WASHINGTON -- "It is the most important thing that has happened in the labor movement in my lifetime." That's what International Association of Machinists President George Kourpias had to say about the announcement that three of the largest industrial unions in the AFL-CIO -- the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers of America and the Machinists -- would merge by the year 2000.
Clasping their hands together on the podium at a Washington press conference, the three presidents -- Stephen Yokich, George Becker and Kourpias -- said the fight to organize the unorganized and for a progressive political agenda would be strengthened by the merger of the three unions.
The new union would have nearly two million members and be the largest in the AFL-CIO. It would have vast financial resources and represent workers in a production process that begins with the manufacture of steel and ends with two of the steel industries largest customers - the automobile and aerospace industries.
"Everyone has been consistently unselfish," Becker told the World. "What we call this union and who the president will be doesn't mean a thing. What's important is that we get stronger -- in collective bargaining, in organizing, in political action. We need to do something so that working men and women have a chance at abetter life."
Becker said the merger was part of the Steelworkers policy to become more effective and efficient, which has also included the consolidation of districts and the merger with the United Rubber Workers Union.
According to Kourpias, the "same beliefs" that led the three union presidents to recommend the merger led them to endorse the "New Vision" slate in the AFL-CIO. "We began a discussion about the future of organized labor. We tried to convince Lane Kirkland to step down but he refused," Kourpias said.
"The world is changing quickly and the trade union movement needs to change, too. We need younger and more aggressive leadership. John Sweeney [president of the Service Employees International Union] is for change. He will make the important changes that are necessary."
Mary Elgin, financial secretary of USWA Local 1010 in East Chicago, Ind., called the merger "fantastic" and said, "It will change the power base of these unions and even the entire labor movement."
Elgin, long active in the women's movement in USWA and a Northwest Indiana leader of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said in addition to combining the resources of the unions it also "combines and multiplies the rank-and-file activity now taking place in the three unions."
Dave Yettaw, president of UAW Local 599 in Flint, Mich., said he has been an advocate of union mergers since corporate giants began merging in the 1980s. "I'm glad to see it come about," he said in a telephone interview. "It's long overdue."
Yettaw said the merger will "stop duplication in organizing efforts and raiding, at least among our unions. This will lead to more organizing and common efforts on our part."
He said the next UAW convention in 1998 should discuss holding a direct, one-person-one-vote referendum on the merger. According to Yettaw, 250 convention delegates could bring the issue to the floor.
The necessity to work together for the interests of their members and all working people was a constant theme at the Washington press conference. The "Unity Declaration" of the three unions said, "Contrary to those who believe unions have outlived their usefulness, we share the deep conviction that in a globalized economy dominated by the mobility of capital, organized labor has a more compelling role than ever."
It continued: "We are convinced that by combining our resources ... we can far better bring a vital and necessary balance to the scales of political, social and economic justice. Our ability to implement strategies that reverse the declining standard of living experienced by so many hard working men and women will be immensely improved."
George Meyers, chair of the National Labor Commission of the Communist Party, goes even further: "The merger of three big industrial unions is, in my opinion, the most important thing to happen to labor since the formation of the CIO in 1935. It will strengthen the entire labor movement and spur new organizing, which is the biggest challenge facing labor today."
Jay Mazur, who will lead UNITE, created from the recent merger of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, in a recent article said the merger of the auto, steel and machinists unions "is good news for workers and good news for America."
Mazur said that "coming struggle[s] will not be waged around narrow questions of a particular industry or benefits for particular workers. It will be waged around new rules affecting the lives of all working people -- the right to organize and strike ... [and] to a living wage."
Since 1955, there have been 133 union mergers. The UAW's Yettaw said the newest one may create a large industrial union on the model of Germany's IG Metal and spur merger efforts among other unions.
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