Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

September 5, 2005


Host: Michael Grant

Labor Day Special


  • A look at the labor struggles in Arizona, particularly the Asarco strike in Kearny and the AFL-CIO convention in Phoenix. Guests include ASU economist Dawn McLaren and Executive Director of the Arizona AFL-CIO Michael McGrath.
Guests:
  • Dawn Mclaren - ASU economist


View Transcript
>> Michael Grant:
Tonight on "Horizon", a strike at the ASARCO ray mines unit in Kearny garners support from unions across the country. The future of the AFL-CIO could be in doubt after three large unions leave the fold.

>> Announcer:
"Horizon" is made possible by the friends of Channel 8, members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you!

>> Michael Grant:
Good evening. I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to this special edition of "Horizon." The classic image of a labor struggle is a picket line at a company, and since July 2nd, United Steel Workers of America have been on strike against ASARCO which owns copper mines and smelters. Negotiations are ongoing in that struggle in Kearny and Hayden. Strikers have set up picket lines. Unions are doing what they can to support the strikers' families. Larry Lemmons takes us to Kearny.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Day 45 of the united steel workers strike against U.S. copper miner ASARCO. Union members wait for food distribution at local 915 in Kearny. Some food is available. A one shipment hasn't arrived yet and the organizers are sensing impatience.

>> Worker:
So we want you to wait until the truck comes in and -- so we can give you some of that stuff. We don't want it here. We don't want to throw it away. We want you to use it. That's the reason we're making you wait until 10:00.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Not long after 10:30, the shipment arrives from the United Food Bank in Mesa. Over 1,200 pounds of bread and pasta and over 1,100 pounds of produce are unloaded quickly and efficiently by the strikers working in unison. This is the fourth week since the strike began that food is being distributed. Food hassle arrived from food banks in Phoenix and from California unions supporting the strike.

>> Armando Olivas:
You know, when there's a strike like this, whether it's in a small rural town in America or big city like Detroit or Chicago, one injury to one is an injury to all. So all the affiliate unions of the AFL-CIO gather together and provide support and we will provide support until the day -- until one day long or until the end of the strike. I have coordinated food from Los Angeles from Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego, and I'm going to Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we're going to ask for food contributions from those cities to be brought out here for the strikers. And also try to raise some money, funds, much-needed funds, for the utilities and rents and necessities like that for families of the strikers.

>> Larry Lemmons:
For $15 a union member can take home over $60 worth of food for families. Also on this day, in fact every Monday, the steel worker locals distribute strike assistance checks.

>> Worker:
So it will be for self --

>> Sal Hernandez:
How long would it be before I get assistance, ma'am?

>> Worker:
Assistance, I don't know.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Sal Hernandez is from united steel workers local 5252. He is a haul truck driver at ASARCO's ray mine. He has come to local 915 hoping to get strike assistance for his family.

>> Sal Hernandez:
Right now I'm getting assistance from the union, and also trying to get food stamps and all that. I believe that people like us were -- we're taxpayers, we work, and there's going to be a time we're going to have to lean on that, and I don't understand why they're making it so difficult for us taxpayers to get our assistance right now. Right now I'm hoping they'll help us.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Hernandez supports a wife and two kids and he felt the financial pressure not long after the strike began July 2nd.

>> Sal Hernandez:
Well, it's been real hard, but we have to unite together as a union.

>> Worker:
Take care, man. I'm going to go home and feed my family.

>> Larry Lemmons:
That sentiment is the glue holding these strikers together. As the days wear on without an agreement with the company, all these strikers will be depending on each other.

>> Manny Armenta:
We have created copper workers emergency strike and defense fund. We will be tapping into that to try to make sure that people don't lose their homes, their cars and have their utilities cut off.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Up the road from Kearny at the ray mine entrance, the picket line is greeted by honking support. Under tarps, the strikers endure the heat and wait for a resolution.

