Labor News Briefs

Carpenters Vacate “House of Labor”

by Charles Walker

On March 29, the Carpenters Union’s national leadership marched the union’s 325,000 members out of the AFL-CIO. Almost immediately President John J. Sweeney ordered all state and local AFL-CIO bodies to expel Carpenter delegates.

Both sides have been closemouthed about the dispute, but labor commentator Harry Kelber says that Carpenters president Doug McCarron is seeking to infringe on other building trades’ jurisdictions, as McCarron tries to transform the Carpenters Union into a “wall-to-wall” outfit “through which contractors could be assured of lining up the services of ironworkers, bricklayers, laborers, plumbers and other trades for a complete construction job.” Kelber says that McCarron “hopes to attract tens of thousands of non-union workers in all crafts who are willing to work below the union scale and with fewer benefits. If McCarron goes ahead with his plans, it will amount to a declaration of jurisdictional war with the other crafts, with predictable turmoil for the construction industry.”

McCarron has angered rank and file carpenters by his forced “restructuring” of the union, putting locals into authoritarian regional bodies, without the ranks’ say-so. One critic says, “About the only activity that seems possible and permissible in the locals is running picnics.” Still, McCarron was recently reelected to his second term-by other officials. The ranks couldn’t vote.

Canadian carpenters may secede from the parent union. They charge: “The International continues to take away the democratic rights of carpenters all across North America.”

Hoffa Vice President Says His Union Is Good for Bosses

Teamster International Vice President Ken Wood (elected on the Hoffa slate) must think that bosses are boneheaded when they resist his organizing efforts. That’s because Wood says his union’s contracts help the bosses with troublesome issues like workers who want a little more money, or protection from discrimination, or workers’ demands that might force bosses out of business. Wood told a Tampa Tribune reporter, “I take the position that really, I’m good for an employer. My reason is this: I become your perfect ‘No’ to the employees when they come to you wanting an additional hire day, or additional vacation, or a pay raise, because all the employer has to say to them is, ‘I’d love to give it to you, but the contract says this.’

“Also I keep you [the boss] out of the court system, the labor board, the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], the Wage & Hour, all these places. Because seniority is totally blind to race, color, creed, sex religion, national origin, whatever.

“It’s like I try to tell employers. You as an employer will probably succeed without [organized] labor. Labor will not succeed without an employer. So we’re not in the business of putting somebody out of business.”

While it’s easy to understand Wood’s frustration with stubborn bosses, it’s not easy to understand how “his” union local recruited its 3,500 members. Surely, the union doesn’t find the same arguments it uses with the bosses to be persuasive with workers.

Cross-Border Trucking — Where’s the Solidarity?

By the end of the year, Mexican trucking companies (perhaps some U.S.-owned) expect to be sending their big-rigs and Mexican drivers across the U.S.-Mexican border, under bipartisan NAFTA legislation. Up to now, an unacknowledged deal by the Clinton administration and the Teamsters Union has blocked the proposed cross-border trucking. The Teamsters Union argues that the Mexican trucks are hazardous, and that the Mexican drivers lack basic worker protections. Teamster president James P. Hoffa says, “We will continue to fight for the safety of the American motorist…” So judging from the union’s statements, its number one concern is highway safety.

But is that true? Is highway safety the fundamental Teamster issue? If it is, how does the union justify its mediocre record when it comes to fighting trucking bosses who push drivers to violate hours-in-service regulations, purportedly designed to keep exhausted and sleepy drivers off the road? By the way, the 50-year-old Department of Transportation regulations have long been out of date. For example, they fail to recognize the human body’s natural rhythms, permitting companies to impose irregular schedules and quick turnarounds. Numerous studies indicate that the majority of drivers work more hours than the law allows. Indeed, one union-friendly academic analyst calls today’s big-rigs “sweatshops on wheels.”

And no wonder. The Teamsters Union has thousands of its members working under contracts that are clearly piecework schemes. Rather than get paid by the hour, these drivers are paid by the mile and the load. The more loads they deliver, the more they are paid. And the faster they drive, the more loads they deliver. With union contracts that virtually institutionalize piecework, the union’s weak record on filing effective grievances, and its failure to strike to enforce safety issues, it’s hard not to think that the safety issue is just a mask to cover up the real concern-competition from low-wage Mexican workers.

Of course no should blame Teamsters for wanting to hang on to what they have. But is treating Mexican drivers as little different from potential scabs, the way to win from the bosses secure jobs that pay well? Isn’t such thinking playing into the bosses’ game of divide-and-then-conquer workers? Back when unions’ rallying cry was organize the unorganized, unemployed and poorly paid workers were not a threat to unions, but an opportunity to increase their numbers and increase their power to force bosses to make concessions on wages and working conditions. It was massive organizing drives, not limited to what the laws, bosses, or politicians allowed that brought U.S. workers and their unions their greatest basic gains to date, and all that during the toughest economic times, with historically high joblessness.

Now that it is almost certain that Mexican drivers will be crossing the border, Teamsters need what they should have had in the first place: A strategy to organize our fellow workers, not fight them!

No Oscar for This Teamster

A Hollywood Teamster bureaucrat is giving a new and sordid meaning to the phrase “Bad Actor.” The union official says that if the Guild Writers of America strike the film studios, “his members” will cross the picket lines.

“We usually honor other locals’ picket lines,” Leo Reed, head of Teamsters Local 399 told the Los Angeles Times. “But if, there is work to be done, I’ll support my members.” Ironically, the writers’ contract ends May 1, the International Workers Holiday that originated in the U.S. in 1886 as part of workers’ fight for an eight-hour day. Chances are Reed hasn’t polled the union’s 4,000 members to see if they really want to scab on the 11,000 writers. Nor has Reed said if he will also order the Teamsters to scab on the 135,000 actors whose contracts expire June 30.