Transit Pact Divides Reformers

by Charles Walker

This article, and the two that follow, are from the web site Labor Tuesday for Jan. 14, 2003. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

Just about two years ago, members of New York’s Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union (TWU) gave candidates of the New Directions caucus an overwhelming majority on the local’s 46-member executive board and elected New Directions candidates to eight of the local’s ten top posts, including its new president, Roger Toussaint. The resounding victory for the insurgents came after more than a decade of organizing, as well as concessionary contracts for the 34,000-member union. Now the caucus is divided into warring camps, one side led by Toussaint urging ratification of a tentative agreement he negotiated with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the other urging a “no” vote.

Because the reformers’ election victory seemed, at the time, to point a way forward for all union reformers, the present dispute surely holds lessons for all workers determined to transform their unions from bureaucratic strongholds into democratic and thereby militant organizations capable of successfully resisting corporate demands for a variety of concessions.

The internal union dispute has spilled over into the New York press, with a New York Times (Jan. 10) op-ed piece by Noel Acevedo, the Local 100’s recording secretary and the third-highest ranking official in the local. Acevedo criticized the deal, saying the gains were outmatched by the givebacks, especially the union’s protection against layoffs. A day earlier, Newsday reported that opposition leaflets were taped to locker room walls at transit depots and terminals throughout the city, proclaiming, “Second Class Contract, Vote No.”

Toussaint, it was reported, lays much of the blame for the opposition on the leadership of the international, which opposed Toussaint’s election. Nevertheless, that doesn’t explain the opposition to the contract from inside the New Directions caucus.

The central contract issue in the dispute is the union negotiators’ giving up of the previously existing no-layoff clause. Should the contract be rejected by the ranks, it would be because of their fear that their job security has been drastically impaired. “Transportation authority officials see dropping the clause as a step toward increasing productivity, but they said little about it until they decided that union leaders were boasting about how well they did in negotiations and making the authority look bad.” Instead of the old no-layoff clause, the proposed contract says the authority will “make every effort to avoid involuntary reductions in force.”

“Opponents say the change could open the door to layoffs, especially when the authority faces a deficit” (New York Times, Jan. 5). The issue of wages isn’t a prime bone of contention, even though Toussaint and the New Directions caucus were profoundly critical of the previous leadership’s settling for a 12 percent increase over three years, superior to the proposed raise now of 6 percent for the second and third years, and a $1,000 bonus in the first year.

Signs that something was wrong appeared even before the New Directions election triumph. A member of the New Directions group wrote, “Ironically, the near certainty of victory in 2000 led many in New Directions to urge that the militant message be toned down—just to be safe…As a result, most of the campaign had a bland, generic ‘good unionism’ feel to it (‘Real Leaders for a Real Union’). It seemed to say that the key to change was electing the right leaders rather than an active membership.” (Steve Downs, Labor Notes, Feb. 2001.)

Still, Downs noted that the new officers were more honest and competent than their defeated rivals, and that many of the caucus members continued to “hold a vision of unionism that goes beyond simply providing a better service to the members.” Nevertheless, he prophetically suggested, “How the debate over the two different approaches plays out in the local will go a long way in determining the success of the new leadership of TWU 100.”

Seemingly then, the debate over the merits of the contract and how it was negotiated is implicitly a debate over the merits of a top-down leadership, or an active mobilized membership entrusted with an unusual degree of decision-making. But that doesn’t mean that if the contract is ratified, the ranks have rejected an increased role for themselves in the union’s affairs. The ranks dumped the previous leadership, after ratifying the previous contract. A lot of members who really don’t want the proposed pact may still vote for it, feeling that Toussaint can’t or won’t do any better.

That’s the challenge for the contract’s opponents. They must not only convince the ranks that the contract should be voted down; they must convince them that they will be better off if they vote it down. The mail-in ballots are to be counted Jan. 21.

ILWU Spokesman Hails Pact, Warts and All

by Charles Walker

In an article about the recently concluded ILWU negotiations by free-lance labor reporter David Bacon, Steve Stallone, editor of the union’s paper, gives the frankest account and evaluation of the pending pact to date by an ILWU insider. Unlike the union’s president, James Spinosa, Stallone doesn’t call the pact a “win-win” deal for both the bosses and the workers. But it is, he says, a victory because the union achieved its goals of preserving the workers’ health benefits, as well as winning the biggest boost in pensions the union has ever won. Moreover, given what the union had to go through, “we’re glad we were able to reach an agreement at all.”

“There are problems with the settlement, as you might expect, from any contract negotiated under the gun of Taft-Hartley.” Those problems include, increasing the wage gap between the lowest-paid worker and the highest-paid, “which we’ve always fought against.” Further there’s a new wage gap among crane operators. “That opens the door to what happened to the International Longshoremen’s Association (which represents dockworkers on the East and Gulf coasts), who now have separate contracts for each category [of crane operator].” Presumably, those wage gaps have weakened the ILA’s bargaining position. The newly negotiated wage increases are predicted to be below the rate of inflation. Reportedly, under the old contact, labor costs were about one percent of gross revenue.