>> Dennis Wiley:
Well, when we stand our picket for four hours, some of the guys come out and do eight hours like if they live 100 miles away, and that's the big thing out here. A lot of the people that work here commute, anywhere from 100 miles a day or even more.

>> Tom Colby:
They basically would like each of us to come out here at least a minimum. There's like 200 of us affected by 5252, come out and show our support, and work hopefully towards peaceful resolution to what's going on but most of us right now are a -- the little bit of savings we have, lot of them have already run out of their savings. We still show support that we come out here, hold up the signs, showing the community and the public basically that what we're trying to fight for is a livelihood. The company wants to take away our -- part of our money. They want to do away with our insurance. They want to do away any future of ever thinking about retiring, and we're out here basically showing that we're willing to sacrifice all for a future.

>> Larry Lemmons:
The ray mine is still in operation but not at the volume before the strike. Copper prices are up but the company's hard pressed to take advantage of them. Supervisors and those who cross the picket line are loading and driving some trucks. ASARCO which is owned by Grupo Mexico filed for bankruptcy protection citing liabilities of nearly $2 billion for lawsuits involving workers' health, environmental damage and the strike.

>> Manny Armenta:
This would have happened with or without a contract, five or six-week strike does not call any company to file bankruptcy. They filed bankruptcy because of their environmental liabilities and their investors' lawsuits, and that's something we don't have no control of. They knew they were there. Obviously they're saying that it's based on the -- because of the strike and the environmentals and all that stuff, but obviously disappointed.

>> Larry Lemmons:
The striking workers say ASARCO is asking for a three-year wage freeze, cuts to healthcare benefits and at the ray mine, ASARCO has apparently proposed a freeze in the pension plan. ASARCO did not return our calls requesting comment.

>> Manny Armenta:
We've made it pretty clear to the company that if they give us a fair and equitable agreement our people will return to work. I think that we can convince, now that they're in bankruptcy, the creditors committee and the bankruptcy attorney that that's the way to get this company back on float.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Meanwhile, it's a waiting game for a resolution that more than likely won't please everyone.

>> Sal Hernandez:
I hope my dream comes true. I hope everybody's happy with our wages and our benefits and our pension, especially our pension, and also for the people that are fixing to retire. They worked all these years. Now they're going to lose 10 years off their 30 years and more involved, it really bothers me to see the old fathers not getting their retirement, full retirement. Then not only that, Social Security, they're raising it up, they had it at 62, now they're raising it up and that makes it more tougher. That's why we're fighting for what we believe.

>> Michael Grant:
Joining us to talk about the history and economics of the labor movement in Arizona, a right to work state s ASU economist Dawn McLaren. Dawn, welcome back.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Thank you.

>> Michael Grant: Strikes like the ones we just saw seem fewer today and also shorter in duration. My perception somewhat accurate?

>> Dawn McLaren:
Yes, for the last 20 years or slightly more than 20 years unions have lost a lot of their power, a lot of their ability to do what they need to do, which the basic economics behind it is that the labor wage is the price in the market, the price per worker, and that is based on supply and demand. So if supply and demand gives you a wage of $6 an hour, a union's job is to go in there and raise it above, and they have certain ways of doing that. One way is to restrict supply. Well, back in the 1980s, as we were talking about, this has changed quite bait, and it started with Reagan and the air traffic controllers.

>> Michael Grant:
Kind of a watershed event.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Exactly. When they went on strike and he said, fine, we need these workers, we need to keep our airports running, fine, we'll replace them and he brought in replacements, and in fact we're seeing that same type of activity going on today.

>> Michael Grant:
Now, copper prices pretty high. Why in the world, you know, can't you just say, you know, we're in tall clover, sure, here's $12 or whatever the case may be.

