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NEWS ANALYSIS : Greyhound Strike Becomes Fertile Field for Violence

March 26, 1990|BOB BAKER | TIMES LABOR WRITER

To expect that one dependent upon his daily wage for the necessities of life will stand peacefully by and see a man employed in his stead is to expect too much.

--Industrialist Andrew Carnegie

"Why take it out on the passengers?" Mark Lawson demanded last week after somebody fired a small-caliber rifle at a Greyhound bus that was carrying him and 50 other people between Roanoke and Christiansburg, Va.

That question is being asked with increasing desperation in the wake of 21 reported bus-sniping incidents--two of which have caused injuries to passengers--during the 3-week-old strike by 9,000 Greyhound drivers and other members of the Amalgamated Council of Greyhound Locals.

If the polarized history of American labor relations is any judge, no one is likely to find a satisfactory answer.

Greyhound, echoing generations of employers who view organized labor as a "cartel" that uses strike violence to keep wages artificially high, claims the shootings are orchestrated by union leaders to discourage ridership.

The Greyhound locals, echoing generations of union leaders who believe much strike violence is provoked by management, claim the shootings are the work of a handful of "fruitcakes," as one Los Angeles striker described them.

However, according to the few academics who have studied patterns of strike violence, there is little reason to be surprised that the Greyhound strike has grown so nasty. Although no more than 5% to 10% of strikes involve violence to people or property, according to various estimates, the nature of the Greyhound strike makes it a virtual breeding ground for an eruption.

The strikers--unable to slow down the pace of replacement hiring and unable to draw their employer back to the negotiating table--suffer from an intense "vulnerability" that classically motivates most strike violence, said Michael Wallace, an Ohio State University sociology professor who co-authored an article on strike violence to be published later this year in the American Journal of Sociology.

Dispassionate observations like Wallace's are rarely part of a strike. Strike violence seems to defy such analysis because it traditionally takes place in war-like settings in which the propaganda arms of management and labor struggle for public sympathy.

Wallace and co-author Don Sherman Grant said strikes become violent because unions exist in "ambiguous circumstances." In contrast to "outsider" groups seeking political recognition, such as 1960s student demonstrators, unions are "weak insiders"--part of the system but always at risk of losing ground.

Unions, which have won only marginal public acceptance as a vital institution, cannot afford to employ violence in an offensive manner without "alienating allies and sympathizers," Wallace and Sherman said. "However, if their position within the system weakens to the point that past gains are jeopardized," or if "the union's very existence is jeopardized," violence may be employed by frustrated union members.

Wallace said the Greyhound strike meets virtually every test of such a scenario:

* It involves workers who can be relatively easily replaced, as opposed to auto workers or aerospace machinists, whose training is more extensive and specialized.

* It involves an employer who has continued operating, the tactic "most likely to provoke a violent response." Greyhound has been hiring permanent replacements, not merely strikebreakers. As a result strikers may not get their jobs back unless the National Labor Relations Board upholds an unfair labor practices complaint. By contrast, the last time Greyhound was struck in 1983, its owners responded slowly and were forced to shut the system down entirely for two weeks before gradually resuming operation with replacements.

* The people who pose the most direct threat to the union--the 1,100 replacement drivers and a far smaller number of union drivers who have crossed the picket line--are spread across the country, rather than concentrated at a single work site. That creates unlimited potential for attacks on isolated targets.

* The longer a strike is prolonged while the company stays open, the worse the union's chances look. As the strike entered its fourth week Friday, Greyhound was showing little enthusiasm for resuming negotiations, and many strikers had already been forced to seek part-time jobs to support themselves.

* Strikers were on the defensive even before they struck. Their union had accepted wage cuts of 8% and 23% in the 1983 and 1987 contracts in response to company pleas that Greyhound could not survive in a deregulated market unless it cut fares. The current strike came when workers demanded some of the money back.

* Strikers have suffered the only fatality of the strike. Veteran driver Robert Waterhouse was killed on the second day of the strike when a bus driven by a replacement worker pinned him against the wall at a bus depot in Redding. No criminal charges have yet been filed against the driver.

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