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LONDON - Some 9,000 track and signal maintenance workers across Britain, members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), struck for four days beginning June 19. The RMT strike is against reductions in overtime payments, the introduction of more flexible shifts, attempts to alter where workers start work, and other attacks on working conditions, as well as pressing for a substantial pay raise. The strikers are employed by nine different companies across Britain. Their action marks the first nationwide rail strike since the sell off of the railroads in February 1996.
A growing proportion of maintenance workers are employed by contractors on a casual (temporary) basis, not by these nine companies. During the strike the rail companies are using these casual workers along with strikebreakers around the clock to keep the rail system open.
Reports throughout the country indicate the strike is unevenly supported. At London Euston, London Victoria, and Clapham, workers report almost everyone is out, but at other depots support appears more patchy. Only a handful of small picket lines have been organized, largely on the initiative of a few strikers. At Hither Green in South London, a key maintenance depot, workers have organized themselves to ensure effective picketing, but this is the exception. Most other rail workers know little of the issues at stake.
Despite this John Redwood, Conservative Party trade and industry spokesperson, warned after 6,000 London Underground workers struck June 15-16 against the threatened privatization of the subway, "It is back to the bad old days, the bad old days of the 1970s. There is a lot more strike action to come." The rail maintenance workers are scheduled to strike again for a week, beginning June 29. This time they'll be joined by 500 workers employed by Racal who run the rail network telephone service. Then July 12 London Underground workers are scheduled to strike again for 24 hours. In an editorial the Financial Times characterized their action as a "covert attack on the Labour government."
Meanwhile 450 RMT crew members on South West Trains pushed back a company move to impose driver-only train operation after a 5-to-1 vote for strike action. This is the first time a driver-only move has been withdrawn since it began to be introduced in the early 1980s.
Titan Tire strikers reject contract in Iowa
DES MOINES, Iowa - In response to a company ultimatum, 250 members and supporters of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 164 rallied outside the Titan Tire factory here June 21. The unionists have been on strike against Titan since May 1 to oppose forced overtime and a two-tier wage system and to fight for pension benefits.
On June 18 strikers received letters from Titan president Gary Carlson claiming contract talks had reached an "impasse" after the company issued its "last, best, and final offer." In a media interview Carlson threatened, "If anyone chooses not to come back to work, they need to make that decision understanding that they can be permanently replaced."
The protest included strikers, relatives, and workers from the Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant across town, who are members of USWA Local 310. "We want a contract!" and "We will win!" resounded off the walls. Capturing the mood of resolve, striker Chris Boagard said, "Without a fair contract, [Titan owner Maurice] Taylor might as well close the plant."
Marvin Cason said, "We can't go back now. If we went back we'd be worse off than when we went on strike. In order to accomplish something, you have to stay here until it's done." One hundred union supporters returned for a protest the morning of June 22 as strikebreakers and bosses reported to work. Since May 26 some 40 scabs have been working in the plant. Des Moines police turned out to help Titan security usher the line-crossers into the plant parking lot.
Titan's contract proposal includes a 30-cent-an-hour raise, an annual bonus dependent on production speedup, no substantial relief from mandatory overtime, and continuation of the two-tier wage scale. The company withdrew pension contribution and job security provisions agreed to earlier in the contract talks. Strikers are adamant: the scheme is unacceptable.
On June 20 the unionists held two meetings to discuss the new turn in their fight. After each meeting, hundreds paraded up to the Titan plant entrance to dump their copy of the Carlson letter, including Titan's contract proposal, into trash cans. Sathiene Seychareun, a Laotian-born striker in his 20s, explained, "The letters from Titan referred to a `new offer,' but there was nothing new. We gave the garbage bags full of letters back to the company." The letters were presented to plant security guards marked "return to sender."
Earlier, Titan owner Taylor announced at a news conference that 200-300 jobs at the Des Moines plant would be eliminated and some production equipment moved to a new plant being built in Brownsville, Texas. In response, Local 164 called a solidarity rally June 27 at the union hall.
In a half-page ad placed in the Des Moines Register June 17, Local 164 explains that Taylor "isn't happy because he can't continue to force Titan Tire employees to work 26 days straight without a day off under miserable conditions....we'll stay on strike until he negotiates a fair labor agreement and stops his unfair labor practices."
Norway transit strikers reach tentative deal
After a four-week strike, negotiators for 10,000 bus and truck drivers in Norway reached a tentative contract agreement June 10. The contract provides for wage increases of between 9 and 13 Norwegian krone per hour (1 krone = $0.13). One driver, Vidar Bakken, told the daily Aftenposten June 10, "This was not good. Our demand was 17 krone an hour." Another driver, Rune Frydenberg, added, "I didn't want to go in to work today when I heard the result. The negotiators should have been removed when they accepted an offer like that one."
The contract also stipulates pension agreements for all the unions for the first time.
The truck drivers organized in the Transportation Workers Union will vote on the contract June 26. They can strike again on July 5 if they vote no.
Meanwhile in late May, 20,000 public service employees, most of them health-care workers, went on strike. The Norwegian government moved in and ordered the unionists back to work June 3, as the Danish government had done against the general strike in Denmark in early May. It imposed a contract settlement of 10,000 krone a year for every worker with adjustments for the lowest-paid.
On June 15 the Norwegian government halted yet another strike, this time by 6,000 public employees, including air traffic controllers. The strike lasted a week and a half. In the final days of the strike, the air traffic controllers grounded most of the air traffic in southern Norway.
At the state-owned telephone company Telenor, about 1,000 workers walked out June 13 over wages, work schedules, and other disputed questions.
Rockwell strikers approve contract, return to work
CORALVILLE, Iowa - On June 12, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1634 at Rockwell Collins here approved a new five-year contract, ending a strike that began May 28. The vote was 378 to 54.
The 650 workers at Rockwell Collins produce communications and guidance systems for commercial and military use. On May 28 the electrical workers in Coralville and Newport Beach, California, walked off the job against a contract proposal they had rejected. A similar offer was approved by workers at the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Dallas, Texas, plants. The 600 IBEW members at the California facility remain on strike.
Workers at Rockwell Collins had rejected the company's offer of a five-cent-per-hour increase, more contributions by workers to their medical benefits, and postponement of eyecare coverage until the year 2001.
The duration of the contract went from three to five years. Top wages at Coralville are $9.37 an hour, $4 less than at the Rockwell plant in nearby Cedar Rapids. Terms of the new agreement were not released to the media.
Unionists picket British Columbia TV station
BURNABY, British Columbia - Members of the Communication Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Local 814-M set up picket lines here in front of television station BCTV on June 9. "People are upbeat and we're determined to win," explained striker Carole Nefedow, a tape librarian.
"We are technicians, newsroom people, librarians, production assistants, directors, graphic artists, and others, and we are united in a fight for a decent contract against BCTV, the most profitable TV station in Canada."
Around 125 strikers are full-time, 35 work part-time, and about 40 are "casuals" who are on call. Nefedow, who has been at BCTV for two years, works 37 and a half hours a week and is considered part-time. Part-timers get no benefits.
"We're getting support from Teamsters, hospital workers, other members of our union, Machinists, and others," reported striker Mike Davidson.
Transit workers in the Vancouver area, members of the Independent Canadian Transit Union, have received approval of their union to request a bus change if the vehicle to which they are assigned has ads for BCTV or Victoria affiliate CHEK TV.
The British Columbia Federation of Labor has called for a boycott of BCTV and a ban of BCTV reporters from union press conferences. Workers at the Vancouver Sun and the Province, two Vancouver-area dailies organized by CEP Local 115, are refusing to handle advertisements from these TV stations.
The key issue in the strike is the union's opposition to a wage rollback for 50 newsroom workers, which would eliminate a gain-sharing plan that in the past has accounted for 10 percent of wages.
"Management is trying to punish the newsroom people for having recently joined the union and for fighting for their first collective agreement," explained Local 814-M president Duncan White.
He reported that the dispute includes "multiple-job functions," that is, allowing the employer to make top job assignments without regard for equal pay, job security, adequate severance packages, or upgrading part-timers to full time jobs.
Pete Clifford and Shellia Kennedy, members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union; Ray Parsons, a member of USWA Local 310 and Socialist Workers candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture; Birgitta Isacsson, member of the metalworkers union in Sodertalje, Sweden; and Ned Dmytryshyn, a member of International Association of Machinists Lodge 764 in Vancouver contributed to this column.
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