Industrial Worker (October 2005)

Articles from the October 2005 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Katrina: social tragedy benefits exploiters, devastates workers

An article by Jon Bekken about the management of Hurricane Katrina relief. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005).

Hundreds of thousands of workers face untold misery after they were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and the flooding that wrecked much of New Orleans in its aftermath. It may be months before many of those displaced from coastal Louisiana and Mississippi are allowed to return to what remains of their homes. However, things are looking much more promising for business. Owners of office space throughout the Gulf Coast region are doing record business; hotels are charging top dollar for shabby units; oil companies are enjoying windfall profits as the wonders of capitalism transform their damaged (and fully insured) refineries and drilling platforms into a price bonanza for energy suppliers.

Stock prices for major contractors Halliburton and Baker Hughes - which also have been making out like bandits from the carnage of the Iraq war - skyrocketed as they joined in the scramble to profit off this tragedy. A Sept. 6 story in the New York Times celebrated the business opportunities, even as it cautioned that some "are wary about seeming too gleeful in light of New Orleans' misery."

"I always hate to talk about positives in a situation like this," Tetra Technologies CEO Geoffrey Hertel told the Times, "but this is certainly a growth business for the next 6 to 12 months." Tetra repairs oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Let no one believe this was a natural disaster. The hurricane itself may have been a force of nature, although most scientists who study the earth's changing climate believe that the frequency and intensity of hurricanes has increased sharply as a result of global warming - that is, as a result of the capitalists' reckless plundering and destruction of our planet. (Similarly, the flooding was worsened because the government has for years ignored environmentalists' warnings that the wetlands and harbor islands needed to buffer New Orleans from storms were being destroyed.)

But there was ample opportunity to evacuate before the hurricane struck, and even more time before the flooding that caused the bulk of the carnage. Hundreds of thousands loaded their possessions in their cars, grabbed some cash, and headed out of town to wait the storm out. A few refused to leave their homes. But tens of thousands had no choice. They did not have cars in which to make the journey, nor funds with which to buy fuel (the price of which was already skyrocketing), nor credit cards with which to book a hotel room in some strange city, far from family and friends. This was a private-sector evacuation, open only to those with the economic means to participate. The poor were left to fend for themselves, as best they could.

To be sure, the city told them to take shelter in the Convention Center and the SuperDome, but once there they were abandoned to their plight, without food or water or medical attention. Quite simply, to those who make the decisions in this society their lives were of no importance and they were left to die.

But they refused.

People broke into stores and took what they needed to survive. (Some, it seems, may also have taken some of the luxuries which had long been denied them.) They shared what they found, and treated each other's injuries as best they could.

In the hurricane's aftermath, the media spread lurid reports of looters shooting down rescue helicopters and raping children in relief shelters. Most of these reports turn out to have been fabrications. The NPR radio show "This American Life" broadcast interviews with hurricane survivors prevented from escaping the disaster zone by armed police looking to keep African-American survivors out of their white suburbs. "Thank God for the looters," one conventioneer said, noting that they not only provided desperately needed food and water but also ferried children and sick people to evacuation centers.

Meanwhile, as people were dying in New Orleans of dehydration and disease, state officials pulled police and National Guard from rescue efforts; instead, they were given "shoot to kill" orders and dispatched to protect property.

We saw two contrasting visions of society in this disaster. Thousands rushed to aid the victims, not asking if there was a buck to be made but rather doing what they could to respond to the urgent human need. People opened their homes to refugees, traveled into danger zones, and emptied their pockets. Meanwhile, gas stations and hotels raised prices to take advantage of the desperate refugees, while politicians left those unable to escape New Orleans to die.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned back truckloads of bottled water even as thousands of survivors had gone for days without food or water. FEMA officials ignored reports of thousands of people jammed into the New Orleans Convention Center and on overpasses throughout the city, told the Red Cross to stay out of the city, and left people to die until media coverage forced them to take action.

The one million people from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast suddenly tossed out of their jobs by Hurricane Katrina are now fanning out across the South and the rest of the country looking for work. In San Francisco, a few have been hired to scab on striking health care workers. Others can hope for work rebuilding the highways and buildings leveled by the storm and flooding. But most were low-wage workers in the casino and tourism industries, filling jobs that will not exist until the region is rebuilt. Before the hurricane hit, nearly a fourth of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line.

