Monday, March 15, 2010

March labor round-up - Bus drivers strike at UofA, Labor dumps Lincoln of Arkansas

Here's a brief round-up of key labor activity in the South in March:

- A one-day strike by more than 30 bus drivers at the University of Alabama left the drivers locked out and watching university-hired scabs take over bus routes with university vans. Although the members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1208 agreed to go back to work while contract negotiations were underway, first-day talks stalled, and university officials decided to let scab drivers take over approximately one-third of the normal bus service and to abandon the rest.

The labor action and university response have led students to protest and distribute flyers in support of the bus drivers, and several scabs subsequently changed their minds about taking over the routes.

Union officials say the drivers, who work under contract with the First Transit company, make an average $9.50 an hour, much less than even the $11.75 per hour starting pay for First Transit drivers at the University of Texas. Those drivers can earn up to $17 an hour. The strike came after nine months at the bargaining table with an intransigent employer insisting that wages be frozen.

- The national AFL-CIO, increasingly frustrated with Democrats who vote and talk more like Republicans, has announced it will support Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the May 18 Democratic primary. The endorsement puts as much as $4 million in union support in Halter's camp. Lincoln, as unreliable a vote on health care reform as she is on the Employee Free Choice Act, still has her friends at Wal-Mart, however, to give her consolation and cash.

The union rank-and-file's growing frustration with President Obama crystallized after he gave his strong endorsement to an excise tax--sometimes called the "Cadillac" tax--on comparatively high-cost, employer-sponsored health plans to help fund health care reform. These plans are the hard-won fruit of struggles by labor unions on behalf of their members, and to single them out for taxation was a slap in the face of organized labor, which strongly supported Obama's election.

A White House meeting with labor leaders resulted in a deal that exempted union-won plans, but it left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth and it exposed unions once again to the charge they only care about their own, not the working class as a whole.

Rank-and-file anger played a key role in Republican Scott Brown's capture of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts in January. Polls show less than half the union members in the state supported Brown's Democratic opponent. Obama got 60 percent of the union vote in 2008.

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