From The Wisconsin State Journal

January 31, 2004

Union hoodwinked Tyson strikers

A year on the picket line and what do you get? Not a nickel in pay, but deeper in debt.

The futility of hardball labor tactics - and the growing irrelevance of the unions that promote them - were demonstrated once again Thursday when Tyson Foods strikers finally capitulated and voted to end an 11-month strike.

With more than 300 replacement workers already on the job at the Tyson's Jefferson plant, a few more than 100 of the 470 original strikers may go back to work immediately - winning tiny gains despite nearly a year on strike.

This is no time to gloat over the hardship of these workers, who clearly believed in the righteous union leaders who led them out on strike last Feb. 28 after failing to reach a deal with Tyson, the world's largest supplier of beef, chicken and pork.

But indisputably, the ineffective old-line labor tactics employed against Tyson belong to another century. Tyson workers were frankly hoodwinked by union leaders, as were the public officials who kowtowed for union favor with their showboating votes to boycott Tyson products.

The Tyson case shows that strikes rarely achieve results that offset their high costs to the strikers. In contrast, companies where management and employees find common ground, rather than wage turf battles, have kept Americans employed in the face of increasing overseas competition.

The majority of U.S. workers always have - and always will - work without union representation. And labor unions have become increasingly irrelevant to working people. In the United States, unions that represented 23 percent of wage and salary workers in 1980 are expected to enroll just 12 percent next year.

The union model is based on manual labor and rewards seniority over performance. Younger workers rightfully see the archaic and confrontational industrial labor union as obstructive and unproductive to their work advancement. And workers in the emerging knowledge economy see upward mobility as potentially unlimited, further eroding any desire to pay dues to organizations that don't provide much for the money.

In the face of these changes, United Food and Commercial Workers has stuck to its fossilized beliefs. UFCW Local 538 rejected Arkansas-based Tyson's argument that it needed to bring the Jefferson workers' benefits in line with those of its other employees. The union dismissed the idea that the company should be able to pay wages comparable to what other workers earn in the region. The Jefferson plant is one of about 60 that Tyson bought in 2001 as it moved into the beef and pork business.

Instead, workers walked out and the strike became a national cause. The Madison School District, city of Madison, Dane County and UW-Madison voted not to buy Tyson products. Dane and Jefferson counties passed resolutions supporting the workers. The UW Board of Regents voted to divest the university of Tyson bonds. Madison lefties flocked to Jefferson, a working-class community of 7,300 about 30 miles east of Madison, to sing labor songs from flatbed trucks, pledge their support to chilled strikers and then return to Madison for a vente Starbucks.

Sweet nostalgia, all for naught. Once the strike reached one year, the replacement workers Tyson hired could vote to decertify the union and basically end the strike.

So this past week, the union switched to survival mode - telling workers to give in and end the walkout. The amended contract still contains most of the items that union members objected to when they first went on strike. Workers ratified the contract to "live to fight another day," said one labor leader, who then made the truest statement uttered during this past year's overheated strike rhetoric: "Preservation of the union is the most important thing."

But for what?

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