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Lines in the Sand

“Did we get a good turnout?” Lorraine Serrini asked rhetorically in a husky Long Island accent. She nodded at the line of men and women that wound out of her union’s Hawthorne headquarters and into its parking lot. “We’re pissed!” Serrini is both her local’s vice president and the West Coast vice president for District 141 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), whose massive airport-transportation division held nationwide strike-authorization votes against United Airlines last week. Members of Local Lodge 1932, who include ramp workers, ticketing agents and security guards, arrived in force to cast ballots. The IAM (which represents a number of L.A. Weekly staffers, including this writer) is not exactly the most militant union, and to some of its members a strike vote must seem as obscure a rite as an exorcism. Yet times and labor relations have changed radically over the past decade, and the machinists have indeed become pissed. This vote was not tied to a contract negotiation but to United Airlines’ attempts to reorganize itself out of bankruptcy on the backs of its employees. Federal bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff has paved the way for the company’s “exit financing” by absolving United of any responsibility toward maintaining its employee pension fund. Now the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. will swallow the country’s biggest pension default — and reduce the average machinist’s pension by about 25 percent. The IAM and unions representing pilots and flight attendants have previously assented to two rounds of United-proposed wage and benefit cuts, but, along with the flight attendants, the IAM is now threatening to strike over pensions. John Givens, a past president of Local Lodge 1932, was on hand for 1932’s vote. “I retired two years ago,” he said. “I walked out of United Airlines with $4,479 a month, and now I find out that if they turn this over to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., it’s going to be around $1,710 a month.” In a broader sense, the IAM’s fight is a survival reflex. “When I took this lodge over [in 2001], we had 4,650 people,” Givens said. “In 2003 we had less than 2,000 . . . We’re at the mercy of George Bush and his economy.” Job attrition, automation and retirement have made deep cuts into the IAM’s membership. On Wednesday, District 141 announced the vote tally was 94 percent in favor of authorizing a strike, although a walkout will depend on a decision by the union’s national leadership. For now the union is appealing the judge’s decision while trying to negotiate a replacement pension plan with United — while fighting the company’s ongoing attempts to scrap previous wage and benefit agreements. Meanwhile, hospital laundry workers employed by Angelica Textiles Service remain poised to walk out. UNITE HERE announced that enough of a breakthrough in talks had occurred to justify extending contract negotiations on wage and safety issues affecting seven Angelica plants, including three in Northern California. In addition to workers who would strike plants in Stockton, Fresno and Antioch, union members in eight other plants nationwide, including six in Southern California, are prepared to honor picket lines that would be set up by strikers who travel here from the struck laundries.


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