Companies using war to deny workers needs

Many things have changed in the period since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the bombing of Afghanistan.

It is not surprising that corporate America and conservative public officials have moved quickly to use the war atmosphere to raise the cry that 'this is no time for labor to disrupt national unity with demands for wage increases.'

On the East Coast New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani has ordered cuts of 15 percent for all city departments except fire police, and The Board of Education, which means that unions of city workers, hospital workers, and others will be challenged to get improvements in their wages and working conditions in their contract negotiations with the city.

On the West Coast, the 27,000 grocery workers at Safeway and Albertsons, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), have been demanding a $2.40-an-hour increase in their contract over the next three years to enable them to meet rising living costs of over 50 percent in the Bay Area since their last contract was signed in 1997.

A vote by the UFCW members on whether to strike, ended with 61 percent voting for strike action, but 66 percent was needed to authorize a strike. Union officials said they believed the events of Sept. 11 and the chilling economic and psychological effects that followed, and pressure tactics by the employers, affected the outcome.

In the San Francisco metropolitan area, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that a full-time worker needs to make $33.60 an hour, nearly $70,000 a year, to afford the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, while a one-bedroom apartment rents for an average of $1449 a month. Safeway and Albertson workers start at $7.50 an hour, many of them part-time, and go up to $17.50 an hour or $36,500 a year.

At the same time, Safeway reported a $900 million profit for the first nine months of this year, a 14 percent increase over the same period last year, and Albertson reported a $370 million profit for the first half of this fiscal year. So the workers are expected to tighten their belts and keep quiet in the name of 'national security,' while the corporations continue to pile up substantial profits and reward their top executives with huge salaries and bonuses.

Let's see some government limits on profits and executive salaries and bonuses rather than on the already shrinking incomes of working people. While the federal government is liberally dishing out billions of dollars in subsidies to the airline corporations to cover their losses from the Sept. 11 attacks, why were the needs of the thousands of airline workers, who have been laid off during the crisis, ignored?

This pattern of employer use of national security to undermine workers' living standards, is growing across the country and, if allowed to go unchallenged, will have a devastating effect on real national security and the welfare of all Americans.

After all, if workers' wages don't keep up with rising inflation, how can they buy the products that the economy needs to pull the nation out of the growing recession? Along this line, the economic program put forward by the AFL-CIO, which calls for government action to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, increase unemployment benefits and extend their duration, needs to be aggressively supported by not only unions, but all progressive organizations across the nation.

There is still a fear of appearing 'unpatriotic,' but this is bound to change as the corporations become more brutal in their attacks on the living standards of workers and class interests become clearer.

Working people want to see the perpetrators of the criminal attacks on Sept. 11 brought to justice, but bombing civilian populations in Afghanistan is no solution to the problem of terrorism. Stopping the war will allow international agencies like the U.N. to play their proper role in getting at the roots of terrorism, and restore a more normal atmosphere for labor to work. This would raise the living standards of all Americans.

At this time, every strike and contract struggle should become a focus of immediate and militant solidarity by all of labor to show the employers and the nation that defense of workers' wages and living standards is part of a patriotic response. This solidarity on the national scene needs to be extended as well to support the raising of wages and living standards abroad, which helps to cut down on the competition to find the lowest wage levels among U.S. companies. This also undermines job and union security at home.

This is what is at stake in the fight to stop the Bush administration's attempt to ram Fast-Track legislation through Congress, and the AFL-CIO's call for pressure on local congressmen to defeat Fast-Track.

A good lead in responding to the corporate offensive was given by Walter Johnson, secretary treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Federation, who said in regard to the UFW vote on whether to strike, 'The events have created turbulent times - and the grocery vote would have been 90 percent to reject, under normal circumstances. But the grocery workers will not walk alone. The entire labor movement will stand with them.'



Herb Kaye writes on labor issues for the World from San Francisco.