The Multinational Monitor


T H E   Y E A R   I N   R E V I E W

U.S. Labor

Up Against The Wall

by Tim Shorrock

"I can't believe it," said a striking Greyhound worker last month.

"Here we are, out on strike fighting about how much of a pay cut to take. We used to fight about pay increases and benefits, but now they want to take away 20 percent."

Greyhound workers were not alone: last year workers in nearly every industry faced the unpleasant choice of either making concessions or losing their jobs, as corporations used the threat of foreign competition, economic hard times, and bankruptcy laws to break union agreements that have existed for generations. Major strikes occurred in the transportation industry (Greyhound, Continental Airlines), mining (Phelps Dodge), and telecommunications (AT&T).

Here is an overview of the major issues that faced the labor movement in 1983:

  • Concessions. While many union members chose to accept cuts in pay and benefits, increasing numbers of workers during the year chose to reject givebacks - sometimes costing them their jobs.

    Greyhound. workers went on strike when the company demanded a total 25 percent cut in pay and benefits - a demand that 96 percent of the membership of the Amalgamated Transit Union rejected. On December 20, the 12,700 striking workers approved anew contract that includes a 14 percent cut, ending their six and a half week strike.

    After 70 percent of the 1,700 workers at Armour Meatpacking Company rejected wage reductions, the company closed all its plants, and then reopened under the ownership of Armour's parent company Con Agra, hiring non-union workers at half the pay. In the trucking industry, 80 percent of the Teamster membership rejected a concession agreement reached by the union leadership. In December, U.S. Steel, which has already won major concessions in past years, asked for a further 25 percent cut in wages and threatened to close plants in five cities if the cuts were not agreed to. At a meeting of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) executive board, however, the union said it would reject the demands. Most steel analysts said the plants in Chicago, Birmingham, Johnstown, PA and Trenton, NJ would be closed; 10,000 workers face layoffs.

    In one of the tensest confrontations between labor and management in years, 2,600 workers at a Phelps Dodge copper mine in Arizona went on strike after the company demanded a three year wage freeze and the elimination of a cost of living adjustment. The company hired strikebreakers - some of them union members - and 800 policemen and National Guard members were called in to prevent strikers from interfering with the mine's operations. Although Phelps claimed the moves were necessary to keep the company operating (the company lost $74 million last year and faces stiff competition from producers in the Third World), many of the workers believed the company was trying to break the union. By December, it looked like the company may have succeeded.

    One agreement that may have saved both a company and its workforce was the unique plan worked out in early December between Eastern Air Lines and its three unions. Eastern workers agreed to a total $330 million wage cut over the next year in return for control of 25 percent of the stock of the company, giving them a partial say in management decisions.

  • Bankruptcy Laws. In the last two years, some corporations have turned to Chapter 11 reorganization plans allowed under American bankruptcy laws to back out of union agreements. Continental Air Lines forced a strike of its pilots in September through such a tactic, filing for bankruptcy, closing down, and then reopening with a new non-union workforce getting half the wages of the striking pilots. At their annual meeting in Miami, the AFL-CIO called on Congress to pass emergency legislation to halt the practice.

  • High Technology. In February, proponents of high technology were stunned when video game producer Atari shut down 60 percent of its production facilities in Sunnyvale, California and transferred the jobs to Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The idea that high-tech industries will make up for the diminished employment in basic industries was given a further jolt when Texas Instruments and Mattel laid off several hundred employees later in the year. But many trade unionists were not surprised: the electronics industry has made a practice of relying on low wage workers, especially overseas, and keeping their plants non-union. One example often cited: IBM, the largest computer company in the world, is completely non-union.

  • Foreign Competition. Unions in basic industry made a political issue out of the increased amount of manufactured imports coming into the U.S. A United Auto Worker-sponsored bill to force auto companies to make more parts in the U.S. passed in the House, but stood little chance of Senate passage. The United Steelworkers of America made strong protests when U.S. Steel announced a plan to import slabs of British steel and close down part of a mill in Pennsylvania, and is fighting moves by WheelingPittsburgh, the nation's eighth largest producer, to import Brazilian steel.

  • Conglomerate Power. In a victory for labor, the National Labor Relations Board agreed to treat Litton Industries, a California-based conglomerate that has earned the title of "number one labor law violator" from the AFL-CIO, as one company when considering labor complaints. Meanwhile, a House subcommittee passed a law that will deny federal contracts to perennial labor law violators. Both moves were supported by a unique coalition of unions that have organized an international campaign against Litton.

Table of Contents