Solidarity is in the eye of the beholder

We're a long way from August 14, 1980, when Lech Walesa scaled the wall of the Gdansk Shipyard to lead a strike that was the beginning of the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. The singleword slogan of that movement electrified Eastern European imaginations — solidarity.

By contrast, the rallying cry of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) as it broke from the AFL-CIO was less than inspiring. And labor unity is spotty at best. That could change.

The IBT said it would "organize the unorganized" to create "real power for the working families of America." One target of that promise is Overnite Transportation, which was recently acquired by UPS. It is questionable whether Overnite workers, who two years ago rejected Teamster efforts to organize them, would reverse their position. But Overnite is now part of a company with a large IBT-organized work force.

Though the Teamsters scored a small victory against USF (acquired by Yellow Roadway after it closed the Red Star operation that sparked the union lawsuit), that is not the fuel for a major labor movement. But again, USF is now part of a company with a large Teamster contingent.

Another " unorganized" target of the Teamsters is DHL. And for this cause, the Teamsters have joined with the Union Network International (UNI), which is made up of many of the world's largest whitecollar service unions.

A global giant like DHL requires a coalition of forces to organize.

Elsewhere on the transportation labor scene, British Airways' ground employees joined fellow members of the Transport and General Workers Union who had been sacked by Gate Gourmet, and brought BA's London operations to a standstill. That show of unity was not repeated in an unrelated action when negotiations broke down at Northwest Airlines. Its mechanics walked out alone.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), representing the Northwest mechanics, describes itself as an independent union and, at least in its action against Northwest, that's exactly what it was. Only the Independent Pilots Association, representing UPS pilots, has said its members would support the AMFA action by refusing to fly "struck goods." This is largely a toothless tiger since none of the other unions representing Northwest employees honored the work stoppage and no one has asked UPS pilots to handle any Northwest freight.

But are the seeds of dissent sown in the transportation industry?

It will be a couple of years before the Teamsters sit down with either UPS or the Motor Freight Carriers Association to negotiate new contracts. The Teamsters have left Washington to the AFL-CIO and they're on the street vowing "to fight the political and business forces that are undermining workers in this country." Much can happen in that time to produce the right moment for the right leader to scale the next proverbial wall and unfurl a banner proclaiming "solidarity."

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