Fat Pockets for Bosses; Tough Times for Workers

By Lynn Koh
Nov 19, 2010

The New York Times ran a story today about manufacturing companies squeezing reduced wages and benefits out of their unions.  Here is an excerpt:

“This is absolutely a surrender for labor,” said Mike Masik Sr., the union leader at Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker, not even trying to paper over the defeat. His union recently accepted a new contract that freezes wages for existing workers for most of its seven years, lowers pay for new hires, dilutes benefits and brings temporary workers to the assembly line at even lower pay and no benefits whenever there is a rise in demand for Harley’s roaring bikes.

It's sobering, in part because it's unusual to hear a labor leader claim defeat.  Now, though, the reality is undeniable.  These concessions are being forced on workers by companies that are making money hand over fist.  Harley-Davidson was featured in the New York Times only five months ago in an article titled "Companies Wringing Huge Profits from Job Losses."  Indeed, the workers probably do feel used up and thrown aside like a wet towel.  As the paper of record explained then:

Last week, Harley reported a $71 million profit in the second quarter, more than triple what it earned a year ago. This seeming contradiction — falling sales and rising profits — is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households.

Workers at the hugely profitable Mott's plant (yes, that's Mott's as in applesauce) went on strike for 16 weeks and were able to secure a wage freeze instead of pay cuts and modest benefit reductions for new hires.  Reportedly, the plant manager claimed during negotiations that workers were a commodity, like soybeans or oil, whose price happens to go up or down.

At least at Mott's the unionized workforce was able to put up a fight; but something like 93% of private sector workers are non-union, and the highly unionized public sector workers are roundly demonized by elected officials, some of whom are former union leaders.  Even the Working Families Party of New York had few better options than endorsing Cuomo for governor, who made no secret that his political rise would be on the backs of public employees.

We are entering a period of class struggle where workers are up against highly profitable companies, but in an environment where high unemployment mainly acts as a brake on militancy. 

While that seems inevitable, the massive spread in workers organizing in the 1930s also took place during a period of high unemployment.  A striker at the Briggs plant recounts (in Poor People's Movement):

Before starting work, we told the foreman 'We want to know what our wages are.  We were hired at 52 cents an hour, and we're being paid 35 cents.'  The foreman said: 'You see that line out there of men looking for jobs?  If you fellows don't want to work, get your clothes and clear out...

The statement provoked the men into walking out...

This surge in workplace organizing occurred when the National Industrial Recovery Act became law in 1933, its famous Seciton 7(a) guaranteeing the right to organize and bargain collectively.  Tens of thousands of workers struck in 1934, and on the picket lines they faced attacks from the National Guard in Toledo, from police in Minneapolis, and from both in San Francisco.

Although FDR had been trying to juggle the competing interests of business and labor, the escalation of conflicts - as well as ideological concerns about New Deal radicalism - drove much of big business temporarily out of the president's New Deal coalition; in response, the administration (and, presumably, the Democratic Party in the North) sought to develop a base among the millions of workers intent on unionizing.  In a string of conflicts, governors refused to bring in troops to forcibly and violently break the workers' strikes. 

A window opened up in which militant struggles scored fantastic victories "because a century-long accommodation between government and economic elits had been broken" (quote from Poor People's Movement, p. 146).  By 1937, when FDR countenanced the massacre of striking steel workers in Ohio as part of an effort to curry favor with business leaders, the window had closed.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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