Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Solidarity Key to Strength in Merger `the Power of Unions Is Always in Numbers'

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Solidarity Key to Strength in Merger `the Power of Unions Is Always in Numbers'

Article excerpt

Three of the largest labor unions in the nation gave fresh meaning to the slogan "Solidarity" Thursday in announcing their plan to merge by the year 2000.

The proposal would form one union with about 2 million active members, making it the largest industrial union in North America.

Following are snapshots of the players - the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers. The Machinists Union

Years of chaos in the airline industry and a shift of jobs to subcontractors and overseas have been tough on the Machinists union.

With airlines hemorrhaging money in the early 1990s, the union often had to make concessions to financially ailing carriers. Cancellations or delays of new aircraft purchases and dwindling defense work cost tens of thousands of jobs in aerospace.

More than 100,000 jobs also were lost in the small aircraft industry, where steep liability insurance costs and soaring aircraft prices all but halted manufacturing.

Despite mergers with other unions, including the International Association of Woodworkers, Machinists membership tumbled from a high of 1 million in 1973 to less than half that now.

But as consolidations helped airlines and aerospace manufacturers become more powerful, merging with the Steelworkers and Autoworkers should help the Machinists, says David Olson, labor expert and political science professor at the University of Washington.

"The power of unions is always in numbers," Olson says.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has a long history of militancy, including a 48-day strike against Boeing in 1989 and a 1991 strike that spelled the end of Eastern Airlines.

In recent years, though, union officials frequently have found themselves inside the boardrooms and financial dealings of troubled employers.

The Machinists and the Air Line Pilots Association led the $4.9 billion employee buyout of United Airlines last year. Pay cuts and concessions also have been granted to USAir, TWA and Northwest Airlines.

With airline profits recovering and aircraft orders subsequently growing, the worst should be over, says Bill Johnson, president of the Machinists' largest district, Seattle's 26,000-member District 751 at Boeing. Still to be resolved, however, is the trend by Boeing and other companies to "outsource" what has been union production work to subcontractors or to foreign partners.

"Our membership has the ability, education and knowledge to do things better," Johnson says. The United Auto Workers

Merging with the Steelworkers and Machinists unions is viewed as a logical step for the United Auto Workers, which has shrunk by about half since 1979 as domestic carmakers cut back to meet foreign competition.

The clout and cash of a 2 million-member megaunion might help the UAW organize workers in segments of its key industry where it needs growth to stay relevant - independent parts companies and U.S. operations of foreign automakers. It also would eliminate competition with the Machinists for organizing aerospace workers.

"If you intend to head south, with mass organizing, three or four massive unions together can be more effective than if they are alone," said Sean McAlinden, a labor expert at the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

A multimillion-dollar strike fund could give the merged union more power at bargaining tables. "That can be a lot of banking leverage, forcing corporations to listen better," said David Yettaw, president of UAW Local 599 in Flint, Mich.

The UAW has been ravaged by the domestic auto industry's drive for leanness. As plants have closed and parts-making and other functions have been shifted to outside suppliers, hundreds of thousands of UAW jobs have disappeared at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. …

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