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9/5/2004

No stranger to strikes

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — A strike deadline for grocery workers looms less than a week away. In November, Longmont voters will face a ballot question on whether the city’s charter should be amended to allow police and firefighters to unionize — a ballot initiative that all but one city council member has already urged the public to vote “no” on.

Members of the St. Vrain Valley Education Association — the teacher’s union — have agreed with the district on their latest contract, though many members are not happy about the terms of the agreement.

Labor Day 2004 in Longmont comes not without its own very timely issues. But Longmont has seen its share of controversy before.

Twenty-three years ago last month, hundreds of Longmont-based workers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control Center lost their jobs, fired for violating an oath all federal employees had to sign that said they would not strike.

In August 1981, 12,000 members of PATCO, the controllers’ union, did strike, and 48 hours later, 11,400 of them were terminated by then-President Ronald Reagan — more than 200 of them from Longmont.

Former mayor and current city councilman Fred Wilson wasn’t involved in politics back then, but he did live in Longmont and vaguely remembers those days.

“My recollection is I took it as a national issue, rather than a local one,” Wilson said. “I didn’t take it from the viewpoint of how it would affect the local community, but rather the national impact.

“I think there was a feeling among those not involved with the FAA that to have the controllers out on strike put a lot of people at a great deal of risk.”

It’s worth noting that Wilson was the lone dissenting voice when city council members voted to officially urge the public to reject the amendment proposed by police and fire.

A self-avowed conservative, Wilson said he felt most comfortable allowing voters to make up their own minds on that issue.

Across the political aisle from Wilson, fellow councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Tom McCoy had moved to Longmont in the mid-1960s not long after the FAA opened its facility here.

McCoy said Reagan’s firing of the workers came as a surprise.

“It was quite a shock for anybody who believed in any kind of labor movement, what Reagan did right there,” said McCoy.

In a twist of irony 23 years later, current Longmont police Officer Mike Violette finds himself in the midst of the city’s biggest labor issue.

Today, Violette is vice president of the Longmont Police Officers Association and chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police State Labor Council.

In 1981, Violette was an air traffic controller in town, and vice president of the Longmont PATCO.

“I would be standing on the picket line tomorrow if I could,” Violette told the Daily Times-Call in 1982, the year after the PATCO firings. “What we did was right. The longer time goes, the more people are going to become aware of that. It may take six, eight or 10 years, but the story will come out.”

Violette continued to hold monthly PATCO meetings in town, even after the union had been decertified.

His passion continues today, as Violette recently told the Times-Call about this November’s police and fire union ballot initiative, “It’s about the right to have an equal voice in our future. It’s our opinion that this amendment is fair to the employees, our city government and the citizens.”

Violette declined to comment when contacted for this story.

_ _ _

Labor unions date back to the earliest days of America, but in latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th the movement grew, as more and more citizens recognized that along with the advances of the Industrial Age came shoddy and dangerous working conditions and wages far below acceptable living standards.

The movement was given a shot in the arm with the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a bleak but horrifying account of life in a turn-of-the-century Chicago meat-packing plant.

According to Congressional Quarterly, union membership in the United States peaked at nearly 35 percent of all wage and salary workers in 1954, and it has been declining ever since.

Last year, 15.8 million Americans belonged to unions, about 13 percent of all wage and salary workers.

In 2004, it’s hard to avoid the topic of unions without mentioning Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and a staunch opponent of unions. One concern of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union — Local 7 covers workers in the Denver metro area, including Longmont — is that because of the competition caused by the proliferation of Wal-Mart Supercenters nationwide, the nation’s major grocery chains are having to cut costs to compete, including tightening the wages and benefits they offer their workers.

UFCWU Local 7 members will likely vote next Saturday whether to ratify a contract or authorize a strike. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart continues to build hundreds of Supercenters across the country each year, including here in Colorado.

“I think we’re going to be a one-store town if enough of these Super Wal-Marts come in,” said McCoy. “We’re going to be a one-store town and a one-store state.

“The Wal-Marts of the world, paying that low wage and then forcing the rest of the country to pick up the slack, in health insurance or lack of health insurance ...”

While McCoy has been a vocal opponent to a Supercenter in Longmont, Wilson believes it’s inevitable that one will be built — either in town or a couple of miles down the road in Weld County.

Wilson said he isn’t troubled by Wal-Mart’s anti-union stance, believing people are free to choose where they work, whether it be at a union or a nonunion workplace.

“I think it’s a stretch to compare modern working conditions to those of 100 years ago,” he said.

