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Unions and the Middle Class


It’s time we began to look for ways to organize large numbers of people against the now dominant power of the Plutocracy. Unions are a great starting point and a great model.

Let’s dispel the Right Wing Fascist notion that unions are made up of lazy thugs. Unions are made up of hard working individuals. Among those in unions are, for example, some of the world’s best teachers of children, some of the world’s best operating and emergency room nurses, and some of the finest technicians in the world, among which are those individuals who climb light poles in the middle of storm or in sub-zero temperatures after a huge snow fall in order to turn on your lights or your phone or your cable system. This is not to mention those “thugs” who deliver your mail or those who deliver your food in all kinds of weather through deserts in summer and over mountains in winter. Don’t forget, either, the people who clean and air out your hotel room after god-only-knows how people have trashed it.

There are no billionaires in unions. There are no CEO-style executives taking limousines to hospital rooms or class rooms where you will find many union workers. But where you do find union workers you will find responsible people, with families, with homes, with cars or means of transportation. You’ll find people who are trained, certified, and skilled and masters of their craft. Actors are in unions and musicians. If they weren’t, life would be far less enjoyable, given the precarious position of artists in our society.

So those are the kinds of people we find in unions. We have about 14.5 million people in unions in the United States today. That’s about 7% of the workforce. In Canada, where life is actually much better for the average man than the U.S., except for the weather, union participation is 27.5%. By contrast, in Finland, where daily life for the average citizen is so much better than here that there is simply no point in making a comparison, union participation is 70%. In private industry, only about 7% of American workers belong to a union. But this is a bad idea for workers, since union workers make between 10% and 30% more than non-union workers. In the meantime, corporations are sending jobs abroad, reducing wages here in the U.S., holding prices up, and creating income inequality the likes of which—literally, in this country—have never been seen before.

Union workers in this country have pensions. They have pensions so that they can retire with dignity, but also because we as a society, no different from our European counterparts, have said that, having worked from approximately age 21 or 22 to age 65, we should now be able to put down our tools and look around and relax. This is exactly what the union movement did post-World War II. At a time when 30% of workers were in unions, life became manageable. Manufacturing workers and others were able to make a living, own a small home, send their children to state sponsored universities (at least) and after 40 or more years, retire with a few dollars from Social Security and a similar amount of money from their pension. Pensions were generally calculated at around two percent of salary per year times the number of years worked. So someone making $40,000 would get 2% or $800 times 40 or $32,000. So the guy from Buffalo could now sell his house and retire to Florida.

That is not the way that retirement is calculated, post-Ronald Reagan. Reagan wanted a “fairer” system. The one-time radio sportscaster turned multi-millionaire actor (actor? Really? Have you ever seen any of his movies?) cashiered the overworked and undervalued air traffic controllers and vindictively forbade them from ever holding a job with the government again. (Clinton removed this ban in 1993.) After Reagan started the trend and let corporations know that busting unions was going to be regarded as not only acceptable by his government, but a nuclear-free zone for ruining workers incomes and retirements, the Republican party came up with a phony alternative to pensions…which was going to be a big sticking point and a real battle with union publicity departments.

Now, the phony alternative to pensions is the 401K, which was never meant to be anything other than a tax dodge for executives. The idea of the 401K was to offer a plan to tax-defer some income for executives as a part of a retirement plan that would include a pension, Social Security and a 401K. It was never meant to be a retirement program on its own, and, as such, is about as bad a plan as one could invent.

What any sensible retirement plan needs, and which the 401K does not offer is a personal-annuity style configuration. When you reach retirement age you should have a fixed, long-term monthly income for life. This is done like investments but is more secure, even if, in some cases, it may not be as much as the far riskier 401K might produce if you hit retirement at exactly the right time. The point here is that union pensions are not something to be trifled with. In the recent 2008-2009, Bush-Cheney Depression, many individuals lost the value of their 401K investment, which does not happen with pensions and would not happen with a fixed annuity plan. ENRON employees lost their entire 401K investments completely.

