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PORTSIDE  March 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE March 2011, Week 4

Subject:

Mississippi unionists protest the everyday dictatorship of corporate America

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

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Date:

Thu, 24 Mar 2011 19:46:51 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (151 lines)

Striking Mississippi unionists protest the everyday
dictatorship of corporate America 

By Mischa Gaus, Labor Notes
http://www.labornotes.org/2011/03/striking-mississippi-unionists-protest-everyday-dictatorship-corporate-america

Facing South
http://www.southernstudies.org/2011/03/striking-mississippi-unionists-protest-the-everyday-dictatorship-of-corporate-america.html

A dozen weary Steelworkers trekked from Mississippi to
Ohio last week, hoping to insert a few uncomfortable
questions into the clubby confines of their company's
shareholders meeting.

 [photo uswomnovastrike.jpg]

Approaching their 10th month on strike, the workers
from Omnova Solutions wanted to ask the CEO just how
the company had found enough money to grant the CEO a
90 percent pay increase -- boosting his take-home to
$3.5 million a year -- while they were asked to forget
about seniority and choke down benefit givebacks that
amount to a 15 percent pay cut.

The strikers didn't get the chance. Prepared for their
arrival, the company, which makes vinyl-coated wall
coverings used in hotels, denied access to most of the
strikers, although they carried proxies from other
shareholders.

Only a few who owned stock themselves were allowed into
the hotel outside Cleveland where the meeting was held.
Once inside, they found twitchy security guards and
dividers in the hallways that blocked shareholders from
reaching the suites where executives and the board of
directors were gathered.

The strikers took seats and waited. Before long, the
company directors trooped in together, took the stage,
and reached agreement on three pieces of business. Then
they marched back out.

The whole thing was over in 16 minutes, with little
discussion and certainly no questions from the supposed
"owners" of the company represented by the dozen or so
shareholders filling the chairs.

"I couldn't get away with running a union meeting like
that," said Jay Lawrence, president of USW Local 748L.
The members would have his head.

Representatives from Omnova's plants in Mogadore, Ohio
(UFCW-represented); Calhoun, Georgia (Workers
United-SEIU); and Jeanette, Pennsylvania (USW) all
joined the striking Steelworkers in last week's visit
to the shareholders meeting.

The contingent was in the middle of the restive
Midwest, where outraged unionists in Ohio and Wisconsin
are fast collecting signatures to force votes that
would chase out Republican lawmakers and their
anti-union legislation.

But with no such recourse in the private sector, the
strikers buckled up for the 850-mile drive back to
their picket line in Columbus, Mississippi.

Nobody Crosses 

Lawrence said the strike has been remarkably cohesive.
After nearly 10 months, none of the 180 members in the
right-to-work state has crossed the line. The strikers'
enormous experience helps, he said: The least senior
member has 17 years in, and average seniority is almost
29.

The job pays about $18 an hour, after a decade of
concessionary contracts that ratcheted up health care
costs. It's a job you keep: Lawrence worked 25 years on
third shift before a spot opened up on days.

That made the company's demands to strip seniority all
the more galling. Management wants to bump at will,
change shifts on the fly, axe an incentive system, and
combine and eliminate jobs -- fouling up a system
Lawrence says has operated smoothly for a generation.

"We can set up, color match, and run it off without
supervisors or anyone," he said. "We can make quick
changeovers. All that comes when you have experience."

Management is paying for the loss in expertise,
Lawrence said, with salespeople whispering to them that
poor quality scab-produced products have provoked a big
layoff at a distributor of Omnova products.

The company made $107 million last year, but reported
the strike has cost it almost $6 million. USW
International has helped the local identify and contact
customers.

The strikers have been surviving on $165 a week, and
have kept their medical benefits through the
Steelworkers' strike insurance. Many of the old-timers
only take $125 a week, so that younger members who have
car notes and mortgages can hang on. A hardship
committee reviews all the bills.

Other USW locals throughout the South have sustained
the strike by donating thousands in grocery and gas
cards. "We're longtime brothers in the union," Lawrence
said.

USW staff representative Kevin Johnsen said Local 748L
wants a status-quo contract that extends the old terms
until the economy recovers.

The members are not backing down on seniority, Lawrence
said. They've seen what happens in management's ranks.

"Among the salary people, the women never get
promoted," he said. A boss's son gets the job and keeps
rising even though he can't hack it.

"Once you start down that avenue, it's not a labor
agreement any more," Lawrence said. "Union contracts
are built on things being strictly equal. It doesn't
matter if you're man or woman, black or white, if
you're trained and qualified to move up, you move up."

(United Steelworkers photo of Omnova strikers in
Mississippi.)

___________________________________________

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