Jordan Barab has an excellent post at FDL explaining the significance of the janitor's strike. SEIU has situated itself as a fast growing union because it is unionizing fast-growing service industries that cannot be exported. There's another strike going on around the country against Goodyear that represents the flip side of what SEIU is doing. The United Steelworkers is trying to protect good-paying jobs from large economic forces and bad faith management.
Here's the simple story. Goodyear is shutting down a factory and moving production offshore while cutting pension benefits to retirees, even though it promised to do neither in 2003 when its workforce agreed to accept wage, pension, and health care concessions. The company isn't doing particularly well, though it is profitable. Part of its core business is reducing costs, and the executives see a big cost sink in the form of what they perceive as overpaid American workers. It has borrowed $1B to make it through the strike; indeed breaking strikers in America might at this point be considered Goodyear's core competency.
Goodyear spokesman Keith Price said the new debt offering "is an indicator of investor confidence in our ability to manage our way through the remaining period of the strike. We are ramping up production using salaried and temporary workers and increasing imports from our international operations to ensure we can serve our customers."
The problem isn't that Goodyear needs to reduce costs; that's a function of globalization and bad policy choices (more on that later). The problem is that Goodyear just gave multimillion dollar bonuses to executives and broke a good faith agreement with its labor force. The CEO of the company, Robert Keegan, does not have an easy set of choices, but he has made the one that shows himself to be nothing more than a moral traitor. Keegan is a father of two, a Bush-donor, and a strong supporter of the Ohio Republican Party. He's asking middle class workers to sacrifice their livelihood so he can lie to them and get rich, a form of economic violence that should not go unnoted. He's a very bad man, though not unusual as such in the spoiled and coddled executive suites of what was once a reasonably ethical corporate America.
The two strikes we've seen are two sides of the same coin. Both the lowly paid janitors and the laid off Goodyear workers are part of a large group of poor and increasingly insecure workers. Keegan on the other hand is part of a small group of dominant, stateless, rich, and unaccountable global elites. This class is composed of CEOs, billionaires, financiers, celebrities, and the tax attorneys and luxury purveyors that cater to them. It is a dangerous group that pays no taxes and lives in a different legal and physical world with separate schools, food, drink, laws, and medical possibilities. I had an argument with my family last night about globalization and this class of individuals, and tried unsuccessfully to point out that it is our country's policy choices that lead to this situation. Our tax code is built to coddle these people and their children, our energy policy is designed to force American dependency on energy sources owned by these elites, and our media reinforces the selfish values these people purvey. Robert Keegan is one of these people.
We have to come to grips with the Keegan's of the world, and figure out how to embarrass them into moral behavior and tax them into responsibility. There's no other way forward. We must also begin to change the policy choices that lead to outsourcing, excess speculation, and excessive energy use, three problems that are tied together in a fundamental knot. The way globalization happens is not inevitable, we do have choices, and these choices are not just at the margins. The janitors in Houston have proved that. So has Robert Keegan, in taking bonuses as he tries to destroy thousands of families that are not his. And so have the banks that underwrote the billion dollar bond issue to help Keegan, and the Tom Friedman's of the world that pretend that there are no choices except the death of the middle class. The United Steelworkers are also fighting, working to preserve the livelihood of their members.
I'm going to continue watching the convulsions of the labor movement, as I expect more turmoil in the wake of these elections and the successful janitor's strike. A different America is making itself known, and it is one the Keegan's of the world would prefer stay out of their gated communities and mansions.