The One Cent Solution: A Day Without a Transportation Worker

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Someone left a copy of the May 17 Wall Street Journal on a break table at work.  I picked up a section and flipped through it.  Familiar corporate names popped from the headlines — then, a common thread emerged from the journalist’s prose.

Wal-Mart: “The retailer said its second-quarter results could be weighed down by factors outside its control, including high gasoline prices and rising interest costs.”

Home Depot: “The Atlanta home improvement retailer’s surprise move(to stop giving comparable store sales numbers) exacerbated investor concerns that declining home sales, rising interest rates and high gas prices will  drag down consumer spending.”

Clearly the WSJ sees that its business constituency is hurting from the energy crunch.  This is hardly a startling revelation for any working person trying to support a family, usually getting to work by private automobile, since mass transportation alternatives are missing in most parts of the United States.  No buses or trains run to the railroad shop where I work.  So, of course, workers are going to cut back on blender purchases at Wal-Mart and hand tools at Home Depot.

I got up from the break table and walked through the shop to the union bulletin board.  Hanging there was a circular from the National Railway Conference informing the member roads that “The 2000 Round National Agreements with the above referenced organizations provide for a cost-of-living allowance to be payable July 1, 2006.  The COL adjustment will be one cent, calculated on the basis of the change in the CPI-W for the measurement period September 2005, to March 2006.  This adjustment will be rolled into the basic rates of pay.”

One Cent

Another insult to railroad workers, who have trudged through their up-to-five-year contract extensions — which ended by contracts agreeing to pay part of our health insurance out of paychecks for the first time — while Railroad CEOs like Michael Ward of CSX scored a 22 million dollar-a-year payout and the United Health Care insurance CEO William McGuire made 125 million in 2004 and was just awarded a 1.6 billion stock option deal in 2006.

Booming freight traffic has boosted railroad profits.  Union Pacific, the nation’s largest railroad, reported that its first-quarter 2006 profits doubled to $311 million over the first quarter a year earlier.  BNSF Railway reported record first-quarter revenues of $3.37 billion, a 16 percent increase over the same period in 2005.  The only large operator not to increase net profits was CSX, which reported a dip in earnings to $245 million because of a one-off gain last year.  But underlying profits rose 56 per cent.  But, for railroad workers, the railroads have just One Cent.

I thought of airline workers, with their jobs, pensions, and pay gutted while the airlines took billions in taxpayer funded bailouts.  Mesaba Airlines recently proposed decreasing wages for flight attendants by 15.7 to 16.5 percent, making Mesaba flight attendants the lowest paid in the industry.  This sort of pay cut is now typical for airlines to demand from their workers.

I suppose most airline workers would be overjoyed to only have to deal with a raise of just One Cent.

How about truck drivers who took pension cuts and saw their union employers like UPS acquire Trojan-horse non-union companies, while non-union companies like Overnite proliferate?  Will they be satisfied with pay raises of just One Cent?

While longshore workers are suffering a dangerous “erosion of jurisdiction” due to the proliferation of shipping companies using nonunion labor, Wal-Mart and Home Depot are one of the leading retail and commercial corporations in the 50-member West Coast Waterfront Coalition which have been playing a key role in the industry’s campaign against decent pay and working conditions for union longshore workers.  This coalition wants a lot more than One Cent from the hides of waterfront workers.

NYC transit workers saw their leader jailed, their union fined millions, and paid two days’ pay for each day of their short strike.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority built up huge surpluses in recent years.  Will they share that with the workers forgoing making them start paying for their health insurance?  Not One Cent.

So we are getting a One Cent cost of living increase.  I have to wonder if this insult is not a calculated one.  “What are you going to do about it,” the employers are saying.

To my mind, our immigrant workers have already shown us what to do about it.  Despite their “illegal status,” they fearlessly made May Day 2006 a day without an immigrant.  Factories and shops around the country shut down, and the Los Angeles port closed as they took to the streets in the millions.

Transportation workers have a year now to make plans for the next May Day.  We could join working people around the world to make May Day 2007 a Day Without a Transportation Worker.  We could make the Wal-Marts and Home Depots who complain about their rising costs realize that transportation workers’ costs have gone up, too, a lot more than One Cent.

Their costs for doing without us for a day might even be more than just One Cent.

Jon Flanders Jon Flanders is a member and former president of IAM LL 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.