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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Should Government Force Striking Workers To Go Back to Work?

Should the government intervene in private sector labor negotiations and force striking Goodyear tire workers to go back to work in the name of national security?:

US Army might break Goodyear strike, by Bernard Simon, Financial Times: The US Army is considering measures to force striking workers back to their jobs at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Kansas in the face of a looming shortage of tyres for Humvee trucks and other military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A strike involving 17,000 members of the United Steelworkers union has crippled 16 Goodyear plants in the US and Canada since October 5.

The main issues in dispute are the company's plans to close a unionised plant in Texas, and a proposal for workers to shoulder future increases in healthcare costs.

An army spokeswoman said on Friday that "there's not a shortage right now but there possibly will be one in the future".

According to Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House of Representatives armed services committee, the strike has cut output of Humvee tyres by about 35 per cent.

Mr Hunter said that the army had stopped supplying tyres to units not related to the Central Command, which is responsible for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tyres were also not being provided to army repair depots.

While concern has centred on the Humvees, tyres are also critical to aircraft and other military equipment.

Goodyear brushed off concerns of looming shortages, saying that production at the Kansas plant, where the Humvee tyres are made, "is near normal levels and will be back to 100 per cent in the near future."

It added that "we're in daily contact with the military to ensure delivery of the required Humvee tyres". ... Goodyear has said that North American output is at about half normal levels, including non-union plants.

According to Mr Hunter, the army is exploring a possible injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act to force the 200 Kansas workers back to their jobs.

He proposed that they return under their current terms of employment, on the understanding that any settlement would be extended to them.

Let's follow-up with this piece from The Nation:

An Executive Branch Assault on the Constitution, by John Nichols, The Nation: The Bush Administration's Department of Defense is examining whether it has the power to break a strike at tire plants that supply the military.

The Constitution affords the executive branch no such authority. But, as should be obvious by now, the current Administration has little regard for the founding document. ...

This is no small matter, as a similar dispute in the early 1950s provoked one of the most significant constitutional crises of modern times.

In April 1952, when a dispute between the nation's steel companies and the United Steel Workers of America union threatened to disrupt production at more than eighty steel mills, President Harry Truman issued an executive order that the plants be seized.

The President argued that he had the power to do so because the country was engaged in the Korean War, claiming that he acted "by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States."

Truman had an expansive view of executive powers during wartime, as was evidenced during his April 17, 1952, press conference, where a reporter asked: "Mr. President, if you can seize the steel mills under your inherent powers, can you, in your opinion, also seize the newspapers and, or, the radio stations?"

"Under similar circumstances," claimed Truman, "the President of the United States has to act for whatever is for the best of the country. That's the answer to your question."

In fact, Truman was wrong on both political and constitutional grounds. As with the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the Korean fight had been entered into without a declaration of war by Congress--the bloody conflict was described vaguely as a "police action." Even if a declaration of war had been made, there was little reason to believe that Truman had the authority that he said was his. Without such a declaration, there was no question that he was claiming powers that were not his to exercise.

Republican members of Congress, led by Ohioan George Bender, moved to impeach Truman. Bender declared, "I do not believe that our people can tolerate the formation of a presidential precedent which would permit any occupant of the White House to exercise his untrammeled discretion to take over the industry, communications system or other forms of private enterprise in the name of 'emergency.'"

The articles of impeachment against Truman that were submitted by Bender drew national attention, and support from publications such as the Chicago Tribune. As the drive picked up steam--with Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen telling a national radio audience that Congress had a responsibility to act--the Supreme Court quickly announced that it would take up the matter.

A court consisting of Justices appointed by Truman and his Democratic predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, forced Truman to back down. The ruling in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) explicitly restricted the authority of the President to seize private property in the absence of either specifically enumerated powers under Article Two of the Constitution or statutory authority approved by the Congress. ...

In his brilliant concurrence, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, "A constitutional democracy like ours is perhaps the most difficult of man's social arrangements to manage successfully. Our scheme of society is more dependent than any other form of government on knowledge and wisdom and self-discipline for the achievement of its aims. For our democracy implies the reign of reason on the most extensive scale. The Founders of this Nation ... acted on the conviction that the experience of man sheds a good deal of light on his nature. It sheds a good deal of light not merely on the need for effective power, if a society is to be at once cohesive and civilized, but also on the need for limitations on the power of governors over the governed. To that end they rested the structure of our central government on the system of checks and balances. For them the doctrine of separation of powers was not mere theory; it was a felt necessity."

Noting the recent struggle against German fascism, Frankfurter argued that the wisdom of the Founders had been confirmed. "Not so long ago it was fashionable to find our system of checks and balances obstructive to effective government. It was easy to ridicule that system as outmoded--too easy," the Justice explained. "The experience through which the world has passed in our own day has made vivid the realization that the Framers of our Constitution were not inexperienced doctrinaires. These long-headed statesmen had no illusion that our people enjoyed biological or psychological or sociological immunities from the hazards of concentrated power.... The accretion of dangerous power does not come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most disinterested assertion of authority." ...

I'm hesitant to weigh in on this. Whether the war is formally declared or not, if it can be demonstrated that lives are in danger because of a strike then I am sympathetic to some sort of arbitration process that allows production to continue but still allows workers to express their collective power. But I'm not sure exactly what form such negotiations would take.

In this particular case, since the company is assuring the government there are no supply problems even though a forced end to the strike is most likely in the company's interests, I'm much less sympathetic.

    Posted by on Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 12:08 PM in Economics, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (23)

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