As the U.S. Social Forum approaches, here in Detroit, we at Labor Notes have been talking a lot about how unions can work with other movements to pursue common goals. In Brazil last week, I was lucky to meet activists who had a terrific example: a metalworkers union that helped organize a movement of poor people to take over vacant land and build houses for themselves.
International union connections are a kick. Within a few hours of my arrival at a union convention in Brazil, I met a copper miner from Chile whose company wants wage cuts, a union doctor from Spain fighting the imposition of co-pays, a Nestle worker from Colombia, and railroad workers from Japan.
Striking nickel and copper miners in northern Ontario blocked entrances to company property for five days in May, defying a police order to stand down. In what Steelworkers Local 6500 called a protest and their multinational employer Vale Inco called a blockade, strikers and community supporters in Copper Cliff and Levack mounted 24-hour lines complete with RVs and toilets.
What’s weird about the whole health insurance fracas is that Republicans and some insurance company execs fought just as hard against the crappy bill we have before us as if it were really what they claim it is: a vast government “intrusion” into health care.
Electrical utility workers in Mexico called for a national strike yesterday to support their fight against the liquidation of their company, and some of the country’s more militant unions responded—including by blocking highways. Police responded with tear gas and violence.
It was a day like today—60s and sunny, decades ago—when I swung from the top of a telephone pole and thought I had the best job in the world. A few months earlier, in the Detroit winter, not so much. I remember phoning a customer from the pole behind her house and hearing her tell me she could see a man working on the pole back there. When I visited another customer’s home, climbing boots and tool belt and all, she called me “operator.”
When I told friends I was on my way to the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer conference, held last weekend, they all said, “I bet that’ll be a bunch of long faces.” I predicted not—these were people who’d always known the health care reform debate in Congress would come up short. Yet the 124 delegates to the March 5-7 conference in Washington were upbeat.
Ask a union member what’s the bedrock of a union contract, and most will answer “seniority.” Long established as the way to keep the manager’s brother-in-law from getting the good jobs, companies have learned to live with taking turns and following recall lists.
Yesterday Rich Trumka announced a deal with the White House: high-cost union health care plans won’t be subject to an excise tax till 2018—five years later than almost everyone else. Trumka made clear that the intent of the changes the unions brokered is to make so many groups exempt from the tax that in practice it will almost never be applied. But why build a pretzel around the right thing?
In 2007 Teamsters in scores of small Chicago shops, and a few big ones, capped years of organizing against corrupt leaders and stolen elections by electing a reform slate to head 11,000-member Local 743. Attendees at the 2008 Labor Notes Conference heard President Richard Berg tell the inspiring story of how persistence had enabled the slate to slash officers’ salaries, get rid of do-nothings, and beef up representation and education.