Concerned that the bosses might have to pay too much for that reconstruction work, President Bush has waived a federal law requiring construction contractors receiving federal funds to pay prevailing wages to their workers. Employers have long sought to repeal Davis-Bacon Act requirements, claiming taxpayers could benefit by sending construction work to the lowest bidder and paying rock-bottom wages. Eliminating prevailing wage requirements also has the advantage of creating huge cost differentials between unionized and non-union contractors, effectively replacing union workers with workers who lack union protection and so must cut corners and do slip-shod work to meet the bosses' demands for more profits.

As always, there is money to be made (and votes to be hustled) off human suffering. These parasites will be with us so long as we tolerate an economic system based upon greed and exploitation.

But we can see the basis for another system in the actions of those who continue to reach out to aid those in need. As always, they are the vast majority, but it is the parasites who hold the levers of power. In this time of crisis, we must of course extend our solidarity to our fellow workers; but let's also ask why we continue to tolerate an economic system that inflicts such misery on so many.

A directory of grassroots organizations in New Orleans, Biloxi, Houston and other affected areas providing immediate disaster relief to poor people and people of color can be found at http://katrina.mayfirst.org/

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005)

Originally posted: November 2, 2005 at iww.org

Solidarity is key to win Northwest Airline strike - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the 2005 Northwest Airlines strike. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005).

Northwest mechanics and cleaning crews remain solidly united as their strike against massive concessions that would cost most workers their jobs enters its second month. Unable to entice strikers to cross the picket lines, Northwest began hiring permanent replacements Sept. 13, and has contracted out nearly all of its cleaning work.

Delta and Northwest airlines filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14, after unions balked at the carriers' demands for another round of deep pay cuts, lay-offs and other concessions. While Northwest has said it will refuse to deal with the mechanics during the bankruptcy proceedings, this stance is illegal.

In the most recent round of contract talks, Northwest said it was willing to keep only 1,080 mechanics' jobs; most mechanics and all aircraft cleaner and custodian positions represented by the union would be outsourced, eliminating 3,181 positions that existed before the strike. Northwest had originally demanded "only" 2,000 lay-offs, so it is clearly feeling emboldened by the way other union workers have been waltzing across the mechanics' picket lines.

Even though it would cost more than three-fourths of its members their jobs, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association negotiating team said it was willing to present Northwest's proposal for a vote, but ultimately withdrew from contract talks when Northwest refused to offer an acceptable severance package for the workers who would lose their jobs and insisted on intolerable working conditions for the survivors of this industrial carnage.

Although dozens of baggage handlers, ground crew and flight attendants have honored AMFA picket lines, massive union scabbing has allowed Northwest Airlines to keep its planes flying with a mix of 1,200 scabs, about 350 managers who are licensed mechanics, and outside maintenance firms - even if at such a heavy cost that the carrier has been pushed into bankruptcy.

The Machinists and pilots unions have directed their members to scab; the independent Professional Flight Attendants Union (which only represents workers at Northwest) officially supports the strike but is not honoring picket lines. The Teamsters have told their members they are on their own as far as the picket lines go, but have had the decency to cancel staff travel plans on the struck carrier.

Since the strike began, the AFL-CIO has issues mealy-mouthed statements of support for the workers, while refusing to support the strike itself. On the eve of the strike the AFL issued a memo warning that, "AMFA may ask CLCs and State Feds for support: food banks, money, turnout at AMFA picket lines and at rallies etc. StateFeds and CLCs should not provide AMFA with such support, unless the national AFL-CIO instructs them to do so." Far from encouraging solidarity, AFL-affiliated unions have been doing all in their power to disrupt local solidarity efforts.

The newly independent Change to Win Coalition unions, which include thousands of airline workers in their ranks, have made no official mention of the strike.

