Vairma: Strikebreaking threats skew collective bargaining

By Steve Vairma
If they aren’t a part of it, and there isn’t a major strike making headlines, most people are blissfully ignorant of the turmoil prevalent today in labor-management relations.

With the blessing of the federal government, corporate management for the past 36 years has been able to assume a dominant role in collective bargaining, leaving workers – both union and non-union – with less control over their own destiny.

The decline of employees’ influence in matters of the workplace – primarily their wages, hours and conditions of work – began 36 years ago when the federal government effectively stripped organized labor of the right to strike.

Indeed, it is still legal to go on strike, and many strikes have been successful in recent years, but few workers today want to risk losing their jobs to scab replacements. If the strike is the ultimate weapon for aggrieved workers, that gun now fires mostly blanks.

The use of strikebreakers is a collective bargaining tactic that began in 1980 when President Reagan fired and replaced 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. His decision legitimized the corporate strategy of using scabs to break strikes.

Before that the public generally frowned on the use of scabs, and most employers were reluctant to engage in strikebreaking, believing it to be a moral issue. Among industrialized nations, only the U.S., South Africa and England permit the practice.

It is now common for management to hire or threaten to hire scab replacements when a labor dispute looms. (The mere threat of using strikebreakers has a chilling effect at the bargaining table). In 1970, permanent replacements were used 1% of the time by management. Now they are used in more than 25% of all strikes.

The days are gone when a local union leader would sit down with a company president to negotiate a labor agreement, free from government meddling, and based on the real worth of a worker’s labor.

Nowadays it often takes hundreds of hours of negotiations between company lawyers, who are often expensive hired gun union-busters with evil intentions. Across the negotiating table are representatives of local unions that can’t come close to matching corporate money, which is a huge disadvantage in collective bargaining.

But while the labor movement has been losing strength – from 12 percent private sector union density in 1980 to about eight percent today – we are enduring, and finally beginning to gain some ground, still negotiating solid contracts with good wages and benefits.

It can be done, but it is so much more difficult nowadays thanks to the politicians, both Democrats and Republicans who haven’t voted to lower the barriers to union organizing since the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935.

So the key to eventually turning the tables on the union busters is politics. We must elect candidates who realize that labor’s strength is the strength of the middle class and, therefore the nation’s strength.

If you want to help, you can join DRIVE, the Teamsters’ political action committee, which supports pro-worker candidates.

In fact, you might even offer a membership to your nonunion friends. Tell them the truth: That unions set prevailing wage standards for all workers, union and nonunion. If the unions do well, nonunion workers will get a raise, too, and stifle the urge to become a scab.

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