A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Verizon work stoppage could show strikes’ viability

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., May 23, 24 or 25

One of labor’s most stirring anthems is “Whose Side Are You On?”, and as workers in the public and private sectors increasingly cope with uncompromising employers, the song still echoes.

But there may be a new refrain – one that revives the notion of striking – and it’s playing out in the six-week-long Verizon strike.

There, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez last week met with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, Communications Workers president Chris Shelton, and Electrical Workers president Lonnie Stephenson and convinced them to return to negotiations. But McAdam shows little willingness to compromise from his demands to increase health-insurance costs and to assign workers to distant job sites for months at a time, and the unions oppose being sent far from their families and having jobs outsourced to call centers in the Philippines and other low-wage nations.

After the collapse of Illinois’ 1992-95 strikes/lockouts involving the United Auto Workers, Paperworkers, and Rubber Workers at Caterpillar, Staley, and Bridgestone/Firestone, respectively, it was no surprise that unions became hesitant to use labor’s ultimate tool: the work stoppage. Since then, there have been fewer effective choices in tough bargaining situations, but some successes since have shown possibilities.

Almost 10 years ago, the Teamsters 16-day shutdown at United Parcel Service was a huge union victory for some 185,000 striking workers, who achieved a new contract with a wage hike, protection for existing benefits and increased job security. More recently, the Chicago Teachers Union’s conducted a successful eight-day strike in 2012, and a comment by CTU president Karen Lewis still rings true: “Our ability to withhold our labor is our power.”

But memories of historic disappointments linger. After the Cat-Staley-Bridgestone/Firestone struggle, the dire consequences included two-tier wages paid to newer workers, not letting hundreds of striking workers return to jobs taken by scabs, and workforce reductions.

Jerry Brown, then president of an Autoworkers Local, said, “The shame of it is, we have to fight for the right to fight.”

Later, the Mine Workers’ costly 1989-90 strike at Pittston, stemming from the company’s termination of health-care benefits for about 1,500 retirees, widows and disabled miners, was more successful, restoring benefits and contributing to Congress passing the 1992 Coal Act requiring operators to provide health and retirement benefits.

Historically, the use of the strike has been effective. Work stoppages were valuable in the 1930s, even before federal law established labor rights in 1935’s National Labor Relations Act, which empowers workers to vote to organize, requires employers to bargain, and protects workers – even non-union workers – engaged in “concerted activity.” The law guards the right to engage in collective actions, including strikes.

But in 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court in “NLRB v. Mackay Radio” decided employers could replace workers during lawful strikes AND keep the scabs as “permanent replacements.” Still, the ruling was rarely used until President Ronald Reagan in 1981 fired 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) for striking, and corporate America saw a go-ahead signal from the White House.

There were 145 strikes in 1981, but 96 in ’82, and far fewer in following years. Nevertheless, strikes were used into the 1990s. Twenty years ago, there were 37 work stoppages involving 273,000 workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. Last year, there were 12.

Today, some progressives, such as Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan, suggest one-day, hit-and-run strikes as disruptive alternatives to long, drawn-out work stoppages. However, others, notably labor lawyer and author Joe Burns, dismiss them as publicity stunts with little impact.

But – bottom line – withholding work is the tool, and both desperation and increased effectiveness form an element of surprise that could make it more viable.

“The giant corporations have purchased enough of the Congress to block anything that diminishes their power and helps working people or consumers,” commented Dave Johnson of the organization Campaign for America’s Future. “The giant corporations have been able to weaken the unions, which keeps wages down and working conditions miserable. Without strong government and strong unions, regular people have nowhere to turn. THAT is why the Verizon strike is important.”

As workers at various companies and industries feel their backs against the wall, the question of “Whose side are you on?” may be augmented by “What have you got to lose?”

[PICTURED: Strikers picket during Verizon Wireless job action. Photo from CWA.]

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