Unions are about far more than higher wages and pensions. Unions strike fear into the heart of the Fascists because they can organize people, average people, to get out and vote or support issues that have an impact on the lives of others. Fascists, by their very nature want to control the states, control the House and the Senate and the Presidency. They now have everything but the Presidency. And what were the first two issues they undertook seriously? The first, as declared by the Senate new Republican majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, was the Environmental Protection Agency. He wants to gut it. He wants to remove all protections from individual citizens against the chemical companies, the petroleum processing companies, and the timber companies. Those are the three major industries in which the Fascist leaders, the Koch Brothers, have major stakes. We’ve seen already that the Koch Brothers have been fined enormous amounts of money and have been warned against further major fines unless they begin to clean up their hundreds of polluted sites around the country. And so why wouldn’t the Fascist Republican Party want to do away with anti-pollution regulators? After all, the Koch brothers apparently gave over $140 million dollars to the Republican Party to get those House members, Senators and governors elected in November of 2014.

So unions are a way for Americans to get back in the political game. The American people cannot fight the economic power of the billionaires. But unions can. And unions are not as much on the ropes as people might think. Some unions are growing. For example, in Georgia public unions, unions of government employees grew by 36% between 2008 and 2013. Public unions in Virginia grew by 32%. In Tennessee, where a huge campaign of lies defeated the United Auto Workers attempt to organize Volkswagen (a friendly attempt…Volkswagen has unions everywhere) public unions grew by 27.4%. Kentucky increased by 22%, Oklahoma 19.8% and even cold-hearted Texas gained 15% in public unions. In Vermont, public unions increased by 16.7%. What we need to do now, is find some strong consultants in public policy who understand the benefits that have always accrued to public workers, state workers, postal workers…and make those benefits clear and attractive to workers in private corporations.

Why don’t unions grow in the private sector? There are several reasons, but here are some key considerations. The National Labor Relations Act says that you can’t be fired for organizing a union, under most conditions. But people do get fired. Corporations have found the most effective way to stop a union from being organized is to illegally fire the leaders of the movement. And why is that so effective? Because the employee must go to court, which is delayed, and wait for any settlement in wages (minus any money the person earns to stay alive in the meantime) that may be meager at best. About 30% of all campaigns to unionize corporations result in at least one illegal firing. And why don’t we have as many unions today—one out of every 13 people in a union compared to one out of three in the 1950s? Because there is a $2 billion dollar industry devoted to strike breaking, an entire court system packed with Republican corporate lawyers, five corporate lawyers on the Supreme Court, and three times as many average illegal firings since 1981 than there were from 1950 to 1981.

The public unions are under fire, too. Not only have Republican governors in several states either tried to or actually have de-certified public unions, but the national Republican Party in the House of Representatives in its final act in the 2006 session, required the post office to fund its employee health care for 75 years in advance. This cost the post office $20 billion. Without that cost, the post office would be operating in the black. Why did this happen? Federal Express and UPS have long clamored after a bigger share of the pie in domestic shipping. The post office has a splendid system of delivery, partly shared by FEDEX already. In 2006, when the Bush White House was killing people in Iraq and spending a trillion dollars a year more than it took in, the American Sheep that we used to call citizens were represented in both houses by majorities of Republicans. Having spent enormous sums to denigrate the post office, they were still not able to take it over. So they simply wrote a law that they thought would bankrupt it, make it so difficult for the USPS to make more money that it cost, and become such an object of ridicule that they could finally sell it off to the private carriers, who were waiting like scavenging animals to divide up the carcass. But the Democrats fought back, helped the post office raise more revenues, added and improved services and fought off the takeover.

The main reason for all this is the Postal Workers Union. This is the largest and best organized of the public unions, 200,000 members strong. Represented in every community in the country, they provide boots-on-the-ground support for Democratic political actions. And why not? These are not wealthy individuals, but average citizens. They have traded upward mobility, except within the Post Office system, for a reasonable wage, hard work, and a pension that is about 25% of their pay. They support politicians who support the People rather than corporate CEOs and billionaires, the military-industrial complex and global corporations.