People have a lot more freedom of choice in America today, he said, which is why Wilson’s not surprised by the drop in union membership.

“The union movement served a purpose in the early days; now I’m not so clear as to the purpose being served by some of the movements,” he said. “Our society has become a society of more informed individuals rather than members of an organized group.

“Maybe the feeling is no longer there that people feel they need to group together to make their lives what they want them to be.”

_ _ _

At least one expert agrees with that train of thought. Jeffrey Zax, a University of Colorado professor of economics, who is teaching a doctorate course on labor economics this semester, said he’s not sure about the future of labor unions, but does agree with Wilson’s theory.

“I think the instinct to form communities in America seems to be weakening, in my view,” said Zax.

Secondly, he said, “the unions are not configuring themselves to appeal to workers who are not in manufacturing, with some exceptions.”

Unions also seem to have gone out of favor with much of the American public.

In its recent earnings report, Safeway reported that its stores in central and southern California still haven’t recovered from a lengthy strike that was finally resolved in February. In that strike, 59,000 workers at 852 grocery stores were out of work for four months while the UFCWU and the grocery chains resolved their differences.

One observer, noting the drop in earnings, told the Los Angeles Times, “From their results ... I wouldn’t be surprised that 10 percent to 15 percent of their (California customer) base is permanently gone,” said Douglas Christopher, a stock analyst.

Safeway was the first of the grocers affected by the strike to report its recent quarterly earnings, and they are down from pre-strike levels.

Have California shoppers simply formed new habits of shopping, or is there lingering resentment against the store — or its workers — for choosing to strike?

“Any time you strike you take away the citizen’s comforts, and pretty soon the focus is on you, not the problem,” said McCoy. “Not the issues.”

_ _ _

Outsourcing is something unheard of in Upton Sinclair’s time, but it is one of today’s hot-button issues. Many ponder the future of the American middle class — what kinds of jobs will remain in this country in 50 years?

The North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Trade Organization, globalization — no one really knows even yet what impact these institutions will have on America’s workplace. The one certainty is that we’re in the thick of it and there’s no turning back.

“At the time” — 1992’s presidential campaign — “I thought Ross Perot was probably right when he talked about ‘that giant sucking sound,’” said McCoy.

But Americans no longer worry about jobs going to Mexico — labor is too expensive there. And the jobs that left Mexico for Singapore are now going to mainland China.

“It’s not so much the lack of productivity (of American workers) as it is the cost of productivity,” said Zax. “It can be done elsewhere for less. It’s really hard to resist that kind of pressure.”

Whether America’s working glass is half-full or half-empty is a matter of how you look at things, Wilson said.

“My perspective is it’s taking us to a good place, and there’s nothing that can be done about it,” said the former Longmont mayor. “I still see Luddites, and they say the only way we can keep what we’ve got is to stop progress.”

Technology, Wilson said, is what will pull America’s “fat out of the fire.”

Zax draws an interesting parallel between the attitudes of many Americans and those of the bronze-medal winning U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, favored by many to win it all in Athens.

“They’ve got two options,” Zax said. “One option is to say everybody else isn’t playing by the same rules.

“The response you’d like to hear is, ‘We’re going to figure out how to play the game better.’”

American industry, not politicians, are the answer, contends Zax. “Not outsourcing is removing yourself from the competition.”

In the long-term, Zax said, education will decide the fate of the American worker.

“I think American workers have got to be very careful about making sure their skills keep pace,” he said. “The quality of skills has got to improve if the quality of life is going to improve for workers. It’s a pretty easy equation.”

_ _ _

Outsourcing, unions ... to Zax, these aren’t even the biggest challenges facing Americans today.

“I have to say that in my view the biggest issue to emerge in the last 10 to 15 years — and it continues to be a big issue now — is the inequality in the American workforce,” said Zax, noting the vast and growing discrepancy in pay of those at the top of the business world and those at the bottom.

He noted that the gap had grown “pretty dramatically” during the Reagan administration in the 1980s and is increasing again during the presidency of George W. Bush.

According to a study commissioned by The New York Times, in 2003, the average CEO of a major company received $9.2 million in total compensation, 258 times more than the average salary for workers that same year, $35,700.

“But labor issues as a whole are not just a Republican thing,” said McCoy. He does agree with Zax, however, that the nation had better pay more attention to the precarious predicament of the country’s middle class.

“I think there’s a huge gap developing between the have’s and have-not’s,” he said, “and it’s a huge commentary on American society that the people aren’t recognizing it — recognizing it in time to save the working class.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at <303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.