US unions split – as class struggle erupts in USA

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The leaders of five of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO – the Teamsters, UFCW, UNITE-HERE, Laborers’, and SEIU – held a ‘Change to Win’ press conference yesterday, at 12.30pm at the Laborers’ International Union of North America headquarters.

They announced the creation of a new multi-union organisation to address the urgent need for a large-scale, coordinated effort to rebuild the American labour movement in the face of globalisation.

The press conference followed a meeting of 50 of the top leaders of the five unions who will adopt a Constitution and Bylaws for the new organisation and develop coordinated organising and growth plans.

The five unions represent five million workers. They have recently partnered on a platform that would reform the AFL-CIO and bring the labour movement into the 21st Century.

The platform calls for dramatic new emphasis on organising non-union workers and for restructuring federation and affiliate activities to respond to the profound changes in the American economy.

At the press conference were: Terence O’Sullivan, President, Laborers’ International Union of North America; James P Hoffa, President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Joseph Hansen, President, United Food and Commercial Workers Union; Bruce Raynor, President, UNITE-HERE; John Wilhelm, President UNITE-HERE Hospitality Industry and Andrew Stern, President, Service Employees International Union.

Meanwhile, the UAW auto workers union is in crisis as GM unilaterally prepares to cut health benefits, and wages as well as close down plants and sack 25,000 workers.

UAW officials are talking tough at union halls around the country saying that hourly workers with General Motors Corp. should prepare to pay significantly more for health care coverage.

‘The writing’s on the wall,’ said Dave Peterson, president of Local 31 in Fairfax, Kansas. ‘Sooner or later we’re going to be faced with not enjoying the level of benefits we’ve currently got. It’s going to be sooner than we’d like.’

According to several union officials, GM has said it needs to reach an agreement to lower its ballooning health care costs by the end of this month, otherwise the changes will be imposed.

UAW spokesman Paul Krell has declined to comment on what he called GM’s ‘internal deadline.’

Commenting on GM workers’ reactions, Local 652 President Chris ‘Tiny’ Sherwood, who represents 1,800 workers in Lansing said: ‘ it’s like pouring salt in a wound. They weren’t exactly jumping up and down and applauding.’

GM lost $1.1 billion in the first quarter of this year.

Top officials from GM and UAW have been in negotiations for weeks over health care benefits. The UAW has made clear that any changes must be made within the framework of the labour agreement that expires in September 2007.

The talks are being closely watched by GM’s rivals, Ford Motor Co. and the DaimlerChrysler Group, who are ready to push through any breach that GM makes.

Already workers are saying that they will not stand for unilateral cuts by GM.

‘That would be a big mistake,’ said Oscar Bunch, president of UAW Local 14 in Toledo. ‘Remember Flint. It would be a drastic mistake.’

In 1998, workers at a GM Flint metal fabricating plant and a Delphi parts plant went on strike for 53 days, shutting down the automaker’s North American operations.

‘Some members got up and said they won’t be building cars,’ Eldon Renaud, president of Local 2164 in Bowling Green, Ky., said after briefing some members on GM’s plans.

UAW members say they don’t support any reduction of health care coverage.

‘Don’t touch it, I don’t want to compromise on anything’, is the common refrain.