JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBERS 1 AND 2
B E H I N D T H E L I N E S
Working Women's Rights
The AFL-CIO has established a panel to consider whether the labor federation should adopt a position on abortion rights. Federation President Lane Kirkland announced the formation of the committee at a meeting of the AFL-CIO's Executive Council in mid-February.
The panel was formed after a number of unions, including the International Lady Garment Workers Union, the Association of State, County and Municipal Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), requested the labor federation take a position on abortion. UFCW President William Wynn, who is strongly pro-choice, will chair the committee.
Because of the composition of the committee, both pro-and anti-abortion rights observers believe there is no chance that the committee will recommend the AFL-CIO adopt an anti-abortion rights position. The question is whether the panel will recommend a pm-choice position or neutrality on the question, says Sandy Pope, executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).
The committee may recommend a neutral position if it cannot arrive at a pro-choice consensus, according to Al Zack, a spokesperson for the UFCW. With a few exceptions, "the labor movement has traditionally operated on the basis of consensus," Zack says, and on a potentially divisive issue like abortion, it will adhere to that tradition.
The debate is expected to hinge largely on whether abortion is a legitimate union concern. "No one is asking for the adoption of a pm-life position," says David Andrusko, editor of the National Right-to-Life News, but many rank-and-file union members, pro- and anti-abortion rights alike, "are saying the AFL-CIO should keep out of the abortion issue." CLUW's Pope, however, believes abortion is clearly a relevant issue for organized labor. "Abortion is an economic issue to women workers," she explains.
If the AFL-CIO does adopt a pm-choice position, it will probably do so for one or more of three reasons. First, it may refer to the right to privacy. The labor movement has traditionally embraced the right to privacy as a means to prevent government interference in labor negotiations, says the UFCW's Zack. Second, many union-negotiated health insurance plans provide for birth control and abortion services. Since these services might be restricted by anti-abortion bills, the AFL-CIO may view abortion rights as relevant to the collective bargaining process. Third, says Pope, the labor federation may view anti-abortion restrictions as "having an unfair impact on the poor and minorities," since many restrictions on abortions, such as the withholding of Medicaid funds, affect only poor women's ability to receive abortions.
The concrete impact of the AFL-CIO adopting a pro-choice stand is not clear. While state federations have significant resources to contribute to state-level debates on abortion, their level of commitment will not be deter-mined by the national federation's adoption of a formal position. Nevertheless, pro-choice activists believe it is important for the AFL-CIO to take a pro-choice position. That would "set the tone" for state federations to become active on the issue, says Pope, and, she adds, would send a "positive message to women in the labor movement and women workers in general."
Poisoning South Africa
A river used for drinking water by black South Africans is contaminated by extraordinarily high levels of mercury, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation has revealed. The mercury originates at an American Cyan-amid plant in Bound Brook, New Jersey, and finds its way into the Mngeweni River in the South African province of Natal via Thor Chemical Inc., a British company which converts raw mercury into chemicals used in mining and manufacturing.
Tests have detected mercury in the river a mile down-stream from the Thor facility. A sample of water taken from a marsh behind the Thor plant by the Post-Dispatch contained mercury in a concentration of 1.5 million parts per billion. That is 750,000 times higher than the U.S. acceptable limit of 2 parts per billion and 1.5 million times higher than the World Health Organization's recommended standard of 1 part per billion.
Mercury can damage the central nervous system and cause brain damage as well as birth defects.
Charlotte Cuff, spokesperson for American Cyan-amid, told the Post-Dispatch that a company representative toured Thor Chemical in October 1989 and the company believed that Thor was handling the mercury safely.
South African officials ordered Thor to clean up polluted ponds around its factory in early fall of 1989. But government officials later downplayed the threat, saying that the mercury contamination has diminished.
"Thor refutes the [Post-Dispatch] article in its entirety," according to Hugh Fletcher, a spokesperson from a Thor plant in Connecticut. Fletcher says his colleagues in South Africa state the South African Thor plant does not dump mercury in anyone's drinking water.
He adds, however, that the company has had problems with storage drums being stolen and their contents being dumped outside the plant. The plant has now improved security, Fletcher says, in an attempt to prevent future thefts.
The pollution of black South Africans' drinking water by mercury produced in the United States illustrates the challenges with which South Africa's burgeoning environmental movement must grapple. "The people of [South Africa] are in the unfortunate position of being subject to a complex blend of third world problems, discriminatory laws and first world pollution problems," states the founding document of Earthlife, a newly formed organization combining environmentalism with opposition to apartheid.
