Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why has "UNION" become a dirty word?

By Kristopher Hite
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

...and on and on, as most people who attended grade-school anytime in the later half of the twentieth century probably know. This classic ballad of the American landscape was written by good old Woody Guthrie. But there is a song, most people probably do not know, that was written by this same brilliant American - the ballad of the Ludlow Massacre.

On April 20th, 1914 twenty men, women, and children were murdered in Ludlow, Colorado by the Colorado National Guard. The men in these families were part of the mine worker's union that were staging a labor strike. This struggle represents the roots of the American labor movement and unfortunately has been forgotten in recent years.

In his penetrating dissection of the recent financial meltdown and subsequent corporate power-grab Matt Taibbi makes a subtle point regarding unions and their political decline in recent decades. Taibbi describes how Bill Clinton's administration turned their back on unions simply because the Democrats were sick of loosing the fund-raising game during campaigns. Of course there has been a concerted effort by Republicans to undermine the philosophical concept of a union for the better part of the last century, but this relatively recent change in Democratic attitudes towards unions has further eroded any remaining traction unions held in the minds of the electorate.

Cornell University has an entire college dedicated to the study of industrial/labor relations. Much work here focuses on giving workers the tools they need to use leverage when undertaking collective bargaining. The college helps the research process of unions so they might identify weaknesses in corporations and exploit them in order to gain the basic rights they deserve - health care, decent pay, respect.

This is where, I think, there is a fundamental misunderstanding amongst the general public. What is the purpose of a union?

To guarantee basic rights - health care, decent pay, respect.

This is the reason I am writing about this on Tom Paine's Ghost.

People have been made to believe that unions are filled with fat lazy socialists who don't want to work. This is part of the distorting barrage of information that oozes from broadcast corporations such as the Sinclair Broadcast Group who have their tentacles wrapped around the visual cortices of the American Midwest. Some unions may have behaved improperly and over-stepped their bounds when considering the United Auto Workers Union and others. But this is no reason to disband the concept of unions altogether!

Again. The main purpose of a Union is to guarantee basic rights - health care, decent pay, respect.

Upon recommendation from a friend that attended the college of Industrial Labor Relations I began reading a book titled Global Unions. This book is the distillation of a conference held in February of 2006 regarding the past current and future role of unions on the international stage. Video of each talk given can be found here.

The main point made here, through historical perspectives and contemporary examples, is that in order for unions to be effective, from now on, they need to operate on the same scale as the multinational corporations they serve to balance.

While we approach the anniversary of the Ludlow massacre I feel obligated to breath onto the embers of understanding unions. It will be interesting to see how ideas about unions evolve in the recently bluing state of Colorado. This state has maintained an anti-union err up until very recent history. Traveling to Pueblo, CO in fall of 2008 I heard many first-hand accounts of scabs blocking the efficacy of a steel-workers strike at the Oregon Steel Mill there in the early 2000s.

On the birthday of Clarence Darrow I feel it appropriate to reignite an understanding and passion for core union precepts; basic rights - health care, decent pay, respect.


Anonymous said...

The problem is not with the concept of unions, but rather with the danger of what they have become. For the largest part, a bloodsucking albatross around the neck of our largest successful companies that are the engine that drives our economy and our nation.

tompainesghost said...

"the engine that drives our economy and our nation."

The engine is the workers not the brand. We seem to have forgotten that as well.

Theodore John Glendinning II said...

Ah yes, labor unions. My favorite, I swear. Unions are a tricky business. Each person’s opinion on this matter is simply what side of the mountain they climb from. If you look at it from a maximum profit, capitalistic point of view, you will see that labor unions not only fight amongst themselves (skilled versus unskilled), they also raise the bar on wages. Also, unions force part time employees to empty their pockets in dues and fees.

Case in point, I know someone who works at a grocery store, with a union. He works part time. He needs absolutely every cent he can get, but loses money to dues. He receives an average wage (The Walmart next door pays more and… Walmart is the one who abuses wage rights?). What does this mean? This particular union exploits an “unskilled” job by not only lessening the income, but nearly charging the same rate for dues.

I have an example that hits home. The union that Fredonia State’s faculty uses exploits the **** out of the system. The faculty barely gets what is coming to them, but the union leaders at the lowest level are making well over six digits in many cases while the highest paid faculty member is 70k. Who is doing the real work on campus? Not the SUNY union folks.

There are jobs where unions do help tremendously, but the wage gains are heavily inflated for what the work entails. Case in point, Teachers in Western New York State, particularly Chautauqua/Erie Counties, the starting pay rate is anywhere between $26k-$31k depending on the subject and credentials. The starting teachers pay here on the Eastern part of the state, $47k. Sure, there is a cost of living adjustment, but that is roughly 25%. Therefore, the starting teacher should be making $35k-$39k to start, not $47k. I understand there is probably a lot of work that goes into teaching, so does that mean that the $47k is the correct number or does that mean there should be an immediate raise back in WNY? Do you adjust to less than $47k here in the East? Not to mention, these teachers being paid $47k, a lot of them aren’t even fully qualified yet and won’t be for a couple years.

Is that a difference in unions? Is it over inflation? Why do unskilled get more than skilled in other areas? There a lot little things unions are involved in that I strongly disagree with.

If you are a coal miner or oil pump jack master, welder, etc, sure… I get it, join a union.
If you are working an unskilled job like grocery or simple landscaping, etc, then no labor union.

There are plenty of articles out there fully explaining this. There are a lot of people who are members of unions that don’t like the way unions exploit the workers and raise the dues for their own commissions.

Here is an example to why unions are no good. They breach a person’s right to contract, which is unconstitutional. This was proved in the Lochner V. New York case when Mr. Lochner wanted to work more hours to maximize himself. Believe it or not, this currently happens daily…everywhere with unions.

Back to Walmart; Walmart is constantly being harassed for stomping out unions. Well, unions aren’t needed. First of all, it is highly unskilled labor. Secondly, if you work at Walmart part time, you know damn well you can’t support a family of 3 or even 4. It is common sense. There is financial aid for those in this position. Is it gratifying? No, but then work yourself into a skilled labor position. Go through the proper training.
This same phenomenon is seen with social security benefits when people retire. The purpose of social security is to only support one third of a life style. That is it, one third. It is not the government’s fault for the amount one lives off of. It is a shame people suffer. However, it is also a shame people do not pay attention, especially when it REALLY affects your life.

I could ramble on forever, but I’ll end with this: The concept of a union is spectacular. However, this ends up unrealistic because as soon as most people get the taste of money, the concept becomes something else, kind of like communism. You have to be able to keep your new standard of living, right? What I feel was most significant was the ridding child labor. You don’t need a union to do that though… Hmm.