Japanese Hear Pitch From U.S. Labor Leaders

A group of high-ranking U.S. labor leaders has just returned from a mission to Japan that they hope will help swell Japanese investment in this country, produce more jobs for Americans and modify the negative impression that many Japanese executives have of U.S. unions.

The four days of meetings, the first of their kind, were proclaimed a success by both sides even though no one is predicting any revolutionary results.

However, the union officials said they hope that the meetings, which started April 16, will encourage the Japanese to significantly increase their investments in this country. The Japanese now estimate that they own $3 billion in stock in U.S. companies and hold 50% or more of 342 companies. Those at least half-owned by the Japanese have a total estimated U.S. work force of 90,000.

Lynn Williams, president of the United Steelworkers and a member of the delegation, said the Japanese executives "also seemed to realize that, contrary to some of their earlier impressions, American unions don't have horns sharpened and ready to gore their employers."

Keidanren, a Japanese federation that represents most of Japan's chief industries, said after the meetings that the discussions were "fruitful" and that the Japanese were "pleased to learn that the unions in the United States are now following a more cooperative line of labor-management relations."

Many American unionists have been to Japan to study work methods and labor relations. And some individual U.S. union leaders have gone there to discuss plans for moving Japanese plants to this country.

But the idea behind this delegation's trip, organized by the Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Work in America Institute, was to give the Japanese an overview of the mood these days of U.S. unions, particularly those that represent workers in industries hardest hit by Japanese imports. In some cases, industries have lobbied Congress to pass protectionist measures.

Don Ephlin, vice president of the United Auto Workers and a delegation member, said: "We told them that their investments in countries other than the United States will only encourage more protectionist actions by Congress." He added that increased Japanese investments could avert extreme actions by Congress to slow the importation of Japanese goods.

The unionists said they were peppered with what Ephlin called "tough questions from the Japanese industrialists, who usually just listen politely."

He cited as an example challenges from the Japanese to explain the recent report of President Reagan's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, which indicated that cooperation between labor and management in the United States is the exception, not the rule.

Ephlin said he assured the cooperation-minded Japanese that, whenever American companies permit cooperation, unions welcome it.

However, he told the Japanese, U.S. companies too often spend "huge sums of money hiring anti-union consultants and then, when a union does win the right to represent workers in a company," an adversarial relationship is already in place and difficult to overcome.

He urged that, when the Japanese open U.S. plants, they not "listen to the anti-labor consultants who make money fighting unions but, rather, let the workers decide if they want a union, and, if they do, you will see the kind of cooperation you can get from American workers and their unions."

U.S. unionists are relying on the results of cooperative efforts between American unions and Japanese managers at the General Motors-Toyota plant in Fremont, Calif., Mazda's planned operations near Detroit and three National Steel-Nippon Kokan plants around the United States to finally convince the majority of Japanese managers that they are better off working with U.S. unions than fighting them.

But the Japanese are also watching for results where Japanese firms are fighting unions, as they are at Nissan's highly automated, $660-million plant in Smyrna, Tenn. One member of the U.S. delegation said that, in general, the Japanese feel that their companies benefit from cooperating with U.S. unions.

Jerry Rosow, head of the Work in America Institute, said Japanese managers in the United States have been pleased because productivity at their unionized companies has been 30% higher than they had anticipated.

In addition to Rosow, Williams of the United Steelworkers and Ephlin of the UAW, the U.S. delegation included Howard Samuel, president of the AFL-CIO industrial union department, which represents 41 AFL-CIO unions; Jack Sheinkman, secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers; Sol Chaikin, president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers; Donald Tucker, secretary-treasurer of the United Rubber Workers, and Clark Kerr, president emeritus of the University of California and now president of the Work in America Institute.

Problems for Ralphs

Trouble is brewing in the Southern California retail food industry.

The Ralphs supermarket chain is facing the possibility of a strike, despite the fact that a contract agreement reached last summer seemed to resolve the main issue in dispute.

The problem stems from Ralphs' decision to cut labor costs by giving full-time food clerks whose hourly wage is $11.80 far fewer guaranteed hours--in some cases as few as 16--or by giving their jobs to other workers whose basic pay scale is lower. An $11.80-an-hour employee who works only 16 hours a week earns less than the $10,300 a year that the Department of Labor says puts a family of four at the poverty level. And that is what the latest fight is about.

Last summer, members of nine locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers threatened to strike over the issue of minimum weekly hours. The union sought a guarantee of 25 hours of pay a week and was disappointed when the Food Employers Council, representing the major supermarkets, would guarantee only 16. Still, the union had to regard the agreement as somewhat of a victory because it replaced a system in which there was no minimum.

In arguing for more guaranteed hours, the union noted that, as recently as 1979, nearly 70% of its 70,000 members in Southern California were working full time, earning what Rick Icaza, president of the union's Los Angeles Local 770, called a "decent living."

But management dramatically changed shifts, bringing in workers for just a few hours during peak periods each day. By last summer, the union estimated that only 30% to 40% of the clerks at all the supermarkets were working full time.

The 16-hour minimum was a "foot in the door" provision that the union hoped to improve on in the next round of negotiations, in 1987. But now, the union complains, Ralphs is putting more and more workers on a 16-hour-a-week shift.

"They seem to be using the 16-hour guarantee as a ceiling, not a floor, and, if the issue isn't resolved quickly, there could be a strike against Ralphs," fumed Icaza, adding: "We have a no-strike clause in our contract, but we can strike if the company breaks the agreement first, and we say that is just what they are doing."

Local 770 represents about 3,000 Ralphs workers (of a total Ralphs work force of 11,600), 53% of whom are getting the food clerks' rate of pay. By comparison, an average of 59% of the 16,000 workers in all supermarkets represented by Local 770 earn the food clerks' rate.

The union contract provides for a second, lower-paying category of "general merchandise" clerks who make about $7 an hour. And the rate for clerks' helpers, or box boys, as they used to be called, is about $5. The union charges that Ralphs has been replacing hundreds of food clerks with lower-paid workers from these two categories. It estimates that at least 1,000 food clerks have been laid off or forced to take "drastic cuts" in the number of hours they work.

The company says it is trying to cut costs and denies that the layoffs and reductions in the number of hours worked violate the union contract. Last week, Ralphs--formerly a family-owned firm that is now a division of Federated Department Stores--acknowledged that it is continuing to lay off some part-time and full-time workers but gave no exact figures.

While none of the other supermarket chains are following Ralphs' example, the union says that, if the trend toward layoffs and cutbacks is not stopped at Ralphs--by arbitration, court action or strike--the methods will spread. "And," Icaza says, "we are just not going to let that happen."

Presser's Salary Up

Teamsters President Jackie Presser may be having trouble answering questions by the President's Commission on Organized Crime--he took the Fifth Amendent to solve that problem--but apparently he is having no economic troubles these days.

According to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a dissident group that has been a thorn in Presser's side, he received $755,474.29 in salary and expenses last year. The figure includes, according to the TDU, $180,201 paid to his lawyer, John Climaco of Cleveland. (Business Week reported that Presser's salary and expense allowance totaled $534,143 last year.)

The total is $269,000 more than he received in 1983 and again makes him the highest-paid union leader in the world.

Harold Friedman, vice president of the international and head of Cleveland's Local 507, earned the second-highest figure--$526,821.

Presser's troubles stem in part from the recommendation by the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force that he be indicted for his role in paying salaries to "ghost employees" in Local 507.

The dissident group is also investigating the use of union funds to pay Presser's lawyer's "fees and expenses."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°