>> Dawn McLaren: That's what the union is trying to do. They're trying to take advantage of this time at which copper prices are high to say, look, you can afford to give us a higher wage, you can afford to give us more employees, you can afford to give more benefits. They were talking about retirement benefits and that type of thing. You can afford to do it because, look, the price of copper is so high. Well, they might not be looking at it from the company's perspective. The company's perspective is copper prices are high because Weaver a booming housing market, we have booming construction, and a lot of the company you are is being felled -- a lot of the copper is being fed into that. What happens when that isn't there any more a year from now? Are we going to be able to afford the contracts we get into? One thing that's nice about the free market is they can get rid of workers when they want to. A labor contract makes that a little bit of a -- in economic terms a sticky situation.

>> Michael Grant:
And the copper price does tend to be one of the more volatile of the commodities.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Right.

>> Michael Grant:
Has Arizona ever been a heavily unionized state?

>> Dawn McLaren:
I would think not, certainly not over the long term looking back into -- in the mid-1950s when it became a right to work state. Before that I think even -- even then not. It's always been below 10\%. So...

>> Michael Grant:
There was kind of a watershed event in Arizona union history, and that was the deportations, again associated with mining workers back in the late teens.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Right. Exactly. Exactly. When miners went on strike and they just said fine, we're going to get rid of you, and again very Reagan -- I'm not trying to pick on Reagan, but he did decide to do that, where they just said, fine, we'll get rid of you because you're trouble makers, get rid of you and bring people in here who are just going to follow what we want and accept risks and all kinds of back then certainly abuses that were going on.

>> Michael Grant:
In fact, if I recall correctly, I think that they were just rounded up -- the workers were rounded up and placed in railroad cars and shipped out.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Uh-huh. Exactly. Today, of course, that couldn't happen because we have such a nice flow of information. Again, that's reduced union's power because if someone is deciding I'm going to join a union and this is the price I have to pay to get into the union, this is the dues I'm going to pay, they have to say, what am I going to get in return? I get a higher wage. I get more benefits. But back then you got a whole lot more in the way of protection of your job, all kinds of things. Now information has taken care of that, the information flow. If someone tried to do what they did back in the teens today, there would be a huge outcry worldwide.

>> Michael Grant:
Public outcry on it. You were also making the point, Dawn, before we went on the air that as the state has moved away from the so-called five Cs that were sort of the rock of Arizona's economy for decades, that also has led the state away from unions.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Exactly. As we move away from the agricultural jobs and the picking of crops and the very basic skill level, which those people at the basic skill level need unions more to be able to protect their jobs and raise their wages. Once you have a Ph.D. you don't really need a union anymore. So it's protecting that level of worker that is most vulnerable to losing his job, to not being able to keep up with payments for housing and food and that type of thing. So, yeah, as we've moved along and as our economy has changed and moved away from those jobs and into the higher level manufacturing jobs and now even into a new phase where we're going into a lot of service jobs and a lot of computer jobs and that type of thing, again, there's a little less reason to have the unions there protecting them. Workers are less vulnerable.

>> Michael Grant:
More emphasis on benefits in these kinds of negotiations today and perhaps less -- I mean, I know that both sides want them either as high or as high as they can possibly get and want both as high and low as they can possibly get but is there more emphasis on benefit negotiation today?

>> Dawn McLaren:
I think right now, there is. If you look at the employment cost index and look at unionized workers versus non-unionized, you'll see the union workers are getting much more -- the cost of giving them benefits is much, much higher than for your average worker. That's because benefit costs themselves have been increasing so rapidly because of healthcare and retirement funds not having experienced the crash in the stock market, they're not doing so well. So the unions, that is one thing that they can give an advantage beyond just protecting that vulnerable worker, they can say, look, if you join us, we can make sure that you have these benefits, and we can make sure that your healthcare is covered and we can make sure that your retirement plan is covered. That's why they're so concerned about those things now.

>> Michael Grant:
Recently we have found that some companies can simply walk away from -- or at least a large portion of those benefits promises in the form of retirement.

