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Is A Labor Comeback in the Cards?
A s labor activists from around the country and world converged on Dearborn, Michigan in early May for a Labor Notes Conference, it’s worth reflecting on a year that has brought hope for a revitalization of the labor movement.
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. The BNA’s numbers do not even include many of the highprofile strikes at the end of 2005 that involved roughly 70,000 workers: Northwest Airlines mechanics and cleaners, Boeing aircraft manufacturing workers, California hospital workers, Philadelphia and New York City transit workers.
What’s prompting all this activity? Emboldened by four years of Bush administration attacks on labor, 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 unionized jobs, retiree health care, and pensions.
Many activists involved in strike support for the Northwest Airlines mechanics’ saw striking mechanics and cleaners move month by month into greater militancy and awareness of the broader labor movement. Rank-and-file strikers from AMFA Local 5 in Detroit formed their own solidarity committee that attended other unions’ pickets, Jobs with Justice events, and various social movement events in the Detroit area.
Surge In Reform
S trikes were only one example of increased activity. Auto parts manufacturer Delphi’s announcement of bankruptcy—and its plan for 63 percent wage cuts and massive layoffs—unleashed rank-andfile organizing. While the UAW leadership remained paralyzed, UAW members launched a new dissident organization, Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS). SOS successfully organized a highly publicized picket of several hundred at the Detroit Auto Show, another large picket at Delphi’s headquarters, and has been organizing training for UAW members in how to use workto-rule strategies to fight the company inside the plants.
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.
The rank-and-file work of Teamster reformers has resulted in 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 2 months and received election accreditation for December.
Immigrant Worker Victories
S ome of the biggest labor success stories of 2005 were made by predominantly immigrant farmworkers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ successful Taco Bell boycott and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s 5,000worker 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 memberdriven education.
On the waterfront, wildcat strikes at ports over the last two years have won victories on both coasts for mostly immigrant workers. Wildcat strikes at the Stockton, California 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 gave further evidence of a growing, vibrant immigrant rights movement. On April 10, the second round of protests, an estimated 2 million or more people marched in 140 cities.
Last year 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.
In the embattled airline industry, union members and supporting activists have built a new cross-union, cross-craft group: Airline Workers United (airlineworkers united.org). 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
B eyond traditional union reform, labor groups fought for democracy and social justice in exciting ways in 2005. Unions and other labor organizations continue to oppose the war in Iraq, with U.S. Labor Against the War (US LAW) playing the biggest role. USLAW is reaching out to veterans and military families, sponsoring public events with Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and other such groups. In 2005 USLAW organized a successful tour of Iraqi labor leaders and an intervention at the AFLCIO 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 community-labor coalition in New Orleans—stepped up its 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 be able to 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. 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 the inspiration.
Chris Kutalik is co-editor of Labor Notes in Detroit (www.labor notes.org).
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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.
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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.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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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.
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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.
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