Meanwhile, the CWA-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants is trying to raid the independent union which represents 9,600 Northwest flight attendants, making not-so-veiled threats that other airline unions will scab should they be forced to strike, leaving them to fight alone just like the mechanics. This threat might be more persuasive if AFL-affiliated unions had a better record of honoring each others' picket lines.

Northwest is demanding more than $150 million a year in concessions from the flight attendants, including outsourcing international flights to cheaper overseas crews and hiring nonunion crews to work small aircraft. The changes would eliminate more than half of flight attendant jobs.

Growing solidarity

Despite attempts to isolate the Northwest strikers, solidarity actions are slowly taking root. Thousands of strikers and their supporters rallied across from the Northwest hangar at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International airport Aug. 27, including many uniformed Northwest flight attendants. The flight attendants' union president spoke at the rally, and the union is encouraging members to join solidarity rallies and defending flight attendants who have been fired for refusing to cross AMFA picket lines.

The United Auto Workers have donated $880,000 in strike relief funds. In an implicit rebuke to other unions which have been actively undermining the strike, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said, "Northwest Airlines' behavior toward AMFA is blatant union-busting and an insult to every American worker. The UAW is proud to offer this support to AMFA members."

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been joining AMFA picket lines on the West Coast, and labor councils in Alameda County, San Francisco and Northwest Oregon have passed motions of support. (The IWW has also adopted a resolution, which is published on page 6.)

Hundreds of supporters joined striking mechanics at San Francisco International Airport on Labor Day. Airline mechanics and flight attendants from American Airlines, United Airlines and other carriers not only joined the rally but spoke in solidarity. Most significantly, IAM strikers and local union officials joined the rally. The Machinists' NWA Grievance Committee Chairperson Janice Sisco spoke, saying that all units were threatened by the attack on the mechanics. AMFA District Council 9 President Joe Prisco also spoke, declaring that AMFA would honor all picket lines as a matter of principle no matter what union was involved.

Absent were Bay Area AFL-CIO and Change To Win leaders, even though they had acceded to rank-and-file pressure to pass a resolution supporting the strike.

In Detroit, IBEW, IWW, UAW and other unionists had been planning an August 27 benefit for the strikers at IBEW Local 58's hall, which they have used for several labor solidarity events over the years. When Machinists officials learned of the event, they called the local to demand that it be cancelled. Local 58 officials explained that they had rented the hall to a community organization, so the IBEW international stepped in and ordered them to lock the hall to prevent the event from taking place.

A new venue had to be found and publicized on 30 hours' notice, and it was. A local bar lent its kitchen for the cooking and two Detroit night spots opened their doors Saturday evening, accommodating 500 strike supporters. Outraged IBEW officials demanded that the local turn over the burglar alarm company's records to prove that the hall had not been used for the purpose of supporting workers fighting to defend their jobs.

Many Northwest aircraft may be unsafe. A Federal Aviation Administration inspector who raised serious concerns about maintenance problems in the first days of the strike was reassigned after the airline complained. Minnesota-based FAA inspector Mark Lund wrote that the situation at Northwest "jeopardizes life or property." The FAA downplayed the warning, noting that Lund is active in the union representing inspectors.

Despite the courageous actions of dozens of workers to honor the AMFA picket lines (more than offset by union scabbing that has gone far beyond the normal treachery - in one case a Northwest pilot actually moved equipment on the ground in order to get his scab plane ready for take-off), the picket lines have not shut the carrier down. Northwest is canceling many flights, and on some days more than half of its flights have been delayed by 15 minutes or longer. And in order to fill its flights, Northwest is increasingly relying on code sharing (particularly through its Delta partner) and budget booking systems (which do not identify the carrier until after tickets are purchased) to lure passengers onto its planes under false colors.

Yet while the growing solidarity is heartening evidence that many rank-and-file workers are repulsed by the union scabbery and jurisdictional squabbling that has left the mechanics to fight on their own, if the strike is to be won the airline will have to be shut down. Ideally this would be done by other Northwest workers honoring the picket lines. If not, mass picketing will be necessary. If AMFA is defeated in this fight, it will touch off a renewed wave of concessions demands throughout all industry. In this case, as is so often the case, an injury to one really is an injury to all.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005)

Originally posted: November 2, 2005 by iww.org