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Work Stoppages Spike — Look Who Noticed

The Wall Street Journal, which maddeningly restricts nearly all its on-line content to print-edition subscribers, is two-faced. It’s pro-corporate editorial/opinion section carries the same primal sensibility that Jack London ascribed to leaders of America’s business classes when he called them “cavemen in evening dress.” The predictable, hard-right opinion pages are a Fox News with semi-colons, combining slavering respect for all-things Bushie with a loathing for unions and labor leaders that borders on the disturbed.  

And then there are the news pages. To call a lot of these features must-reading—or at least must-scanning— is to say that food is good for you. Checking out the WSJ news pages regularly is almost worth the migraine from the opinion pages.

Take Tuesday’s front-page piece detailing rising levels of strike activity. Staff reporter Kris Maher nails it, showing strikes are spreading along with other employer-labor fights and company-sponsored lockouts. These are so far largely defensive battles against management efforts to cut wages and benefits, but they could be more. And it’s not just graduate assistants taking on greedy NYU and Radio City Music Hall musicians battling with Cablevision. It’s Verizon Wireless workers and telecom workers at Sprint Corp. and copper workers at Asarco LLC, too. Labor action is back in the news, big time.

Of course strikes are no panacea. Strategy counts. Lose one and you’ve blown a fuse that could stay blown for a generation. Timing counts, too. So does preparation. Because if union members aren’t yet willing to strike, no amount of brave, bully talk will get them out. But the fact is that the number of private sector work stoppages went up 14 percent over the last year even as hugely profitable corporations demanded givebacks.

Maher cites Bureau of National Affairs statistics showing “231 work stoppages initiated through the end of August, compared with 202 in the same period last year, with the vast majority being strikes.” And it’s a good thing he does use BNA’s calculations, because they offer a fuller picture than do government-compiled numbers. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment-numbers crunchers for the Department of Labor, tracks major work stoppages (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkstp.toc.htm)  —which it defines as actions at firms involving 1,000 or more employees— the BNA is more ecumenical. It tracks everybody. So we know, for example, that of the six unions with the most stoppages between January and August 2004, all increased significantly over a similar period this year, with the Teamsters increasing their job actions from 38 to 47.

Strikers seem to be getting results, too.. Boeing machinists got a better health-care package after striking, though the outcome is unclear at Delphi Corp., where the nation’s largest car-parts manufacturer refuses to back away from King Kong sized takeaways in wages, health care and pensions.

One thing that helps militant job actions sprout and succeed is that the economy is in recovery, at least statistically. Historically, it’s during economic recoveries, when the labor market tightens, that unions do best, both on the picket line and at the bargaining table. It’s also why conservative economists value a degree of unemployment, as a way of tempering wage demands. The real growth in labor organizing in the mid-1930s came on the heels of a mini-recovery, and the nation’s largest strike wave hit after World War II, when the economy boomed even as workers salaries stayed frozen at war levels.  

This period is a little different, with what is called a “jobless recovery” damping strike enthusiasms, something I wish Maher had taken into account. But he makes the case that strikes and militant job actions are seen by more unions and union members as a reasonable and necessary solution to reversing hard employer stances.

That’s not a perspective you’ll find in the Journal’s opinion pages or on its PBS show “The Journal Editorial Report,” which may or may not have been forced on the network’s stations by the former head of its chief funding operation—the Journal says not. So it’s nice to see that when working people fight back it’s news, presented fairly and as fact on The Wall Street Journal’s front page.

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1 Comment:

  • 1 NYC Educator
    · Nov 17, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks for a well-written and intereting article. I’d like to see more from this writer.