The postal worker is on a seniority system, so that the more years they work, and the better they get at the job, they can go from a base pay of $32,150 up to a top salary of $59,668. So, unlike what you will hear from many people, the average person delivering mail or working behind a counter or working to distribute packages does not make, as the Republican propaganda said, an average of $83,000 per year. That is another Republican lie, designated to help their key financial backers, the immensely wealthy owners of FEDEX and UPS. Now if you are a postmaster, obviously you make a little more. The average postmaster has a base pay of $67,408 and a cap of $85,687. So, no one is getting rich here. And although we like to joke about postmen, as we did with the many hilarious situations in “Seinfeld,” the fact is that your job is easier…no matter what you do. When you get up in the morning and it is ten below zero, you don’t need to go out walking all day, carrying a 35 lb bag of mail, climbing up and down snow-and-ice filled steps and sidewalks. If it is storming, raining, with 30 mph winds, you can climb in your car. If the temperature climbs over 100 you can head for your air-conditioned office. But even in the worst temperature changes and climate catastrophes, your mailman works. It goes everywhere and it costs 47 cents for a letter. You could have not quite as good a service, not get your letters everywhere, and pay $1.25 for a letter if FEDEX and UPS succeed in bribing the Republicans that we, the American people, voted in to majorities in the House and Senate.

Other government workers are under attack. Workers in the Federal Government are, by and large, better educated and have higher level work experience. They may typically be office managers, paralegals, stenographers, research assistants, statisticians or other similarly skilled professions that help legislators move laws forward and serve their constituents. The average pay for a government worker, therefore, which includes doctors, lawyers, PhDs, accountants and other highly educated individuals, is $74,714. But that is a misleading figure. Half of all the members in the Treasury employees union make something like $35,000 to $40,000. In the time of sequester, there were 4,744 people hired who make over $140,000, while those 14,000 laid off in the sequester were earning between $32,000 and $68,000. The total workforce of the Federal government is around two million if you include part-time workers. The active, full-time employees would amount to about half of one percent of the total U.S. population. That does not include postal workers who are not part of the paid workforce as such, since the post office is self-funding from fees and services and has been for a long time.

In the last 30 years the Republican Party has spent innumerable funds on creating what one might call Neo-Fascist organizations to cement the positions created by the Reagan-Charisma fantasy world of deficit government spending. The Reagan con game, the “voo-doo economics” that took us literally from $800 billion in debt to $17 trillion in debt (it was $800 billion when Carter left office. Clinton added only $1.4 trillion and then balanced the budget and gave us surpluses) through the Republican administrations of Reagan, Bush and Bush II, plus the Great Bush Depression which cost us another $3 trillion after he left office. So during that time, while these Neo-Fascist–that is propaganda generating “institutes” and “foundations” basically research arms for the 32,000 lobbyists in Washington, the wages of average Americans stayed exactly the same. So what you made in 2008, as an average worker in the U.S. was the same as you made in 1988. But prices went up substantially.

And at that same time, unions, thanks to Reagan’s initiatives, dropped in membership from 20% of the workforce to 12%. Do you see the connection here? As union workers wages rise, or as more jobs are unionized, you don’t need to raise the minimum wage. It will go up automatically, because non-union companies need to compete with union companies for good workers. So the drop in union membership, although it may have been just one of the reasons wages stayed and still stay stagnant, it was one of the major reasons. But when the obverse happens, when unions lose membership or are decertified, wages in general go down. Income among business owners rises. And the result is more stagnant wages, loss of income, fewer people making it into the Middle Class and income inequality on a staggering scale.

The idea that there is no popular support for unions is simply false. Of the more vocal people in the world, and the most visible, actors in film, television and on stage are some of the most prominent. From Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, to Leonardo Di Caprio to the outspoken and don’t-care-who-knows-it George Clooney, actors are activists. Robert Redford has spent a lifetime after the principal part of his career as an actor and director as an advocate for the environment and for social justice. And how do we know that actors feel this way about unions? Actors are members of unions. Ronald Reagan, before his second wife and the General Electric Corporation bought his loyalty and his common sense, was a Liberal supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal as head of the Screen Actors Guild union.

Actor’s Equity, the union of theater actors and related occupations in the theater community, has 49,000 members. SAG-AFTRA, a member of the AFL-CIO, is the union of movie and television professionals, such as actors, singers, journalists, writers, stunt men, and those involved in the production of entertainment and information for the public. It has 165,000 members with some of the most visible faces in the world working towards fairness–not for movie stars–but bit-part actors, and struggling writers and others who work in a difficult and risky environment to bring entertainment to the masses. So it is not just the truck driver or pipe fitter, but others in the same income category in the entertainment business who are trying to work and make a living in their chosen professions who understand that wages are important. And they realize that fairness in the workplace, safety and standards are important in every workplace. By 1933, it was clear to many popular actors and actresses that if working conditions did not improve, their careers would be very short. They were working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes seven. So actors like Ralph Morgan and Cary Grant and Maureen O’Sullivan and others quietly organized enough actors to negotiate with the studios for better contracts. And they won. Since that time, the Screen Actors Guild has been a vital force for performers in the film industry and now, with AFTRA, the television industry.

The AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO, (Congress of Industrial Organizations) merged in 1955 and today have over 12 million members in 57 separate union specialties. This is a large and beneficial community of workers who support working class values. And citizens in the working class support union values. Over 78% of Democrats say that they support unions on union related issues. And 52% of Independents say that they support unions in matters related to unions. So the idea that people hate unions is a Right Wing-promoted fallacy, part of their anti-union agenda.

Every American worker, every American citizen needs to fight back against the wholesale attack of the Right Wing on workers. And we say “workers” rather than union members because all workers have a stake in better wages and working conditions. The unions have brought about the minimum wage, the 10-hour work week, the end to child labor, safe working conditions and large scale improvements in health care insurance and in pensions. Only in strong unions do pensions still exist and, even in those, attacks on public pensions are now endemic.
In Indiana, former Governor Mitch Daniels, a man whom many Republicans would like to see run for President, signed a “right-to-work law that effectively destroyed a union’s ability to organize. His legislation said that non-union workers could have the same benefits as union workers but pay no dues. In other words, two people go to a movie. One pays and the other, whenever he accompanies the first, gets in free. It is union-killing legislation. In Ohio, former Wall Street executive, Republican Governor John Kasich simply had the Republican legislature pass a bill repealing the right for Ohioans to collectively bargain for wages or working conditions. As has been mentioned, when American voters are confronted with the real facts about labor, they respond for their neighbors. Ohio voters went to the polls and overturned the Kasich legislation. In Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker also repealed collective bargaining, but left police and firefighters to continue collectively bargaining, the state was divided. The police continued to support the teachers and nurses’ rights, but a recall election hugely financed by Right Wing billionaires and Neo-Fascist Super-Pacs with money from global corporations beat back the work of average citizens and the law remains in effect.

We need to fight back against those who would impoverish American workers and eliminate a strong Middle Class. In order to do that we need organized groups fighting against We need more unions. We need new unions. We need to organize unions. Consequently, we need to fight for legislation and regulations, like those recently passed by the National Labor Relations Board that make it easier to organize by reducing the time that employers have to bring in strike breakers and union-busting consultants. We need real union jobs in those areas of the economy that are growing. If it is retail, then we need to unionize the mass merchandisers. If it is the service economy, then we need to unionize those service businesses large enough and advanced enough to require skilled, reliable labor and willing to pay for it.

From 1983 through 1988, Ronald Reagan claimed that he was reducing the footprint of the American federal government to save money. But he didn’t. What he did was to increase the outsourcing of government jobs to private industry, to Republican owned military industrial contractors. Instead of spending the money with government employees, he spent the same, or more, but simply used government money to repay his campaign contributors. And since that time, all Republican Presidents have done the same. They claim that they are for less government and so the reduce taxes claiming that this will give us an incentive to have a smaller government. But then they create huge deficits by spending hundreds of billions of dollars outside government—using your money—to repay military-industrial corporations, major campaign contributors, and lobbyists, who create more spending outside government. That is why we owe $17 trillion dollars.

To stop this we need to defeat Republicans in elections. To do that, we need grassroots organization. To have grassroots organization, we need a backbone, and that strength has always come from unions. We need to get moving, to organize and to act….before 2016. If we lose the Presidency in 2016, nothing stands between major Fascist corporations and the military …which works for whichever government is in power…in driving this country into Fascism. That means more poverty for the middle class, loss of even the meager incomes the middle class now has, loss of at least some Social Security, possibly total privatization of Social Security, attacks on Hispanics, more and enhanced racism against African-Americans (they would be to this new Fascist society what Jews were to Nazi Germany) and more guns and shootings of innocent people everywhere…including by police.

It’s time to act. And the first step is to shore up our strongest democratic weapons, our ability to collectively bargain and then to organize for workers’ rights.

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