Not long ago, Greyhound's ironfisted tactic would have seemed overly harsh. Just last year, Texas Air chief Frank Lorenzo faced withering criticism for hiring replacements soon after Eastern Air Lines machinists went on strike. But in the past few years the same technique has been used against flight attendants, printers, papermill employees, restaurant workers and others -- both in the public and the private sector. In West Virginia some 15,000 teachers went on strike two weeks ago in a dispute over pay raises. Last week Governor Gaston Caperton suggested that county officials should begin firing the teachers and replacing them with volunteers. On Saturday union officials urged the teachers to end the strike.
As more and more employers move quickly to replace striking workers, some union leaders are beginning to view their biggest weapon, the refusal to work, as little more than labor suicide. Says Robert Turcotte of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers: "We have nothing to bargain with now. Labor has an empty gun."
How could the dread strike have become such an uncertain instrument? The right of union members to strike without losing their jobs has long been a cherished tenet of the American labor movement. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 does indeed grant them that right. But while the statute prohibits employers from firing or punishing striking union members, those same employers can cite a 1938 Supreme Court decision giving them the right to hire permanent replacements for workers who are striking for such "economic reasons" as pay hikes or benefits (as opposed to unfair labor practices). In other words, the union members cannot be fired, but while they're on strike, the company can achieve the same end by giving their jobs away to new employees.
Until recently the 52-year-old ruling was rarely invoked by large employers. Companies feared that quality would dip if raw recruits replaced experienced workers and that customers would turn to other suppliers. Moreover, throwing down the gauntlet by replacing strikers might have triggered a wider backlash from unionized suppliers and consumers, or even provoked congressional intervention.
But such concerns have dissipated in recent years. Deregulation and intensified foreign competition have forced companies to bear down on costs. At the same time, declining union influence has lessened the fear of reprisals or sympathy strikes. Finally, Ronald Reagan's decision in 1981 to fire striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization and replace them with nonunion trainees sent a clear signal that striking workers should not look to the Government for sympathy or even tolerance. "Other employers, public and private, interpreted this as a declaration of open season on unions and went all-out to block, weaken or be rid of them," says Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
But union power had been slipping long before Reagan slapped down PATCO. In 1945 union members made up more than 35% of the nonagricultural work force; by 1980 they had dropped to 22%, and have fallen considerably since. Many of the nearly 19 million new jobs created during the booming '80s were in nonorganized service industries and small businesses. Relentless churning in the job market has also hurt Big Labor, as job security has begun to take precedence over concerns about benefits and pay increases. During the '80s, TWA, Phelps Dodge, Boise Cascade, International Paper and countless other firms cracked down hard on labor, imposing pay cuts, scaling back benefits and lengthening the workday, daring unions to oppose them. In many cases, labor yielded or lost out.
In Traverse City, Mich., for example, 166 United Auto Workers employees of Burwood Products were locked out in December 1988 after eleven months of contract negotiations. Two months later, when the union workers finally decided to accept a 21% pay cut, they were told that they were no longer needed. Burwood, a manufacturer of clocks and other wall accessories, had replaced its union employees, generally with young workers who had been earning the minimum wage. Says ex-employee Sharon Newberry, who is still out of work: "They were just looking for a way to get rid of the union."
She may have a point. Labor experts say many employers may actually welcome strikes as an opportunity to shatter union power. With the use of permanent replacement workers, observed Peter Laarman, a spokesman for the United Auto Workers, "labor disputes often are not really about wages or benefits or working conditions, but rather about getting rid of the union altogether." That may become even easier if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Curtin Matheson Scientific in its case against the National Labor Relations Board. The Houston company is seeking to establish that an employer can reasonably assume that nonunion replacement workers, hired during a strike, oppose union representation. If the court agrees, companies may begin to kick out the unions as soon as replacement workers arrive.
; Aware of the risks that strikers now face, some labor leaders are advising unions to think twice about striking and broaden their tactics. Chief among their recommendations is the so-called corporate campaign, in which union workers seek to bring pressure on customers, outside corporate directors and political leaders. Example: at Midland Steel Products in Cleveland, where striking U.A.W. workers were replaced last June, union members are visiting plants operated by such customers as General Motors and Navistar to argue that the quality of Midland products has deteriorated. It is not clear whether such tactics will be effective.
As workers fight to retain some clout, there are signs that public apathy -- or even antipathy -- is giving way to a greater sympathy for labor. In a TIME/CNN poll of 500 adults conducted last week by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, 73% of those surveyed said American workers still need labor unions. Asked about Greyhound, only 22% said they were sympathetic toward management's position (though 25% refused to take sides). Finally, 59% said they would not take the job of a striking worker.
Labor leaders point to other signs that the worst days may be over. In 1989, for the first time since 1981, major collective-bargaining settlements provided larger wage increases than those in the contracts they replaced -- in most cases without strikes. In addition, striking workers won generous settlements at Boeing and the four "Baby Bells," and prevailed in a bitter ten-month walkout at Pittston Coal after a federal mediator was appointed. Says AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland: "We have been tempered by a period of fire, and it has strengthened us."
As management turns up the pressure, some labor disputes are sparking deep bitterness and a return to old-fashioned bareknuckle violence. Sabotage has been a major problem at Owl Rock Products, a California-based construction- materials supplier, ever since 150 members of the International Union of Operating Engineers walked out last September. Though the union denies responsibility, the vandalism at Owl plants intensified after the company hired replacement workers: acid has been splashed on machinery control panels, sand poured into diesel engines, and conveyor belts have been sliced.
Since the Greyhound strike began three weeks ago, snipers have fired upon buses in nine states. In one Florida shooting, seven passengers were injured by flying shrapnel. The violence escalated after a striking 30-year veteran Greyhound driver in Redding, Calif., was accidentally crushed to death by a bus driven by a newly hired replacement driver. While union leaders have generally disavowed the shootings, one striking driver, Roger Cawthra, was arrested last week in Connecticut and charged with firing a semiautomatic gun at a Boston-bound Greyhound bus. To protect passengers, police now monitor Greyhound buses in some states.
When strikes deteriorate into shoot-outs and slugfests, little hope for rational compromise remains. Even as he prepared to resume talks with Greyhound's unions over the weekend, company Chairman Fred Currey accused them of "violence, terrorism and intimidation" and said he expected little progress. Bitter face-offs between management and labor are increasingly frequent, with good faith in ever shorter supply. And for more and more workers, the time-honored concept of labor unity means sharing the pain without the gains.
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CREDIT: TIME Chart by Steve Hart
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