Friday, July 11, 2003

Employers to Workers: Kick 'em While They're Down

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a strike at a Wisconsin Tysons plant and the strong local support it was generating. That struggle and many more made the New York Times today.

The economy's down, labor is fighting desparately just to hang on to what it's got and the Republicans are in power in Washington like never before. Some businesses and most state governments are having a hard time making it, and are asking their empoyees for wage and benefit concessions.

But what if you happend to run a business that's doing quite well? The answer is clear: demand wage and benefit concessions from your workers. Why? Not because you need them, but just because you can.
For the 470 workers on strike at the Tyson Foods sausage and pepperoni plant here, the big question is why the company is so eager to cut starting salaries, freeze pensions and adopt a health plan with less coverage when the plant is so profitable....

Healthy profits or not, Tyson has joined hundreds of companies nationwide demanding concessions from organized labor....

The examples extend far beyond this southern Wisconsin town, where Tyson officials say concessions are needed to keep costs in line with those of its other plants. Verizon, the telephone company, wants concessions from 75,000 employees. New York City has demanded wage freezes from nearly 300,000 municipal workers. In Pennsylvania, 48,000 state employees have had to accept a two-year pay freeze.
So, what it to be done?
Some unions have successfully rebuffed concessions — G.E.'s two main unions beat back the company's demand that they pay 30 percent of health-care costs, up from the current 18 percent. But many other unions have reluctantly accepted them, fearful that a prolonged strike could mean months without paychecks and perhaps the loss of jobs to permanent replacement workers....

Labor leaders boast of examples where unions have obtained impressive contracts, notably in cities where unions have organized the vast majority of the workers in a nonmanufacturing industry. In Chicago, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union mobilized 7,300 workers at 27 hotels, threatened a strike and obtained a 54 percent increase in wages and benefits over four years. In recent talks involving janitors in Boston, Denver and Washington, the Service Employees International Union won raises of 25 percent over five years and health insurance for many part-time workers.

"In 1985, we took concessions in 23 out of 25 agreements," said Stephen Lerner, director of the union's Justice for Janitors campaign. "Nowadays we represent 70 to 90 percent of building service workers in these cities. That means a lot in terms of bargaining power."
Nearly forgotten in the discussion of important business issues is how concessions affect workers
[Tyson's employee Chuck] Moehling, who has worked at the plant for 22 years, said: "The company asked, `Why should we be sitting on this pedestal in Wisconsin?' Well, we're just scraping by. We're making $27,000 a year. That's not a lot of money. It's just enough to survive in this state. We have high heating bills and some of the highest tax rates in the nation."

If the union accepted Tyson's demands, he said, the lower pension and higher health premiums would force him to take a second job. "We can't afford to live on the concessions they're demanding," he said.

"If you take a second job, you end up with less time for your family," Mr. Moehling continued. "I have an 11-year-old girl and 9-year-old twin boys, and I do a lot of coaching, but if I have to take a second job, you can forget about the coaching."
But clearly there are more important matters to consider:
[Ken Kimbro, Tyson's senior vice president for human resources] said Tyson was mindful of such considerations. "We're not pleading poverty," he said. "We're not saying the Jefferson facility is losing money. We're saying the cost in Jefferson is out of line and we have to make adjustments."
And if kids don't get to spend as much time with their parents, 'hey, that's the way the system works. Deal with it.'