>> Dawn McLaren:
Exactly. That's part of the union losing its power.

>> Michael Grant:
Dawn McLaren, thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it. The American federation of labor, AFL, founded in 1886, the Arizona AFL-CIO convention held in early August in Phoenix. The convention came just days after three large unions had disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO at the national convention in Chicago. Larry Lemmons takes a look at the controversy.

>> Speaker:
Let me read a little passage that was in the newspaper. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor educators but by the Christian men 'to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control and property interest of the country.

>> Larry Lemmons:
That's the sort of philosophy that the labor movement has been battling long before it was organized in this country. This convention in Phoenix marks the 50th anniversary of the American federation of labor, or AFL, and the Congress of industrial organizations, or CIO. Ironically the convention occurs not long after three unions disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO on the national level. The Teamsters, The Service Employees Union and The United Food and Commercial Workers.

>> William McGlashen:
When the Teamsters and UFCW, the food commercial workers union, those are two of the biggest unions in Arizona so when their national unions left the AFL-CIO umbrella, it impacted our local movement here by about 24\% revenue and a little more than in that members. So it was a significant impact. Locally, however, our relations between the AFL here and the leaders at Teamsters, leaders at UFCW and was excellent. They were part of our rein vague ration of the labor movement, part of getting us back on track, they were aggressively organizing new members and the relations between the officers here locally were exceptional, and so we're going to make every effort to get them back into the fold.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Although relations between the various entities are amiable on the state level, the turmoil at the top points to the differing ideas related to the union's future.

>> Michael McGrath:
The discussion that took place in the confrontation that ultimately led to the disaffiliation of the Teamsters, SCIU and the food and commercial workers was not around the philosophy of organized labor but around the structure and tactics for about how we go about growing the labor movement, and their feeling was that the road that the majority wanted to take at the AFL-CIO was not -- did not go far enough.

>> Larry Lemmons:
The convention also occurs at a time when despite the national controversy union membership in Arizona has risen, despite our status as a right to work state. That law has made union organization more difficult.

>>William McGlashen:
It can be tough because you're facing a number of things. First, you're facing the right to work structure. You're facing an ability for that employer to terminate employees who are union advocates. You're facing multi-million dollar campaign by an outside firm usually, union busting firm, who come in and they expend an extraordinary amount of dollars telling the people you're trying to organize why your union is not worthy or bad things about your union that they Trump up. You know, they have a bag of tricks that they pull out every time, and you've got to again spend a lot of money and time to either fight that campaign or, you know, to get your message out to the members that you're trying to organize, and there's always that constant fear among some of the people that get involved that my employer can terminate me for just wanting a union, and that is a big hurdle to overcome. Again, we don't use it as an excuse not to organize, but it's there and we deal with it.

>> Larry Lemmons:
Perhaps part of their success on the state level is due to the perception among many working Americans that their quality of life is undergoing a transformation.

>> William McGlashen:
People are not taking vacations like they used to or the rest of the world does. The 40-hour work week is quickly moving into an 80-hour work week. The internet is changing that. Technology. Healthcare. There's -- you pay for a lot more of your healthcare today as an employee than you used to. Pensions. Recent examples at united airlines and other companies have been thrown out and your Social Security is not going to help you there. You've got to have another plan. So we've seen an erosion of the middle class that unions created and we've got to reverse that trend.

>> Michael Grant:
With us now to talk about the future of the Arizona AFL-CIO is its executive director Michael McGrath. Mike, good to see you.

>> Michael McGrath:
Thank you, Mike. Glad to be here.

>> Michael Grant:
I want to talk about Arizona in just a second but let me go back up to the national level, because what happened, I think, surprised a lot of people, certainly surprised me because I was following that issue at no particular level of detail. You made a comment there in the package about what you felt was happening at the national level. Build on that. I think you indicated it was sort of differences in direction by the three disaffiliating unions and then the AFL-CIO. Tell us more about what you mean by that.

