Big labor's surprising comeback

L.A.'s transit walkout this week is just the latest in a string of high- profile strikes called by emboldened unions.

Big labor may be making a big comeback.

With the economy continuing to boom and the job market tight, unions are feeling more confident than they have in years - and expressing that confidence in a willingness to threaten or call high-profile strikes.

Recent weeks alone have seen United Airlines pilots win a 20 percent pay hike, Bridgestone/Firestone workers garner 15-to-30 percent increases, and Verizon strikers reap stock options and profit sharing along with wage gains. But money is no longer the only, or even the chief, sticking point in today's deals. Control over the job environment, via means such as forced overtime or other work rules, is often at issue as well.

One reason transit workers have walked off the job in Los Angeles this week, for instance, is a Metropolitan Transportation Authority plan to force some drivers to work 10-hour days without overtime.

"There is a new dynamism in the kind of issue being raised," says Peter Rachleff, a labor expert at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "It's not just dollars and cents, wages and benefits, but rather, issues of dignity and respect."

Comebacks are all relative, of course. In this case, labor unions are continuing to recover from what appeared to be a plunge towards irrelevancy.

In the 1980s, a series of high-profile defeats - symbolized by President Reagan's crushing of the air traffic controllers union - seemed to indicate that unions were dinosaurs in the fast-paced modern economy.

In the 1940s and '50s, more than one-third of US workers belonged to a union. That is far from the case today. As a percentage of the US workforce, union membership has stayed stable in recent years, at about 14 percent.

In sheer numbers, union membership has started to edge up a bit. The number rose for the second straight year in 1999, with a net gain of around 266,000 workers.

And as the 1980s saw labor take it on the nose when choosing to strike, so the late 1990s have been an era of high-stakes labor wins.

The 1997 victory of UPS drivers was a major turning point, say labor scholars. In that strike, the employer tried to pit part-time versus full-time workers - and failed to crack union solidarity.

Union victories against Bell Atlantic and the Newport News shipyard in Virginia followed. Then last month, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers went on strike at Verizon, the communications firm formed by Bell Atlantic and GTE.

The strike hit Verizon at a sensitive time, just as it wanted consumers to have a positive impression of its new name. After three weeks on the picket line, workers walked away with new job-security guarantees, limits on mandatory overtime, a new pay package, and the right to organize workers in the wireless phone division of the company.

Other recent strike targets include Raytheon, Bath Iron Works, Boeing - even hotel workers in St. Paul.

This latter strike involved 1,500 workers, many of them immigrants. Among its gains was the right to pick a diversity holiday, a holiday from any religion or ethnicity, and celebrate it.

"What's bringing all this back is a tight labor market and a sense that if unions aren't able to win now, it will be harder in the future," says Harley Shaiken, a labor studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Professor Shaiken says he is not sure the number of strikes has changed that much, but that the number of highly visible strikes with similar issues has.

Overwork and overtime, and the ability to control work hours, have become central complaints throughout the US economy, he points out.

Workers are much more militant now than they were even five years ago, say other experts. They see Verizon workers winning, and say, "Why not me?"

"Years ago, there used to be a fear of strikes, but that is gone now, partly because of the good economy, and partly because others are getting away with it," says Gary Chaison, an industrial-relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

In the Los Angeles transit strike, for instance, the two sides have been fighting for months over salaries, overtime, and work rules.

The regional Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has proposed a wage increase to the United Transportation Union, which represents about 4,500 bus and commuter rail drivers. But the MTA, facing a projected $430 million shortfall over the next decade, wants to cut its overtime costs by 15 percent and rely more on part-time workers.

One of the MTA's key proposals calls on some drivers to work four 10-hour days in a week without being paid overtime rates. Drivers, who say they depend on overtime pay, claim that for those affected the change would result in a 15 percent pay cut.

A wild card in the L.A. strike is the demographics of the affected population. In car-crazy Los Angeles, many of those who take public transportation are the poorest residents. Fully 68 percent of bus riders have an income of less than $15,000, according to the MTA. Sixty-nine percent rely on mass transit to get to work.

L.A. transit unions claim that transit riders are in sympathy with the union's goal, despite the fact that it could damage many of their own livelihoods.

"Those who use the MTA know how tough the drivers' work is," says Goldy Norton, a spokesman for the United Transportation Union.

One reason unions prevailed in the 1997 UPS strike, for instance, was that the strike had a human face. Thousands of small businesspeople, while inconvenienced by the strike, knew and liked UPS drivers.

"We are trying to create support here in the same way the community supported the [L.A.] janitors and UPS drivers in recent strikes," says Martin Hernandez, a spokesman for the L.A. Busriders union, which is backing the drivers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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