Bush Administration's Low-intensity War Against Labour (from ZNet)

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Thu Jun 19 2003 - 00:40:30 EDT

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                                Bush Administration's Low-intensity
War Against Labour



There was unanimous and universal praise for those (unionised)
ordinary people of the United States who had died doing their jobs on
11 September 2001. And then the Bush administration returned to its
policy of stripping workers of their rights and de-unionising whole
zones of employment.

[full story by Rick Fantasia And Kim Voss follows:

A quiet lull briefly settled over the United States in the weeks
immediately following 11 September 2001. The silence was a respite
from the usual din of commercial and cultural transactions and
allowed for a space of remembrance for the many firefighters, police
officers and emergency medical technicians who had risked their lives
in the collapse of the World Trade Centre, and died there. This was
more than a memorial; it was a heartfelt salute to the courage of men
and women who routinely risk death in their everyday work.

In ordinary times it takes great power or wealth to become a hero,
but these workers were hailed for being workers. And to be honoured
for doing humble work is a big thing in a society where decades of
neoliberal dogma have erased workers from the social imagination. The
gratitude expressed to and for workers after 9/11 was an uncommon
gesture of recognition for the usually invisible.

But this quiet reverence was quickly overwhelmed by the noise of
vengeance and war. The Bush administration, which had previously
shown indifference to workers and contempt for their unions,
discovered that it could use its war against terrorism to front
another kind of low- intensity warfare against workers and trades
unions. New laws were quickly passed to create a new Department of
Homeland Security. This meant an enormous reorganisation of federal
agencies, stripping 170,000 workers transferred into the new super-
agency of all rights to collective bargaining and civil service
protections. As the nation was still honouring the (unionised)
firefighters and policemen who had died on 11 September, President
Bush was claiming that unionisation posed a national security threat.

He amplified the anti-worker tone of his presidency more after the
Republican gains in the mid-term congressional elections of November
2001. When he could not eliminate public employee unions by fiat, he
intended to speed up the privatisation of the federal workforce,
permitting non-union and low-wage subcontractors to bid for the jobs
of some 850,000 federal workers, many of whom are union members.

This assault on public sector unions came in the context of a
ferocious 25-year campaign of anti-unionism by employers and their
trade associations in the private sector, where the rate of union
membership has fallen to 9% (the overall rate of 14% is propped up by
higher rates of unionisation in the much smaller public sector). In
many European societies social benefits are mandated by the state.
But in the US union membership matters very much and is hard to

There are few statutory regulations upon employers, so union
membership is one of the few ways for a worker to get reasonable
social benefits and protection (paid health insurance, a pension
plan, paid holidays, a legally enforceable grievance resolution
system). Gaining union status is not easy in the US; it must be won
through a process of social combat governed by judicial rules that
overwhelmingly favour the employer.

The Bush administration has used the congressional powers conferred
because of the war on terrorism against workers in the private
sector. When Bush moved to save the airline industry with a $15bn
bailout against losses suffered because of a slowdown in air travel
after 9/11, he offered almost nothing to 100,000 airline workers who
had been laid off, and used the power of injunction under the anti-
labour 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to end strikes at two major airlines. He
made a rhetorical link between the interruption of economic activity
and national security.

This was reinforced in the US national consciousness in autumn 2002,
when Bush actively intervened on the side of shipping companies after
they locked out some 10,000 longshoremen from their jobs at 29 West
Coast ports. Before the lockout, the shippers had formed a coalition
with some of their biggest customers, mostly large retail chains like
WalMart and Gap, and had met a task force from the Bush
administration to prepare strategy. The administration's actions
against the longshoremen's union, the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union (ILWU), were a warning to the rest of the labour
movement. In the middle of negotiations between the union and the
shipping companies, Tom Ridge, the head of the Department of Homeland
Security, and representatives of the federal Department of Labour
telephoned the head of the ILWU to dissuade the union from shutting
the ports. They warned that any strike or interruption of work on the
docks would be treated as a t! hreat to national security and that
the government was prepared to deploy the military to replace
striking workers (echoing Ronald Reagan's actions in 1981). According
to a principle elaborated by the US de fence secretary, Donald
Rumsfeld, in the war against terrorism all commercial cargo, not only
goods directly intended for military use, would be considered to have
a military importance.

The Bush administration has adroitly used regulatory mechanisms as a
powerful weapon against the unions. In contrast to the administration
policies on the environment and corporate governance, where the White
House has fiercely opposed any regulation of air and water quality,
food safety, and business practices, the Labour Department issued new
regulations in December 2001 that will require unions to itemise
every expense over $2,000 on organising workers, striking, and
legislative or political activities. This means an administrative
nightmare that will cost millions of dollars and weigh down their
already overburdened staff in bureaucratic practices that have
limited US unions for decades.

