The Coastal Post - September, 1995

Labor Days Haven't Been Good For Labor

BY KAREN NAKAMURA

Recent Labor Days have been sad occasions for the nation's labor unions.

Membership has been down, and a concerted effort has been made to break their backs by management and their representatives in Congress, the Republican Party.

This year, however, for the first time in over a decade, Labor Day may be a day to celebrate. The pendulum is swinging.

Membership is up in several unions and workers have stopped accepting lowered wages and benefits as inevitable. They've begun to fight back. Strikes have popped up all over the country.

The "big ax" management holds over American workers is moving offshore to cheaper labor markets or to sub-contract so far down the chain, slave labor practices don't show on the books.

Whatever it takes so shareholders, representing 10% of the population, can continue to control 80% of the nation's wealth. They'd never consider sharing it even 60/40. And, to continue receiving this gigantic slice of the pie, they're forced to destroy the American work force.

The way to solve the problem is to unionize workers in those markets, but American unions can't just go into another country and organize. A serious problem.

The great internationalization of monopolies, bent on sucking up every centavo of profit, has pretty much fished out America. Just like they've fished out the Eastern Seaboard Fisheries. Just like they fished out the Vintage Oaks shopping mall in Novato and perhaps San Rafael's Northgate Mall.

There is only one way for average Americans to hold their own and have their labor create a better life for them and their children. That is the time-honored tradition of union and guild representation of workers. It's the least violent and most effective way to hold the line against the onslaught of corporate greed.

There are corrupt unions. So clean them out by attending meetings and voting in new leadership. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

To celebrate this Labor Day, the Coastal Post talked to two of Marin's union activists for their take on the 1995 labor movements.

First is Peter Tiernan, field agent for the Painter's Union (IBPAT-Local 83) and president of Building Trades Council, an umbrella organization consisting of 17 unions such as sheetmetal workers, plumbers and carpenters, basically, any construction-related craft. He states: "There have been indications of heightened union activism with improvements in work contracts and collective bargaining. Contracts for the first time in 10 years are showing gain for trade unionists.

"But we're seeing some really scary indications such as the gutting of Cal-OSHA and Fed-OSHA [worker safety agencies]. Especially in light of garment workers turning up in sweat shops. Safety worker regulations are being scratched out of the budget.

"Attending your representative union meeting is good. It's grueling work, but activists are what we need. Crusading for democratic union halls is basic and in every worker's best interest."

We next spoke to Bernie Chiaravalle, Secretary-Treasurer of Marin Labor Council, AFL/CIO, with 37 affiliated local unions. In addition, he's the local President of the Communication Workers Union, local 9404.

His answer to internationalization of American Unions was simple. There is no jurisdiction to organize in other countries except Canada.

"You have to understand how the labor movement works. The offshore move of American jobs is intentional. European and Canadian labor union members are much better off than their American counterparts because their laws protect them. American laws have been changed to make it very difficult now to organize workers.

"The decline in membership is because of two primary reasons. First, weakening of labor laws and movement to third world countries.

"And secondly, with passage of the 1984 Tax Reform Act, the American work force is being changed to be made up of "temporary contingent workers" without benefits or pensions and very difficult to organize into unions. That's what downsizing is actually about, changing to "contingent" workers.

"The first response is to organize new workers coming up or coming in from other countries and to educate voters to what is important to their own economic needs.

"Forget whether someone is for or against abortion. Elect someone who believes in the right of workers to earn a fair and decent living.

"People also get manipulated on the crime problem. But, if we improve the economic conditions of the people and stop manufacturing from moving offshore, then crime will go down accordingly.

"It's very scary what's happening in the United States today."