When members of the Hindustan Lever Employees Union objected to company demands to continue subcontracting union jobs, management at the Bombay Hindustan Lever detergent factory locked out 3,800 workers. Following the June 1988 lockout, Hindustan Lever, a subsidiary of the London-based Unilever Corporation, subcontracted the Bombay jobs to small plants where workers are not unionized and wages are considerably less than in Bombay. Hindustan Lever now owns 30 small subcontracting plants in India, all of which are in rural areas where the company earns tax benefits for bringing "development."
The union and its supporters responded aggressively to the lockout. Workers organized hunger strikes near Unilever's headquarters in Bombay. A women's cooperative produced a detergent called "LOCKOUT" which they billed as "packed with people power — fights dirt everywhere," and sold door-to-door in Bombay. Affiliates of Hindustan Lever's parent union, the International Union of Food and Allied Workers Associations (IUF), including unions in the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany, Sweden and Bermuda, contributed financial support to the Indian workers and pressured Unilever management to end the lockout.
Exactly one year after the lockout began, the company posted notices that employees could return to their jobs if they were willing to make "an honest commitment to productive and disciplined working." The union decided that each worker should sign the company settlement but that the union would challenge the agreement in court as an unfair labor practice.
According to the IUF, the company is still attempting to break the union. When the workers returned to their jobs following the lockout, many union leaders, including Bennet D'Costa, the general secretary of the union, were transferred to new jobs outside the walls of the plant.
Management has made it clear that it is continuing its policy of subcontracting and that it wants to see the Bombay factory's workforce greatly reduced. About 750 workers have accepted an offer of payment in exchange for voluntarily leaving their jobs. About 300 workers who were employed on contract when the lockout began have not yet received wages and bonuses earned in June of 1988. They have been told that as soon as they resign from their jobs they will be paid back wages.
In response to the continued harassment, the union has filed a number of complaints in Indian labor courts and the IUF secretariat has sent messages to Unilever headquarters as well as to Hindustan Lever, demanding an end to the harassment of the union members.
Bhopal on the Bayou
An extraordinary corporate accountability campaign led by a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups has resulted in the end of the longest lockout in U.S. labor history. Members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) Local 4-620 launched the campaign when the West German BASF Corporation locked out 370 union workers at its Geismar, Louisiana plant during contract negotiations in June 1984. BASF is the second largest chemical company in the world; it employs 130,000 people and does $33 billion in business a year.
The company had demanded a one-year wage freeze, reductions in health benefits and rule changes that would allow the company to subcontract union jobs. By subcontracting, BASF planned to avoid both paying worker benefits and counting the subcontractors in injury records. The union had offered to accept a $2 an hour wage cut on the condition that the subcontracting rules not be changed. BASF refused the union's compromise and locked out its employees.
The locked out workers sought allies in the surrounding community and in the environmental movement. The union helped start Ascension Parish Residents Against Toxic Pollution and was joined by a variety of organizations including the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic and the West German Green Party. Although BASF was the main target of the campaign, the coalition also challenged both the petrochemical industry in Louisiana and the state government on issues of environmental protection, worker health and safety, taxation and racial discrimination.
Employing technical experts to contest the scientific claims of industry, the coalition won a number of victories in the courts, setting legal precedents for environmental protection in Louisiana. In perhaps the most important victory, the state denied BASF operating permits for a $50 million facility after the coalition publicized the fact that groundwater at the site had been contaminated by the company. The decision led to a new state policy prohibiting construction on contaminated land sites. The shift in state priorities sparked by the coalition is evidenced by Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer's remark that "while jobs are important, some jobs are not wanted."
Following the lockout, BASF replaced the union members with inexperienced workers. Company documents revealed a pattern of safety problems at the plant following the lockout, prompting the New York Times to dub BASF "Bhopal on the Bayou." Union members also started Louisiana Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards (LAWATCH) to deal with workers' health concerns in the petrochemical workforce.
The coalition's efforts took a toll on the company. Five and a half years after the lockout began, BASF relented. It agreed to take back all the locked-out workers with a new, three-year contract which includes wage increases and maintenance of the rules which protect jobs from being subcontracted.
BASF denies that the OCAW campaign influenced its decision to end the lockout. Company spokesperson Don Hysell says, "We didn't like it, [but] it didn't hurt our business."
OCAW tells a different story. "The corporate accountability campaign had a lot to do with getting the company to come our way," said local 4-620 official Bobby Schneider. He believes that the halting of the $50 million petrochemical plant in Geismar, coupled with the union's efforts to block construction of both an incinerator in Indiana and a corporate headquarters on state forest lands in New Jersey, convinced BASF to finally end the lockout and accede to the workers' demands.
— Katherine Isaac