Monday, March 14, 2011

"I'm Stickin' To The Union"

We are a union family. My brother and sister in law both belong to their state's teachers' union and have during their whole careers. Their state is recognized as one of the best-paying states in terms of salaries and benefits. Before some of you start shouting "Then you have to cut them!" I will also say they attract some of the best and brightest teachers in the country. The quality of education in their state is nationally recognized.

I have been, at various times in my life, a member of the actors' union, the restaurant workers' union and also a teachers' union in my state, although it is, alas, a "right to work" state and the union has very little power.

"Right to work" state is a terribly misleading term. It suggests equal access to employment. What it actually means, in practical terms, is that it does everything it can do to squash the unions and make them as powerless as possible. This has had the direct effect of making wages here approximately 20% below the national norm and benefits rare and small.

Of course, corporations love it. They move down here for the cheaper labor and the relaxed approach to environmental regulations. You might surmise that this would lead to increased prosperity for everyone concerned, but it turns out to be everyone except the average working person, who has the same rate of inflation as everyone else in the country but less and less money to meet rising costs. Our rate of poverty is high and growing, as many more have begun to sink economically from the middle and working classes to poverty. This is generally true for most of the south.

Still, the corporations are making out like gangbusters so their CEO's and shareholders are happy campers. And they're the only ones that matter, right? (sarcasm).

I have a bumper sticker that says "The labor movement: The folks who brought you the weekend." In light of the national tension created by the people of the great state of Wisconsin, I may be putting my car at risk for vandalism. A surprising number of average working people here have fallen for the corporate propaganda and actually believe the unions would make their quality of life even worse. They tell people that the unions will take huge amounts of their pay for dues. My dues for the restaurant workers' union were about $5.00 per paycheck. That's a whopping $60 a year! Keep in mind, too, that I was simultaneously getting a higher wage and more benefits than my non-union co-workers.

It's true that labor unions created the concept of the weekend. Before they began organizing in the early part of the 20th century the average factory worker had a six-and-a-half day week, with only Sunday mornings off for church. Workers essentially worked all day, ate dinner, slept and then went to work again. There was no concept of "free time" or "down time" as far as the working class was concerned.

Unions also brought us disability compensation for those injured on the job. Previously a worker who lost a hand or an arm in the machines was just fired for not being able to work up to their employers' expectations. Manual laborers who could no longer work and their families became destitute and homeless.

Unions also brought us health and safety regulations in the workplace, pensions, overtime, sick leave, days off and paid vacation time. They eliminated the practice of child labor. They brought the right to take reasonable grievances to their employers without being fired. These are all things we take for granted today and do not remember those who fought and sometimes died to obtain these rights for us today.

And then, of course, they brought us the right to bargain collectively. This is what the workers in Wisconsin are protesting about so strongly. Public union employees have already agreed to give the governor the cuts in pay and benefits he has asked for. What they want to keep is the right to bargain as a group for wages, benefits, working conditions and to bring verifiable grievances to the table. This is where the only power of public employees exists. Anyone who has tried to negotiate individually with his or her employer can tell you that one is practically powerless to make any significant changes on their own. The power lies with the solidarity of all the workers acting together.

In the old days, at the turn of the 20th century, when workers tried to strike their employers would call out the Pinkertons (a private firm of strong-armed goons) who would attack, maim, shoot and sometimes kill the protesters. Today the power elite is trying to legislate the elimination of the right to strike altogether rather than physically maiming the strikers.

This is in effect what Governor Walker was doing when he hired the private contractor formerly named Blackwater (now it's called Xe I believe) to guard several public buildings after firing the public employees. Blackwater is, of course, famous for rape, drinking shots of vodka from each others' backsides and killing civilians in Iraq.

There are many rights we take for granted today that were purchased with the blood, sweat, tears and sometimes the lives of those who formed the first unions. That does not mean that the unions are now dispensable.

As Governor Walker has shown, the rights of workers established over a century ago can be taken away with the flourish of a pen.

No comments: