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May 2001 • Vol 1, No. 1 •

Gov’t Attacks Right to Strike of Transportation Workers

By Lynn Henderson

On March 9, President George W. Bush preemptively stripped aircraft mechanics, in the process of negotiating a new contract with Northwest Airlines, of their right to strike. Bush also appointed a three person “Presidential Emergency Board” empowered to draw up “recommendations” for the mechanics’ next contract with Northwest Airlines.

In his edict, President Bush proclaimed he would take “the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year.” His actions not only abrogated the right to strike of Northwest Airline mechanics but also union members at four other major airlines in contract negotiations later this spring: United, American, Delta and Comair.

Northwest’s mechanics, represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, have been working without a contract for almost five years. The union is still working under a contract written in 1991. In addition, Northwest Airlines in 1993, using the threat of bankruptcy, forced its mechanics to reopen the agreement and give up 12.5 percent of their wages and six vacation days.

Today, Northwest is one of the richest and most profitable airlines in the world. Its mechanics make less than 14 percent above what they made in 1993, while the cost of living has gone up 34 to 40 percent in the last ten years. In negotiations, Northwest has stonewalled, offering little more than meager wage and benefit increases.

As a strike deadline approached, Northwest mechanics hoped to use their potentially powerful strike weapon to force serious negotiations that would at least get them back even with inflation. But President Bush’s actions have countered all that. They continued negotiations under the real threatof a government written, government imposed contract that would give them little.

Pressure on the union was then increased when Minnesota Democratic Congressman James Oberstar directly warned union leaders that failure to settle would lead Congressto impose a settlement. Oberstar is the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He represents the heavily unionized iron range in northern Minnesota and is aggressively supported by the AFL-CIO as a pro-union “friend of labor.”

On April 9, almost immediately following Oberstar’s threat, Northwest Airlines and the union announced a tentative contract to be submitted to the members for ratification. While the details of the proposed contract are not fully known, you can be sure that the union had to settle for significantly less than they would have gotten without the threat of a massive government intervention. Immediately following the announcement, Northwest shares jumped by $1.04 to $22.66

The greatest threat railroad and airline workers face today is government written and government imposed contracts. Thousands of railroad employees now work under contracts over which neither they nor their unions have any say or vote and thousands more in both industries face the same prospects. The United States government, in collaboration with the carriers, has in recent years stripped railroad and airline union members not only of the right to strike, but any possibility of real negotiations with the carriers.

Every carrier now knows that by merely stonewalling all serious collective bargaining, they are assured that the politicians will ultimately intervene and impose a contract that will give them infinitely more than they could possibly achieve through any process of legitimate negotiations. In an era of “deregulation,” in which corporations and wealthy individuals are ever more free from any restraints on their financial power, and politicians praise the virtues of less government interference, unions are the one sector subject to ever more regulation and ever more government control.These government written and imposed contracts are something new and unprecedented in our history. Until the “special acts of Congress” in the Chicago & North Western (C&NW) railroad strike in 1988 and the nationwide United Transportation Union (UTU) rail strike in 1991, no legislation existed in this country which empowered the government to write and impose contracts on employees and their unions.

How is it that the Northwest machinists find themselves in such disastrous circumstances? How is it that rail and airline labor as a whole find themselves in such a pitiful state? How is it that the entire U.S. labor movement is faced with an ever more precipitous decline in its ability to defends the rights, working conditions and wages of its members and of working people as a whole? How we got into this situation and how to get out of it, are the central questions the entire labor movement faces today. To begin to answer these questions we have to examine a little history.

Congress regulates both railroad unions and airline unions under the Railway Labor Act passed in 1926.

It was the Great Rail Strike of 1877 that opened up the initial era of rail unionism in this country, which lasted some 50 years. That period was marked by a whole series of sharp strike confrontations between rail labor and the major carriers, which included some of the most important strikes in U.S. labor history. The 1877 strike was the largest strike that ever occurred in this country and possibly the largest industrial strike that ever took place anywhere. It was extremely costly to railroad profits and to the profits of virtually every major corporation in the nation.

Next was the famous 1894 Great Northern strike organized by the American Railway Union under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, the most famous rail union leader in U.S. history, who later ran for president as a socialist, receiving more than a million votes.

This strike occurred in the midst of a major depression when carriers throughout the country were imposing wage cuts on their workforce, and using large numbers of unemployed as scabs to replace those who resisted. The strike occurred when Great Northern owner James J. Hill posted across the board wage cuts on the entire work force. Eighteen days after the strike began, Hill and the Great Northern were driven to their knees and forced to give in. The strikers won practically all their demands, not only rolling back the wage cuts but also winning significant wage increases. Later in 1894, the Pullman strike took place; another one of the famous strikes of that era. The American Rail Union was on the verge of another major victory when Democratic President Grover Cleveland mobilized federal troops, smashing the strike and arresting the leadership of the union.

Another major strike toward the end of this period was the 1922 general strike by the railroad shop craft unions. In addition to these, scores of less famous but nonetheless sharp and important strike confrontations took place between rail labor and the carriers during this 50-year period. Some resulted in immediate victories —like the Great Northern strike—others, in an immediate sense, were defeated like the Pullman strike. But all of them inflicted serious financial losses on the carriers. What characterized the period as a whole was an ever increasing ability of the unions to shut the carriers down and the will of rail labor to use their strike weapon to defend their wages and working conditions even in the face of injunctions and court orders.

Following the 1922 shop craft strike, the railroad owners were forced to conclude that at least for now they could not turn back the power of unionized rail labor. But even the crafts that the carriers considered most lowly, the shop crafts, only recently organized, were able to shut them down and cost them millions of dollars in profits.

The carriers concluded that it was necessary to change their strategy and organize a tactical retreat.While they recognized that they had to make concessions to the growing power of rail labor, they were determined to do it in such a way as would be least damaging to themselves and would strengthen the unions as little as possible. For that reason they made the concessions in the form of federal legislation—a series of congressional acts culminating in the Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926.

The Railway Labor Act ushered in the second major historical period of labor relations in the rail and subsequently the airline industry, which lasted approximately another fifty years from 1926 to the mid-1970’s.

On one hand, the Railway Labor Act codified a series of significant concessions to the unions. It gave the rail and airline unions official, government recognition. It required carriers to negotiate with the unions and set concrete procedures for doing that. It restricted the carriers’ ability to set up company unions, which was a widespread practice throughout the industry.

But at the same time that it codified these concessions, the Act seriously restricted the legal right of unions to strike. Strikes became merely a short formalized stage in the implementation of the settlement procedures under the Railway Labor Act.

Picket lines may go up, but they are essentially token picket lines. The carrier doesn’t attempt to run scabs through the line or break the strike. The unions don’t really attempt to financially damage the carrier. The work stoppage is ended very quickly through an injunction or a presidential emergency board and the whole thing is thrown into the machinery of the Railway Labor Act where, if necessary, the politicians eventually broker a settlement which on the one hand is not too costly to the carriers and on the other hand doesn’t challenge the existence of the unions or the basic wages and working conditions of workers.

It’s important to recognize that rail owners and management always saw this as a temporary, tactical retreat. While they were not yet confident enough to use the politicians and the machinery of the RLA to drive wages down, they never abandoned their goal of eventually suppressing union power and again unilaterally determining wages and working conditions.

But to accomplish the breaking of the unions they knew they had to undercut and erode the real power of labor—a power which flowed from its demonstrated ability to effectively strike and shut the carriers down. They counted on the Railway Labor Act itself to begin this process. By making politicians the final arbitrators of a brokered compromise settlement, it shifted the focus of rail unions away from maintaining a strong strike weapon to instead currying the favor of the politicians.

The result over the next fifty years was a serious erosion in the capacity and will of rail and airline unions to carry out real strikes, and an ever increasing dependence on the “good will” of the politicians. The primary activity of rail and airline unions more and more centered on the continuous solicitation of money and votes for these politicians. In the 1970’s, the carriers became convinced that this erosion process had proceeded far enough for them to go back on the offensive—to end the period of an armed truce and go back to a policy of directly moving to attack working conditions, lower real wages and reduce the unions to toothless dues collecting agencies. This ushered in the third and present era of rail labor relations.

The Railway Labor Act, while placing serious restrictions on the right to strike, was in the final analysis limited to appointing a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) empowered only to make non-binding recommendations. If either side rejected these, the union was then free under law to exercise its right to strike.

But during the C&NW-UTU contract negotiations in 1988, after going through all the procedures of the RLA, a Reagan-appointed PEB gave C&NW management virtually everything they were demanding, including a conductor-only crew size and the elimination of the attrition principle in the subsequent slashing of thousands of jobs. The UTU rejected the PEB recommendations and were now free to strike the C&NW with no further legal barriers. But on Sept. 9, 1988, before the strike was hours old, an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, under the leadership of Democratic Senator Paul Simon of Illinois (elected as a pro-labor liberal), in collaboration with the Reagan administration, unanimously passed a special act which ordered the striking workers back on the job and imposed Reagan’s horrendous PEB recommendations on C&NW railroad workers as their legal contract.

This was an historic and unprecedented act. For the first time in this country the government not only officially stripped employees of their right to strike but also wrote and unilaterally imposed on them the contract under which they would labor.

Senator Simon organized the unanimous congressional vote through an obscure parliamentary procedure called a “unanimous consent decree” which allows an act to become law without any discussion or debate and without congressional members officially having to record their individual votes so long as not one congressman or senator raises an objection. The same rarely used procedure was subsequently used by Congress to vote themselves a 25% salary increase while they were slashing social programs across the board as part of an “austerity” drive.

This action in the 1988 C&NW strike set the stage for a repeat performance by the politicians against the UTU in the nationwide rail strike of April 17, 1991.

This time Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch took the lead in the passage of the special legislation (H.R. 222) stripping workers of their right to strike, forcing them back to work and imposing a government written contract on them. This is the threat now facing Northwest Machinists and other union members on airlines across the nation.

The record demonstrates that rail and airline unions face a coordinated, joint attack from the carriers and the politicians together. And the politicians’ participation in this attack has been entirely bipartisan. The last use of a Presidential Emergence Board to abrogate the right to strike was against the pilots of American Airlines in 1997 by President William Jefferson Clinton.

Indeed, so-called pro-labor Democrats have played the decisive role in implementing these union-busting actions.

Unfortunately, the primary “game plan” of unions for many years has been, and continues to be, based on influencing the politicians by hustling them money and votes. This is a bankrupt strategy, which can only lead to further losses and now even risks the continued effective survival of our unions.

- Lynn Henderson




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