As Bacon correctly points out, the prospective health benefits and pensions “came at a cost.” About a third of the marine clerks jobs, numbering 400, will be eliminated through attrition. Other commentators have estimated that the union did gain about a dozen or so jobs that previously had been outsourced; but the union failed to win its main jurisdictional fight for vessel planning jobs and office jobs that would have not only made up for the job losses, but strengthened the union overall.

Seemingly, Bacon didn’t press Stallone to talk about the jurisdiction problem and the net loss of jobs, the key issue in the dispute. Bacon says that the unprecedented six-year agreement means that the next contract will not be negotiated under a Bush administration, should Bush be reelected. But it’s not clear whether that was a consideration at the bargaining table.

Stallone points out the difficulties of negotiating a contract under the threat of a Taft-Hartley injunction, and Bacon presents a detailed account of the maneuvers that the workers’ opponents, the bosses, the Bush administration, and the courts, undertook to keep the ILWU from utilizing its power to strike to back up its demands. As we all know, the union didn’t strike, or as Bacon puts it, the “ILWU nimbly avoided being provoked into a strike…”

What Stallone fails to address is how the ILWU dealt with Taft-Hartley legalisms in 1971 and even earlier in 1948. In those years, rather than “nimbly avoiding” a strike, the ILWU struck, went back to work after the mandated “cooling-off period,” then hit the bricks once more.

Of the 1948 strike, Charles Larrowe wrote, “The strike had lasted ninety-five days and had turned into a rout. All the employers suffered heavy losses. And for what?...The union was still running the hiring halls, union members were still being given preference for jobs, the employers had conceded a 10 per cent wage increase…and they agreed that they would no longer use lawyers as negotiators.” (See Larrowe’s book Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S.)

In 1971, the union was forced back to work under the Taft-Hartley Act after striking for 100 days. Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s president, attempted to get the East Coast ILA to join in a nationwide dock strike. The ILA officialdom refused, but that didn’t stop the ILWU from striking again, after the “cooling-off period,” and reaching an agreement a month later. Opponents of the current proposed contract charge that, in effect, the union failed the members when it agreed to concessions, negotiating without the power to strike. To date, neither the union leadership nor Stallone have publicly stated why they abandoned the successful strategy used both in 1948 against Democrat President Harry Truman and in 1971 against Republican President Richard Nixon.

Bacon writes that at the heart of the beef was the bosses “decision to try to end an arrangement that successfully allowed the introduction of advanced technology on to the docks for the last 40 years,” at the cost, he notes, of the “jobs of tens of thousands of West Coast dockers…” In other words, the bosses wanted to expand once more their power over the work process, a power that was hemmed in by the historic 1934 dockers’ strike.

Bacon doesn’t think that the issue was fully decided this time around; further, Bacon says “the companies want to automate shipping far beyond the use of automated scanners and tracking devices. In their vision of the future, cranes and dockside machines will eventually be operated by remote control, perhaps by people miles away from the wharves.”

Bacon concludes that “the entire terrain of labor negotiations has shifted dramatically in favor of business, and many other unions may find themselves facing federal intervention in the months to come” now that “[i]nterruptions of economic activity…are [considered] a threat to national security.”

If that’s the case, the new settlement may be a different kind of “landmark” settlement from the one that the ILWU’s president has proclaimed. Stallone and Bacon don’t offer a suggestion as to what organized labor should do to oppose government intervention. But John L. Lewis of the coalminers did in 1947, when the Taft-Hartley Act was passed. Lewis took the floor at the AFL convention and railed at the craven officials who were buckling under. “I will tell you what you should do at least once in your lives—you should do your duty to your membership.” Lewis called upon the union officialdom to oppose the new Act by refusing to recognize it. (Click here for the text of Lewis’s speech, reprinted in the Fall 2002 issue of Labor Standard. Also for the full text of Bacon’s article discussed above, click here—Jack Heyman’s critique of Bacon’s article precedes the article itself.)

If organized labor is ever going to fight against government intervention,  it may well be that labor should stand and fight now rather than later, because if the decades-old trend continues, later it’s bound to be weaker. The best contribution the ILWU ranks can make to help themselves and all of organized labor in the fight against government intervention is to assert their independence by voting down the contract and negotiating with their strike power intact, as some ILWU members advocate.

That may well be the riskiest course for the individual worker, but that course has a chance of maintaining the union’s strength for the next generation of longshore workers. No one has suggested another.

