hawaiian members of the Inland Boatmen’s Union showed in 2004. Following a fight over pension, health care, and staffing levels in contract negotiations, fewer than 70 tugboat operators launched a 3-day strike that shut down virtually all shipping to the import-dependent islands. With many companies forced to send freight by air, management quickly folded and signed a four-year contract.
High diesel prices last spring pushed port truck drivers across the country into action. These mostly immigrant short-haul drivers typically either lease or own a single truck. Often called troqueros, as many of them are Latino, they have borderline poverty incomes after all costs are deducted.
Despite legal hurdles that have stifled union drives in the past, these drivers have been able to translate often informal and sporadic organization—held together by word-of-mouth, CB, and informal meetings—into actions that big shippers have to pay attention to.
In May 2004, California’s Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland ports, along with the Stockton, California rail/truck intermodal yard, were closed for short periods because of troqueros’ pickets. A second round of uncoordinated walk- outs that summer disrupted ports and intermodal yards along the East Coast and in the Midwest, including Miami, Charleston, New Orleans, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Houston, and Detroit.
As diesel fuel prices creep back up to the $2.50 per gallon range, some are expecting more actions. Reports from Truckers Unite, a port driver advocacy group, tell of walkouts by 20-50 drivers at sites in the Los Angeles area in mid- April. Strikers at Road Transport reportedly won pay increases of 5-10 percent on April 12.
Much has been made about union size in the recent AFL-CIO debates. But the ease of workplace disruption in logistics—and possibly other unexplored points in the economy—amplifies the strength of smaller groups of workers. Activists need to be discussing not only what will make the labor movement larger, but also what is a workable strategy for using the strength already in hand.
Chris Kutalik is co-editor of Labor Notes .
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.