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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

New Form of Unity Enters the Union Halls

September 08, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

The fury, eloquence and number of dissidents within the American labor movement may have reached a low point on Labor Day, 1987, and the holiday might also have marked the bottoming out of labor's decline.

Unions are probably more united today than at any time in recent history.

While they are still divided over foreign policy issues, those divisions are much less heated than in past years.

The major divisions within unions now are over collective bargaining goals and strategy--primarily over the degree of militancy needed in the struggle to regain labor's past economic and political strength.

But they are not divided politically. They are maintaining close cooperation with one another in anticipation of the 1988 presidential elections, hoping that their united strength can help the Democratic Party put a pro-labor president in the White House and end the anti-union years of the Reagan Administration.

Battles are increasingly rare between unions in membership organizing campaigns and they are almost always together on their legislative goals. That unity may soon pay off in some progressive legislation at the national and state level. For example, there is a a strong possibility of a meaningful increase in the disgracefully low $3.35 an hour minimum wage.

Unions and their liberal allies have vainly battling for more than seven years against the Reagan Administration in Washington and in most states, including California, to raise the minimum. Now the call for a boost is growing so loud that it can no longer be ignored, and a hike is expected this year, despite the opposition of Reagan and several governors, such as California's George Deukmejian.

Labor may also be regaining some strength because unions are the only major force in the country pressing hard to stop the steady decline in the average real income of American workers.

As consumers, many of us seemed pleased when employers forced workers in contract negotiations to take pay cuts and reduced benefits.

But there seems to be a growing awareness that the final result of those reductions has been to hurt not just the millions of workers directly affected but all of us who are so dependent on their still declining buying power. That new public awareness of labor's role could help improve the strength of unions if they remain as united as they appear to be these days.

There are no signs, though, of a reduction in the endless debate over the effectiveness of militancy.

The public arguments over that question have been focused mostly on the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Many auto workers, and some top leaders of the UAW, are concerned that the desire for labor peace and fear of losing a strike may pressure the union into accepting an auto industry contract that does less for the workers than it might if the union adopts an even stronger, more militant stance in current negotiations.

The most publicized current intra-union argument over union militancy has come out of the continuing strike by dissidents in the United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9 against Hormel Co. in Austin, Minn.

No Correct Answer

The parent union, the UFCW, reached an agreement with Hormel that Local P-9 leaders charged was a "sellout."

Another example of the debate over union militancy came recently during and after the UFCW's now-completed contract negotiations with the retail food industry in Southern California.

The fundamental problem in all these debates is that there is no correct answer to a question like this:

Would the 65,000 supermarket workers in Southern California have won better wages and job conditions in their contract if all eight UFCW locals--not just two--had adopted a tougher bargaining position and seriously threatened a strike?

Michael Straeter, president of UFCW Local 1442 in Santa Monica, and Thomas J. Vandeveld, head of Local 135 in San Diego County, insist that the workers could have won a much better contract had it not been for "cowardice" and "weak-kneed leadership" of officers in the other six UFCW locals and top international officers who were involved in the negotiations.

Straeter said that if the local and international leaders had supported a strike that he and Vandeveld had proposed, "we would have obtained an even better (contract) than we did. But they (the other union leaders) simply didn't have the courage."

He added that officers of the other locals and the international "just wanted to get a settlement at any cost. They don't seem to remember that the labor movement was built on militancy, not accommodation with management.

Matter of Militancy

"Too many union leaders these days seem more interested in the size of their golf scores than the size of their contract gains."

Bunk, retorted Dave Barry, UFCW regional director and an international vice president, who said: "These two local presidents are just trying to increase their own importance by putting down their colleagues."

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