Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The "Bottom" to "Top" Low-Down on Recent Worker Activity in Dixie and Beyond

Ever hear the song by country music singer Jamey Johnson in which a country music star laments his loneliness on the road to an unknown, down-on-his-luck bar mate? The bar mate has this to say in response: “It might be lonely at the top, but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”

It’s a great song, one that hearkens back to some of Ol’ Hank’s best, and it speaks to an economic divide in this country and beyond that continues to grow every day.

Here are some news items from the U.S. South and beyond that speak to that divide—folks at the bottom fighting for their rights, and those at the top fighting just as hard against them. It's getting tougher and tougher for workers to take a stand, but they're doing it, and sometimes they even win.

Management at Atlanta-based Delta gets a narrow victory—and a wake-up call
Less than 350 out of nearly 19,000 votes was the margin of victory for Delta management recently as flight attendants said “No” to joining a union.

The vote was not a surprise but still a disappointment to the thousands of flight attendants, including 300 in Memphis, who've worked for Northwest—now merged with Delta—and have long supported union representation.

Votes from ramp workers and others at the merged airlines are still to come. Industry observers say management shouldn’t be popping the champagne just yet. The vote by the flight attendants was so close that unionization remains a “threat” to the company, which, by the way, waged an expensive, high profile anti-union campaign prior to the vote.

Fed-Ex’s Fred Smith enjoyed the Nov. 2 elections
With the Republican takeover of the U.S. House and defeat of pro-labor House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., Federal Express CEO Smith can breathe easier about Oberstar’s push to apply the same rules to the Memphis-based company that now apply to its major U.S. competitor, UPS.

Contract drivers at Fed-Ex have been saying they’re essentially full-time employees but can’t unionize because of their job designation. The Teamsters union and others say Fed-Ex should operate under the same rules as its competitors instead of the rules of the Railway Labor Act that now apply.

Piedmont agents vote union
Salisbury, Md.-based Piedmont Airlines fought unionization tooth and nail, but its 3,000 fleet and passenger service agents recently cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Communications Workers of America.

It was a two-to-one landslide for the union, which means workers can indeed stand up to union-busting tactics, intimidation, and “captive-audience meetings” decrying unions, according to the AFL-CIO Now Blog.

European hypocrisy in Arkansas
Despite European firms’ claims of allegiance to International Labor Organization codes of conduct, many are quick to take advantage of lax labor laws in the United States. Take the Dutch-based Gamma Holding firm, for example.

When workers at its National Wire Fabric company in Star City, Arkansas, went on strike, management wasted no time hiring permanent replacements, a direct violation of those same codes.

A new study by the Human Rights Watch organization, A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations, details how officials with companies such as Gamma Holding talk out of both sides of their mouths, something U.S. Southerners are used to hearing from their politicians and own business leaders.

This latter entry reminds me of corporate consultant Richard A. Beaumont’s essay, Working in the South, of some years back. In that essay, Beaumont talks of European industrialists coming to the South and reacting in shock to the virulent anti-unionism of their Southern counterparts. “Five minutes later, (the European industrialist) is saying, `Now, when I go to the South, how do I operate on a nonunion basis?’”

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