>> Michael McGrath:
Well, the three unions that disaffiliated, teamster, SCIU and UFCW, are part of the change to win coalition and have separated from the AFL as the change to win coalition. Their strategies and believe about how we go about growing the labor movement -- while I'm not trying to speak for them, they had a couple different premises out there on how politics related to organizing, kind of cart before the horse thing. Or the chicken and the egg. Is it more politics in order to be able to make the atmosphere and the laws in this country more fair towards workers and their ability to organize into unions or is it more organizing that actually drives the politics and the politicians that create that atmosphere?

>> Michael Grant:
Them thinking, the three disaffiliating unions thinking, we ought to put more emphasis on electing the right kind of leaders or vice versa?

>> Michael McGrath:
Vice versa, just the other way. The belief -- while no one believes that any -- that labor in any way, shape or form or organization is going to abandon politics, the belief was that much more emphasis, much more coordinated uniform emphasis had to be put by all the unions on organization of workers in this country.

>> Michael Grant:
So convincing the little guy, you ought to join up, here's the benefits associated with that, here's the detriments if you don't, that kind of organizing at the grass roots level.

>> Michael McGrath:
Absolutely.

>> Michael Grant:
Let's come to Arizona. A different relationship was mentioned between the three disaffiliated unions and the Arizona AFL-CIO. Part of that, I mean, it sounded like you guys just have a Bert relationship with them here locally. Is that the simple answer? Is it more complicated than that that.

>> Michael McGrath:
I think it's a simple answer but I think it's -- as far as the Arizona labor movement, we went through a very dramatic restructure here after I was first elected in 2002, and we did this purposefully. We went through a restructure to make the Arizona labor movement much more focused on organizing, a much leaner organization, a much more member-driven type of organization that provided not only assistance to local unions but also helped to be able to coordinate program desired by the affiliates in this state to become effective, to infuse a high level of accountability, a high amount of visibility with everything we did, and the UFCW and the Teamsters and the SCIU, SCIU to an extent, but the UFCW and Teamsters were there from the very beginning of my term when we started the discussions around the reorganization and restructure of the AFL.

>> Michael Grant: But now as a technical matter, though, those unions are still disaffiliated from the Arizona AFL-CIO.

>> Michael McGrath:
Correct. Under the national constitution of the AFL-CIO they're not eligible to be -- and I should preface this with there's a part B to this -- they're not eligible to be affiliated at the local level unless they are affiliated nationally, meaning their national unions are affiliated.

>> Michael Grant:
That doesn't, however, necessarily rule out close working relationships, coordination, cooperation, and those kinds of things, between the two groups.

>> Michael McGrath:
Absolutely doesn't rule it out. And there's also an attempt being made by the national AFL to find a way for the local unions to be able to stay affiliated at the state and local level even though they're disaffiliated nationally. Hopefully that will be resolved in short order to the -- you know, the pleasure of both sides here.

>> Michael Grant:
Mike, what do you see as perhaps the most significant challenge facing AFL-CIO and today's climate in Arizona?

>> Michael McGrath:
In Arizona, I think -- you know, I've been here since 1981 in Arizona, and I've been a union member for over 27 years, and I think that the challenges of corporate Arizona or corporate America, the lack of respect for work and workers in this state and across this country are always going to be the tremendous challenge that's out there. The inability of people to -- particularly of corporate America or corporate Arizona to understand that the national labor relations act actually says in it that it shall be the policy of the United States of America to encourage the organization and collective bargaining of workers, and that has been absolutely anything but as far as practice in the State of Arizona or in America in general.

>> Michael Grant:
All right. Michael McGrath, Arizona AFL-CIO, we appreciate you joining us.

>> Michael McGrath:
Thank you, Michael.

>> Michael Grant:
Take care of yourself. Thank you very much for joining us this evening on "Horizon." I'm Michael Grant. Have a great one. Good night.

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