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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

First sign of spring?

(March 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘... nightly television news programmes showed large victory rallies of American flight attendants with fists in the air, chanting, We won! We won!’

In tones of self-congratulation, the bosses’ press has once again pronounced the labour movement dead. The evidence for this sweeping conclusion? Strike activity reached an all time low in 1993.

This statistic is true – only 34 new strikes, involving 178,000 workers, began in 1993, down from 35 in 1992 and the record high of 470 in 1952. Nevertheless this statistic is misleading. First, it doesn’t include strikes involving groups of workers fewer than 1,000. The government stopped collecting those statistics soon after Ronald Reagan took office. Second, it doesn’t distinguish between short stoppages and long and bitter struggles. And, most importantly, it doesn’t tell which strikes were won or lost.

A closer look at the state of the US labour movement gives quite a different picture – one in which workers are slowly building their confidence to fight back, despite a sustained attack by employers which shows no signs of abating. And in several important strikes over the last year workers have won partial or complete victories.

Even the miners’ strike, the longest and most bitter strike fought last year, won its key demand: job guarantees for union miners. Under the new contract three out of every five new jobs in any new mine must go to union members – giving union members a majority even in non-union mines.

The strike was not a complete victory – the miners were forced to give up some of their other demands. And it didn’t come easily. Some 18,000 miners across seven states struck for eight months. But most miners felt that in the face of the union busting tactics of the coal companies, they were fighting for the continued survival of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

In November a strike of more than 21,000 American Airlines flight attendants paralysed the airline during the Thanksgiving holiday, the busiest air travel weekend of the year. When the company rejected the attendants’ contract demands, management considered itself fully prepared to weather a strike.

The airline had already trained scabs to take over flight attendants’ jobs, and predicted that between 40 and 50 percent of flight attendants would cross picket lines. But to the company’s surprise solidarity was nearly complete.

Even after the strike began management refused the strikers’ demand for third party arbitration. But with thousands of travellers stranded at airports all over the US, Clinton finally intervened – in a Rooseveltian pose – and persuaded American Airlines officials to accept government enforced binding arbitration. When the strike was settled, nightly television news programmes showed large victory rallies of American flight attendants with fists in the air, chanting, ‘We won! We won!’

Last month the labour movement scored perhaps its most clear cut victory, in a Teamsters’ union strike against United Parcel Service (UPS), the world’s largest package carrier.

Teamsters’ president Ron Carey called the strike after UPS announced that it would more than double its package weight limit – up to 150 pounds from a 70 pound limit. The company refused the union’s request that it issue back braces to prevent worker injuries and refused to allow workers to get assistance in lifting packages weighing over 70 pounds. Then UPS went to court and got a five day restraining order to prevent the union from striking.

This tactic – making strikes illegal – worked well for the employers during the 1980s. But Carey called UPS workers out anyway on Monday 7 February. On the morning of the strike management informed workers that anyone taking part in the strike would be fired on the spot. And the company initiated court action, holding the union in contempt of court.

Only about half of the union’s 165,000 members joined the strike, so whole regions of the country were unaffected. But where the strike was strongest – especially in the north east – solid picket lines crippled shipping and deliveries by UPS. Within a matter of hours the company had conceded.

Under the new agreement no worker can be forced to lift a package weighing more than 70 pounds without the assistance of another worker. All workers fired for striking were reinstated without retribution. And the company withdrew its contempt of court lawsuit against the union. Other safety issues remain under discussion. And two days after the strike the company filed an absurd $50 million lawsuit for damages. But the union certainly won this round.

At the same time the UPS strike showed all too clearly the obstacles which have yet to be overcome. The strike proved to be a showdown within the union – between Carey, who was elected as a union reformer in 1991, and the union’s many ‘old guard’ local officials. These ‘dissident’ Teamster bureaucrats tried to use the strike as a way to undermine Carey’s authority.

One Kansas official, for example, sent a memorandum to union members which read, ‘I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you and this Local MUST NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, VIOLATE THIS COURT ORDER.’

The Teamsters’ union is not alone in this respect. For decades conservative union leaders, for whom the idea of class struggle is more frightening than losing battles against the employers, have been entrenched throughout the AFL-CIO, the main union federation.

And despite Clinton’s trail of broken promises to workers, most union leaders show no sign of waning allegiance to the Democratic Party. For example, at Clinton’s January State of the Union address AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland sat perched at Hillary Clinton’s side – with the head of General Motors on the other.

But the US labour movement has shown the first real signs of moving forward during the last year, after nearly two decades of retreat and setbacks.

In a recent Harris poll 75 percent of those surveyed agreed that unions improve wages and working conditions. Even Time magazine has taken notice, arguing:

‘First they suffered a decade of relentless lay-offs and wage cuts. Then they watched hopefully as corporate profits and stock prices bounced back from recession. But now many American workers are impatient and fed up. Their common plea: “When do we get our share of the comeback”.’

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