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Where's the debate about labor's crisis?

By Lee Sustar | May 27, 2005 | Page 11

WHY IS it so hard to imagine the following news story?

CHICAGO--As thousands of union members jammed the streets surrounding the federal courthouse here May 10, a bankruptcy judge backed off plans to approve the elimination of United Airlines' workers pension funds.

Putting aside their differences, airline union leaders set a strike deadline for the Memorial Day weekend unless United dropped demands for contract concessions. Further, labor demanded congressional action to re-regulate and nationalize failing airlines. "The choice is between fighting back or total irrelevance," International Association of Machinists (IAM) president Thomas Buffenbarger said.

In Washington, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pledged support for the possible airline strike. United's attempt to dump pensions and union contracts was part of "Corporate America's betrayal of a generation of working families who played by the rules," Sweeney said as he called a national march to oppose Bush's plans to privatize Social Security. Unexpectedly, Sweeney also announced the abolition of the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department, pledging to "open the books" on labor's Cold War collaboration with the State Department and CIA.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Sweeney's leading critic, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern, speaking alongside Teamsters President James Hoffa, launched a national campaign against contract concessions.

"What's happening at United Airlines is an outrage," Hoffa said. "We can't organize the unorganized without holding on to the generations of gains made by union members in this country." For his part, Stern sent shock waves through the Democratic Party establishment by announcing that all donations to political parties would be diverted to a new labor political fund to challenge anti-union laws.

A surprise speaker at the rally was United Auto Workers (UAW) President Ron Gettelfinger, who vowed to strike if automakers' continue their attempts to pass on higher health care costs to workers while slashing jobs. "We've always said that the UAW isn't just a union--it's a social movement," Gettelfinger shouted to a cheering union crowd.

Back to reality. The Stern-Hoffa rally in Las Vegas did take place, as they and other leaders raised the possibility of leaving the AFL-CIO. But union leaders looked the other way when a federal judge okayed the dumping of United's pensions. Contract concessions weren't mentioned. And there was certainly no repeat of Stern's criticisms of the Democrats, made on the eve of last year's Democratic National Convention but quickly retracted.

The UAW's Gettelfinger, insular as usual from the wider labor movement, didn't attend the Las Vegas event. Instead, he held a secret meeting with auto suppliers to discuss his earlier pledge to help automakers' lower health care costs and give them a pass on their contractual obligation to create jobs.

The AFL-CIO did announce the abolition of the International Affairs Department--but to cut costs, not to come clean on its past collaboration with U.S. foreign policy. The federation's American Center for International Labor Solidarity will remain in operation, as more than 80 percent of its funds come from U.S. government sources.

There are, in fact, strike threats against United Airlines from the IAM and unions representing mechanics and flight attendants. But they've been left the choice of fighting alone--and triggering the possible liquidation of the bankrupt company--or adding to the $2.5 billion in annual concessions they've endured since 2003.

If labor leaders are talking about change without any action, it's because the U.S. labor officialdom is a creature of the period of prosperity following the Second World War. The AFL and its left-wing rival, the CIO, merged in 1955 on a program of anticommunism both at home (i.e., ridding the unions of communists and socialists) and abroad (collaboration with U.S. imperialism).

The payback was "partnership" among Big Labor, Big Business and Big Government, with steadily rising living standards for U.S. workers--leaving aside issues such as racial discrimination and pay gaps between women and men, of course.

The recession of the mid-1970s voided that deal. An employers' offensive--enforced by the government's smashing of the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers' strike--has continued unabated ever since. That's because today's labor leaders are anachronisms--bred for collegial boardroom meetings with top management and backroom deals with Democratic powerbrokers.

That world no longer exists. Today's raw display of corporate power--with falling wages and declining union membership amid growth--demands a different approach. In other words, class struggle--the use of strikes and other militant actions to win gains for workers.

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