Crisis at United Airlines

A Union Member Speaks Out

by Carl Finamore

[The following statement was recently distributed as a flyer to United Air Lines (UAL) employees working at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Its author, Carl Finamore, is an IAM union steward and chairman of the education committee of IAM Local Lodge 1781. Finamore is a lead rampservice freight handler for UAL.]

[This is an individual view not endorsed by the IAM (International Association of Machinists). It offers readers an inside look at some of the issues currently being discussed among workers in response to United’s bankruptcy crisis.]

I am a Lead Rampserviceman and union steward working at SFOFF. I would like to explain my NO! vote on the recent concessionary contract offer. We all have a stake in this discussion. Let's agree to disagree without disrespecting.


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am in a minority among my fellow rampservice UAL employees who voted, along with thousands of customer service agents, to approve a concessionary agreement cutting wages to levels that would not return until 2008. An important exception was the 13,000 mechanics who voted NO!

If it had gone into effect, the YES! vote would have meant a reversal of the good fortunes we briefly enjoyed since May when a new contract was approved, ending an 8-year drought of no wage or benefit increases from July 1994 to May 2002.

Most employees are still resentful of enduring such a long period of wage cuts, because it produced billions in cash reserves for UAL that were subsequently squandered in failed business ventures and bloated management bonuses.

Yet most workers still voted on November 27 to cut their wages again after enjoying their new wage increases for only 6 months. Why?

Fear! United Airlines threatened to declare bankruptcy and petition the courts to tear up the union contract, leaving workers fearful of losing substantial contract protections such as health and sick leave benefits.

After everything was considered, most saw voting “yes” as a vote to save their jobs and the essential remaining contract protections.

Our union did the best to reduce the impact of concessions, and I am grateful to have an organization standing between me and unmitigated corporate greed and selfishness. I credit the leadership with the best of intentions, but I do not hesitate to criticize it for the worst of strategies.

Union leaders informed members that their strategy was to “help UAL avoid bankruptcy.” This approach is a fatal mistake because it assumes that the best way to defend the interests of the members is to first assure the profitability of UAL.

This is assuredly and definitely not true, as recent memory attests. UAL workers suffered wage concessions all during the prosperous 1990s.

None of us wanted UAL to go into bankruptcy, but it was a decision we had no control over even with an agreement by the majority to make major concessions.

We also do not determine how UAL management ultimately spends money subtracted from wages.

I believe union leaders should have shifted the debate from the economic problems of UAL to a political defense of the interests of employees who were wholly not responsible for the problems of United.

Advocating our needs independently of UAL's fortunes means we would be better prepared to defend ourselves against any range of possible management decisions, over which we have, once again, no control.

I believe this political approach is better than the economic approach of seeing our interests solely as a byproduct of UAL's financial health. If the masquerade of “employee ownership” during the prosperous decade of the 1990s taught us anything, it is that this is a false hope.

Workers should always be prepared to retreat in a dispute with management, but I firmly believe that our losses will lessen if accompanied by a vigorous national political effort championing the needs and interests of UAL employees. Courts, even bankruptcy courts, are not immune to political pressure from vocal social forces.

A vigorous national educational campaign on behalf of 43,000 IAM members, such as was conducted successfully for an increase in the Minimum Wage several years ago, would have been impossible to ignore.

Such an effort would have challenged UAL management and the government to justify before the court of public opinion why workers should be held responsible for the mistakes of management.

I believe millions would have sympathized with our voice while the tragedies at Enron and World Com are still fresh.

But the economy, you say, is really causing problems for the airlines. Yes, this is true. But again, should the union be the spokesperson for the problems of a UAL that always desires to place financial losses on the backs of workers? Or should it advocate that the government, despite downturns in the economy, protect workers’ standard of living?

We deserve stability and security in our lives. It should be unacceptable for the ups and downs of the economy to jeopardize the living conditions of workers. Our union was built in the late 1800s in the rail yards during a time when workers would come to work seeing lower wages and hours posted by the company depending on whether the rail barons had a good week of profits or not.

Union contracts established wage and benefit security for workers for at least the duration of the contract. In addition, unions subsequently organized political campaigns that won federal passage of unemployment and social security protections to buffer workers from the uncertainties of the economy.

But the unions advocate no such political campaign today. It appears that union contracts can be torn up short of their duration anytime a company faces economic distress. This process will continue to happen at UAL as long as the discussion remains centered on “how to save UAL from bankruptcy.”

We cannot argue with the economic facts. UAL needs money. Therefore it is essential that the economic issue be shifted by the union to political questions posed to the government: Should the workers pay for the economic problems of corporate America? Should we be held hostage to every recession and/or every case of mismanagement?

Well-intentioned union representatives spend far too much time in the halls of Congress pleading with politicians and far too little time educating members to return to the streets of Washington promoting the interests of working families and our right to a prosperous living standard.

More than ever we need unions to regain their voice independent of the corporations and government.

Fraternally and with Solidarity,

Carl Finamore 12/9/02