MAY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 5
Litton Flaunts Labor Law
A Challenge to Unions
This month's cover story on the labor campaign against Litton Industries provides a sad example of how our legal system works in the interest of large corporations.
Litton has earned the dubious distinction of being the nation's premier "corporate lawbreaker." Supported by a central office in Beverly Hills, California, Litton subsidaries have carried out a systematic policy of harassing labor organizers and closing plants to avoid collective bargaining agreements. In the past twenty years, Litton has been found in violation of the labor law over 21 times by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
But for the workers and communities involved, the laws' remedies come too late. By the time the legal process is finished, fired workers have had their lives disrupted, the unions have spent time, energy and money in legal fights, and the organizing campaign has been disrupted. Anyone who has gone through this lengthy process knows how demoralizing legal stalling can be.
In effect, Litton has been able to use weak laws to defeat and harass unions. The paltry sums Litton pays for its numerous violations are a small price for what it gains - an edge over its competitors, and large federal contracts to boot. Thirty percent of Litton's sales are to the military.
But the Litton case illustrates another weakness in labor laws: their ineffectiveness in dealing with the power of conglomerates. As described in our article, the transnational, diversified structure of conglomerates has virtually made the system of industrial labor bargaining obsolete. Their global operations give them an unprecedented ability to wait out strikes and refuse to negotiate in good faith with unions. And their incessant drive to buy sell, and merge has changed the way of doing business. Conglomerates close plants not because they are unprofitable; they close them because they are not profitable enough. Clearly our legal and political institutions have not kept up with this concentration of economic power.
The union campaign against Litton has recognized this weakness. One of the goals of the coalition is to pressure the NLRB to recognize Litton as a single employer. The coalition is supporting a bill introduced by Congressman Paul Simon (D-Illinois) that will ban violators of labor laws from receiving federal contracts, and labor supporters in Congress have introduced a bill, loosely based on the European Vredeling proposal (see p. 8), which would force companies to give prior notice before closing a plant and to offer retraining, health insurance, and other benefits to unemployed workers. These important measures would put some teeth into the labor law.
But legal remedies can only go so far. The union campaign against Litton is significant because it is the first attempt to build a labor coalition to match the awesome power of the conglomerate.
The campaign comes at a time of relative weakness for the labor movement. In the last two years, employers have fought for, and won, changes in work rules, contract concessions, and lower wages rates. As Business Week commented recently, "In most cases changes represented management victories won with some degree of coercion, stated or implied, from unions afraid of domestic recession and foreign competition."
The fact that the Litton campaign is happening in the midst of this corporate assault on labor rights is evidence of a renewed vigor in the labor movement. Campaign leaders indicate that the Litton model might be use against other conglomerates.
But the union effort will be strengthened when it is able to match Litton's transnational structure with a network of labor contracts in countries where Litton has direct investments. When Litton closed its Royal Typewriter plant in England several years ago (the same plant that moved from Missouri to Connecticut and finally to Germany), English workers took over the plant and held a sit-down strike. Unfortunately, the Litton campaign hadn't developed to a point where American workers could support the action, and a good chance to internationalize the struggle was lost.
Thus one important lesson of the Litton campaign may be this simple reminder: until the labor movement is able to check corporate strength overseas with political alliances of its own, domestic efforts to break the power of conglomerates and curb corporate law-breaking will only be half-way measures.
- T. S.