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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Labor’s New Efforts

CHICAGO, Ill.–One hundred thousand steelworkers have been laid off in the country and this U.S. steel industrial complex, once bustling with activity, has laid off 70 percent of its workers. At the union hall of a United Steelworkers of America (USWA) local, the mood was grim. “It’s worse than the Depression,” said one old-timer, noting that only about 1,000 workers are on the job out of 8,000 men who used to work at south Chicago factories.

The workers blamed steel management for incompetence and fat executive salaries and bonuses. They scoffed at suggestions that their international union was looking out for their rights. Topic No. 1 being discussed was hints that the Pittsburgh headquarters of their union was considering the steel industry’s desire to reopen the contract and negotiate concessions.

In the newspaper of USWA Local 1010, headlines shouted defiance and articles were loaded with specifics and information about steel companies’ investing in oil, banking and other non-steel industries instead of sticking to modernizing their plants. One page featured the GM and Ford concessions of the United Auto Workers, calling them “sugar-coated poison.”

But more than expected outrage is going on here. There are signs that the endemic displacement of industrial workers is leading to new political energies and alliances. James Balanoff, past director of USWA District 31, the district that defied the international union’s leaders during the Sadlowski-McBride electoral struggle, sends a fundraising letter announcing the formation of the Midwest Center for Labor Research (MCLR). The rationale in Balanoff’s words: “District 31 of the union has been racked by plant closings blamed on company charges of excessive labor costs and foreign competition. With no clear alternative explanation, union leaders accept the companies’ ideas, thereby weakening their union’s strength. We are convinced that the MCLR will provide the right tools to defend our union and put labor back on the advance.”

One of the weaknesses of unions in recent years has been their lack of well-documented analyses of the industries who do not tell them the truth. Mike Westfall of UAW Local 598 in Chesaning, Mich., has started automation committees at many UAW locals to analyze and respond to the industry’s robotics drive, its global sourcing of auto parts and its general abandonment of many American communities for overseas installations.

Many labor leaders in the Chicago area are supporting the Labor Coalition on Public Utilities (LCPU)–an alliance of labor and consumer groups to oppose unconscionable increases in electricity, gas and telephone prices. With a staff of only two dedicated, savvy people, the coalition has won numerous victories for Chicago-area residents. LCPU’s vice president, Frank Rosen of the United Electrical Workers, sees this coalition as only the beginning of broad-based unity among people who share common objectives of economic justice.

Clearly the combination of a deep recession and Ronald Reagan will bring together diverse groups and peoples with a new resolve to shift power from the very rich and the very corporate to the vast majority of Americans presently with little voice and less participation in shaping the country’s future.

The growth of neighborhood groups like ACORN and National People’s Action (NPA) will become more visible in the coming months. A major series of marches around the theme “Reclaim America,” equipped with specific programs for change, is scheduled by NPA for September with the focus on Midwest and East Coast cities.

NPA has had experience in negotiating successfully with banks to stop their redlining of communities. Founder Gale Cincotta believes in direct negotiations with Big Business from a position of people power and knowledge. Corporate executives who have been across the table from her concede that her strategy is formidable.

Maybe Ronald Reagan, with his failing supply-side dogma, does not see what is going on around the country. But as the citizen movement builds, diversifies and breaks through the corrupt politics and economics of the power elite, a spreading feeling will emerge that without Ronald Reagan all this activity might never have happened.