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What's wrong with the freight deal

February 14, 2003 | Page 11

CHICAGO--Has the International Brotherhood of Teamsters given up on its historic base in the freight industry? That question was in the air when Teamsters President James Hoffa announced a tentative deal in the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA), which covers 65,000 truck drivers, dockworkers and office staff.

Hoffa hailed the five-year deal--which includes an average 2.3 percent wage increase and a cost-of-living agreement--as a good contract in tough economic times. "The nation is in the depths of recession and on the brink of war, and we maintained our strong health care benefits, protected our pensions and won the highest wage increases in more than a decade," he told reporters.

The deal covers workers at ABF, Roadway Express, USF Holland and Yellow Corp. It does contain an important gain--the restoration of the right to strike when grievances are deadlocked, which was given up in the 1994 contract negotiated under former Teamsters President Ron Carey.

But while details of the proposed contract aren't yet available, it's already clear that Hoffa's deal will do nothing to stop the loss of Teamster jobs in freight through outsourcing.

The bankruptcy of Consolidated Freightways last Labor Day was the result of "double-breasting"--moving Teamster work to a nonunion subsidiary, Con-Way, while allowing the old company to go under and wipe out 15,500 Teamster jobs. Several thousand more jobs have been lost as companies move freight onto railroads in violation of pervious contracts.

The result of all this is that the NMFA now covers just 65,000 workers, down from about 450,000 in the 1970s. And Hoffa's deal won't halt this decline, said Mark Serafinn, former president and principal officer of Teamsters Local 722 in LaSalle, Ill.

"Double-breasting is not addressed--it's a downsizing contract," Serafinn told Socialist Worker. "A five-year deal--that's a concession right there," because it allows outsourcing to continue without negotiations, he said. "The loss of Teamster jobs in the Consolidated Freightways should have been a rallying point for the union. It's almost as if the Teamsters treat freight as a dead industry."

A former negotiator for previous NMFA contracts and chair of the grievance committee for over-the-road drivers for seven years, Serafinn found that trucking companies frequently put as much as 34 percent of their volume on rail cars. So Hoffa's deal to reduce freight on rail from 28 percent to 26 percent is meaningless, Serafinn said. "The union has no intention of policing it."

What's more, Hoffa's claim to have resisted management demands to impose co-pays is a non-event, since the companies have been proposing, and withdrawing, such demands for years. Furthermore, wage increases would barely keep up with inflation, and the cost-of-living agreement wouldn't provide full compensation if consumer prices increase.

While the pension fund would be increased, it remains to be seen whether trustees will increase benefits or use the money to cover pension fund shortfalls. Plus, Hoffa's deal would introduce "premium service"--that is, forcing over-the-road drivers to drop off or pick up freight at individual customers, rather than dropping it off at terminals to be taken by city drivers. The result will be a massive increase in productivity for the companies--and a likely loss of driving jobs.

And by settling the contract more than a month early--just after an overwhelming strike authorization vote--Hoffa signaled to employers that he'd rather retreat than fight.

More details on the proposed contract are expected in the days ahead. But it's already clear that Hoffa's freight deal is terrible for Teamsters and should be voted down.

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