In Bush's current budget, funds have been dramatically increased for
auditing and investigating unions while funds for enforcing health
and safety laws, child-labour regulations, and violations of the
minimum wage have been cut. The unions have responded to this. At the
end of February, the leadership of the AFL-CIO (American Federation
of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations) registered its
opposition to the war on Iraq.

This was unprecedented, because the labour movement has for 50 years
been a strong voice for military intervention, a dependable
ideological combatant throughout the cold war. Anti-communism was
obligatory for entry into the top leadership of almost all US trade
unions (and most US institutions), and there was a recognition that
millions of the jobs that sustained industrial unionism depended on
the policies of postwar "military Keynesianism". The attack on anti-
war demonstrators by hundreds of construction workers in New York
City in 1970 gave the working class a militantly pro-war image.

This has now changed. Since 1995 a younger and more militant
leadership group, with roots in the more dynamic service sector
unions, and less burdened by the cold war imperative, have taken over
leadership of the labour federation. The change is reflected in the
willingness to break with the Bush administration on Iraq. The shift
is not only evident at the top, but throughout the movement, where a
longstanding ideological curtain of self-censorship has been lifted
and the accusation of being "soft on communism" has lost its bite
(although forces on the right are trying to provoke fears with the
charge of being "soft on terrorism"). The result is a more critical
voice from the labour movement, and opposition from new organisations
that have emerged as vehicles of labour mobilisation.

Besides the executive council's resolution against the war, the
leaders of 400 labour groups, representing nearly 5 million union
members, signed an even stronger resolution calling the drive to war
a "pretext for attacks on labour, civil, immigrant and human rights
at home" and warning that the main victims of war "will be the sons
and daughters of working class families serving in the military and
innocent Iraqi civilians".

Once the war began, the open opposition muted, as a curtain came down
over all debate, in deference to an enforced tradition of national
unity and support always invoked when US troops go to war. When they
entered Baghdad, a lunchtime rally to "support our troops" was held
on the site of the World Trade Centre (organised by the conservative
New York building trades unions), drawing over 10,000 union workers.

If the positions of the unions have changed, so has the US military
since 1973. It is half the size it was at the height of Vietnam, with
1.4 million active duty members, and an almost equal number of
reservists. The draft, discontinued at the end of the Vietnam war,
gave way to the current "volunteer" force, a term that perhaps
misdescribes the social compulsions at the intersection of civilian
and military labour markets. This is most evident with African-
Americans, for whom the US army has been a central institution of
social maintenance and mobility (1). In 1988 10.6% of the army
officer corps were African-Americans (including 7.4% of the generals,
the highest officer rank), an increase of nearly 300% since the war
in Vietnam (2).

The US military is overwhelmingly working- class, from all racial and
ethnic backgrounds, 90% of whom enter the forces with just a high
school diploma, and come from families with a median income of
$33,000 a year - about one-third below average national income (3).

It is ironic that working-class soldiers will come home from Iraq to
a socio-economic reality that has been shaped by the costs of a huge
military establishment. Americans pay for an annual military budget
of $400bn and rising - yet they go without national health insurance
or affordable childcare, and have an educational system full of

The Bush administration mandates huge tax cuts for the rich and
encourages the governors of 50 states to reduce spending by
privatising their workforces. Even more progressive governors are
left with little choice but to privatise because almost every state
staggers under the the expense of homeland security, which the
administration has required states to implement without providing
federal funds to cover the costs.

As US troops entered Baghdad, the administration was quietly
proposing changes to the federal Fair Labour Standards act to exclude
millions of workers from overtime pay for work over 40 hours a week
(workers in the US are paid time and a half for every hour over 40).
By reclassifying previously protected workers as managers and
administrative employees, and removing overtime protections from
workers in aerospace, de fence, healthcare, and hi-tech industries,
the Bush administration is handing to employers who are already laden
with gifts an especially generous handout. The workers, including
those soon to be discharged from military service, will pay for this

* Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss are sociology professors at Smith
College in Massachusetts and the University of California, Berkeley,
respectively, and joint authors of the forthcoming Hard Work:
Remaking the US Labour Movement (working title: from the University
of California Press, autumn 2003)

(1) African-Americans aged between 18-24 years old make up 14% of the
population as a whole, but almost 22% of the military. For the past
25 years the army has offered them a more reliable education system
than almost any other US institution.

(2) Charles C Moskos, Soldiers and Sociology, US Army Research
Institute for Behavioural and Social Sciences, 1988.

(3) Vicki Haddock, "Who will fight the war?" San Francisco Chronicle,
2 March 2003.

Original text in English ALL RIGHTS RESERVED  1997-2003 Le Monde

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