Editorial: Strikes becoming less effective

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Last month, 169 workers for the St. Louis-based Sabreliner Corp. went on strike at the company's facilities in Perryville, Ste. Genevieve and St. Mary. That came after the members of Teamsters Local 600 rejected the company's contract offer.

The picketers -- made up of aircraft technicians, maintenance mechanics, warehouse personnel, wood and sheet metal workers, painters and janitors -- were carrying signs that said "Sabreliner Unfair."

Union workers felt like the proposed contract wasn't in their best interest, despite the fact that they were among the best-compensated hourly employees in Southeast Missouri.

Under the final contract offer presented to the union, Sabreliner union employees at the three facililities would earn a median hourly wage of $19.63, with a top pay of $20.76 per hour for the first year of the contract. Those hourly rates would increase 50 cents an hour each year during the four-year contract.

Not good enough, the union said.

Union workers voted 112-45 to reject the contract. They didn't like the part of the new contract that called for switching from a defined pension plan to a 401(k), a plan that many companies across the country use.

Workers also didn't like that new employees hired after the contract's ratification date would never be eligible for the top pay rate. Health-care insurance would also rise under the new contract.

So the workers went on strike. Work continued at the facilities, using replacement employees and management.

Less than a week later, they agreed to a contract. The pay rate was exactly the same as in the original contract. The company still got its desire to switch to a 401(k). Later, union leaders were hard-pressed to come up with any real benefit to having the strike.

That's increasingly common in the world of union negotiations. A mechanics strike against Northwest Airlines is seeing pilots, flight attendants and others crossing the picket lines. Northwest's operations have only been minimally disrupted by the mechanics' strike.

We've seen several other strikes across the country, including some in St. Louis, where strikers haven't gotten very little for walking off the job. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union led a strike against several California-based grocery chains. Again, not much came of it.

As unions continue to lose American sympathy and support, the labor movement met in St. Louis in September, struggling to adopt a new profile. The group is called "Change to Win," and is made up of breakaway labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union.

Some suggest that the new organization is dedicating itself to becoming more agressive, including corporate campaigns and top-down organizing tactics. Often, they campaign companies to organize their workers without even a vote. Some call that "death by a thousand cuts."

They recognize that employees are increasingly less interested.

But their basic retaliatory tool is a strike. And those are nowhere near as potent as they used to be. As conservative columnist George Will wrote in a recent column, "A strike, to be effective, must withdraw skills that cannot be replaced, and there seem to be fewer of them than there once were."

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