Labor Union and Industrial Relations – Then & Now

What was the difference between the conditions surrounding the 1959 Steel negotiations as described in Striking Steel and the negotiations between Kroger and the United Food and Commercial Workers as described in The Bully of Bentonville? Follow me on my journey as I discuss what the difference says about the fortunes of organized labor in 2007 and in the future. kroger hr express

First, let’s discuss the conditions surrounding the 1959 Steel negotiations as described in Striking Steel. For the unions, these conditions were respectively about power and money. For example,
The long strike of 1959 established that there would be no backward steps, [sic] that “the mistakes of the past eighteen years” were now written in stone. Though the strike established no new principle, it successfully defended all the principles the union had won in the previous twenty years, adding a little to the substance, and it consolidated the basic framework for the next twenty years. There would not be a steel strike of any kind for another quarter century, and there would never be another nationwide steel strike (Metzgar, 2000, p. 91-2).

In turn, the Steel industry management under the direction of R. Conrad Cooper wanted to reverse ‘the mistakes of the past eighteen years.’ In particular, Mr. Cooper wanted to scrap (no pun intended) Section 2 – B.

Section 2-B of the national steel labor contract outlined the powers of local unions to negotiate work rules for their particular workplaces, and it contained a particularly effective “past practice” clause – 2-B (3+4) – that severely restricted management’s ability to reorganize the labor process (Metzgar, 2000, p. 101).

In the end, the unions were able to succeed because of many variables. For example, the strikers effectively banded together with the support of the community (including local businesses fearing an economical backlash by friends and family of strikers, for the most part). Most importantly, they were able to garner the help of the President (with the greatest of reluctance); the Vice President (looking toward the upcoming Election); a secretary of the cabinet, and the father (Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy) of the Opposition Presidential Candidate in the upcoming elections (Metzgar, 2000).

Second, let’s talk about the negotiations between Kroger and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) as described in The Bully of Bentonville. For UFCW, the negotiations were about health and retirement benefits for its members (Bianco, 2007). In turn, Kroger Company took a hard line in the negotiations because, to echo the American Revolutionary War Cry with a twist, “Wal-Mart is coming! Wal-Mart is coming” (Bianco, 2007, p. 132)! In other words, Kroger Company has to deny/reduce health and retirement benefits of its unionized employees if it wish to effectively compete with Wal-Mart (looking to move into Kroger’s sphere of influence/market).
In the end, UFCW was unsuccessful because of many variables. For example, the strike depleted UFCW’s treasury and forced the Union to reprioritize their agenda (switching resources from their Wal-Mart campaign to battle a lesser opponent in Kroger). Embarrassingly, UFCW’s defeat was underscored when it ratified a contract that closely resembled the one its negotiators had rejected at the outset.

In addition, UFCW’s top leadership (mainly its President Doug Dority) resigned. In fact, UFCW resigned to the reality that their attempt of unionizing Wal-Mart is ‘dead on arrival’ (Metzgar, 2000). Most importantly, in 2003 to 2004, UFCW was unable to garner help from President George W. Bush; Vice President Dick Cheney; any secretary of Bush’s Regime, er, Administration, and the Opposition Party’s Presidential Candidate – George W. Bush’s fellow Skulls & Bones Secret Society member – JFK – no the other JFK – John F. Kerry to intervene on its behalf. In other words, UFCW was unable to get the U.S. government (all three Branches and both Parties) to assist Labor – the true red, blue and white working people who are its majority constituents – you know a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Thus, the difference between the conditions surrounding the 1959 Steel negotiations as described in Striking Steel and the negotiations between Kroger and the United Food and Commercial Workers as described in The Bully of Bentonville is the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government participation (albeit, with great reluctance) in the former resulted in a win for Labor. In the latter, a lack of U.S. Government participation resulted in a win for management.

On page 134 (the second paragraph), Bianco (2007) illustrated the apathy (bordering on the enabling of management) of the U.S. Government by its failure to effectively remedy Wal-Mart’s numerous unfair labor practices and its contempt for the NLRB (much less the unions).

The fortunes of organized labor in 2007 and in the future appear to be bleak…very bleak due to the U.S. Government’s reluctance to make a difference. Let’s not forget, the Kroger Strike occurred in 2003 through 2004. War Criminal in Chief George Bush Jr. and his Partner in Crime Dick Cheney are still in power, as of 2007. The leading Democratic Candidate in the 2008 Presidential Race, Senator Hillary Clinton doesn’t remove my pessimism for the future of Labor. 2008 Presidential Senator Candidate John Edwards appears to be promising but he’s a long shot to win the Democratic Primary much less to pull off an October Surprise (an October Revolution is more probable…) to secure the Presidency in the General Elections.

As I mentioned in class, the Labor Party (Labor Unions) will have to take a page out of the War Party’s (Neoconservatives) playbook. In other words, the Labor Party will have to emulate the War Party’s ability to gain a stranglehold on the U.S. Government (both parties are beholden to the War Party) and its policymaking apparatus. My critics will counter my preceding argument on the basis that the War Party has deep pockets. Very well, we will have to rely on ‘the invisible hand’ to beckon the U.S. Government’s attention to Labor issues which is not dissimilar to ‘the invisible hand’ that moves the Market (in the Capitalist/Free Market viewpoint).

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