There are a lot of people today who do not understand the history and the purpose of unions. And that is very important. Very important.
The reason is as the old saying goes…”Just because I am paranoid does not mean that there are not people out to get me.” And what does that mean?
It means that if you see unions as a large group of thugs who are out to convert your small business to a union shop and raise your labor costs or force you out of business…you are not necessarily wrong, but you are about 70 years behind the times.
We are not going to go into the history of the union movement. We’ve done that before on this blog. But just remember that, despite what the giant corporations, and their advocates the Republican propaganda machine, say, unions are responsible for almost everything good about working in America. The minimum wage, safety regulations, the work week, overtime stipulations, pensions, health care…everything that any worker may need…from the factory floor to the executive suite.
Union management, and unions are big, is made up of very smart, very long-viewing individuals who understand economics, both macro and micro. They will not burn down the house to repossess the furniture.
And so on that side, the realm of worrying about whether some union thugs are going to threaten you or beat you to get you to belong to a union, you can stop worrying. On the contrary, unions today are focused on the same issues that non-union workers face…loss of benefits, loss of jobs to foreign workers, huge disparities between the wages in the executive suite and the factory floor.
While it is true that there were at one time criminal connections between some union leaders and the underworld, that did not include all unions and it did not involve most workers. It was merely an extension of an era when corporations could hire private armies to beat up workers and often buy local authorities to put the besieged workers in jail. So some unions turned to some pretty tough people to defend themselves. Today those tough guys are very articulate attorneys.
But they are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. For example, in order to organize a union, the group must discuss the matter away from the workplace. After gaining a certain number of interested parties, through signed cards or a signed petition, they may have a secret ballot, run by the National Labor Relations Board after a waiting period of not less than 42 days. During this time, the employer will have the opportunity to discuss the matter with employees, and try to persuade them to accept his position.
The role of unions has changed in the days since Ronald Reagan was willing to risk all our lives by firing all the members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union. Like some Latin American military dictatorships, unions have been busted at record levels since then.
In the late 1970s, pre-Reagan, we had a flourishing middle class and CEOs, balanced by the unions’ concern for the working man, were careful not to steal more than they could get away with from the Middle Class. There were 24 million union members in those days and wages and benefits continued to rise.
Since Reagan, a concentrated effort by corporations has seen the reduction in union membership. Right now union members comprise only 11.8% of the private workforce. Since 1980, activities to bust unions and to prevent unions from organizing and growing has been an enormous growth industry. Fully $2 billion is spent each year by major corporations on anti-union activities.
In past decades, private industry had a much larger share of union workers. But now there are only 6.9% of industrial workers who are unionized, or 7.2 million.
But the numbers do not really tell the story unless you analyze them. For example, while the percentage of public sector workers who belong to a union is 37%, there are many fewer public sector employees. Consequently, that 37% only amounts to a number close to that of private industry union members…only 7.6 million workers.
2. IMPLICATIONS AND ADVANTAGES OF UNIONS FOR SOCIETY
Normally unions don’t make much of a difference in our lives. The wages in non-right to work states are about the same as in right to work states. In union friendly states, wages for the same job are only 5% higher but there are more benefits and better working conditions, although that last one is hard to quantify except b surveys.
So when do labor unions make a difference? Well, here are some examples.
· When you are laid off. In union jobs, in union states, you cannot be fired arbitrarily. You can in right to work states. When you are laid off, you have union benefits in addition to your unemployment benefits. In times of trouble it is good to have friends.
· When you feel that your skills and value to the company have increased but wages have not. When you have become and experienced journeyman or have mastered your profession. Wage negotiations are more successful with experienced union leadership. When things are good, the union will seek better wages. When things are bad, the union will negotiate staff reductions and other cuts in a way least harmful to the incomes of union members. Unions give you leverage.
· When companies decide to change working hours, demand overtime without pay or add hours to the work day or work week, a union can negotiate those hours. This allows the workers an opportunity to adjust and enables the company to grow while accommodating at least some workers. Unions have the time, the staff and the recognition from management to allow workers to help the company, but not at the sacrifice of their jobs or to the detriment of their families.
· While unions have been besieged in recent years, union workers normally have better insurance and benefits than workers in the same occupation in non-union companies. In addition, even non-union workers in companies where a union is a large part of the workforce generally have better wages and benefits.
Along with the decline in labor unions–under assault now in 24 states—unions are literally being driven out of existence by Republican governors and by ALEC, the organization of the largest corporations in the country,
After 30 years of Reaganomics and Bush’s whatever-we-can-loot economics, only one in ten workers have the protection of unions. Union busting is a multi-billion dollar business. And we are now seeing the state police entering into the fray, macing and jailing demonstrators while their own unions are being disbanded. This is a return to monopolistic, Robber Baron, capitalism, with a huge percentage of wealth concentrated in a handful of individuals. It is, in fact, time for a resurgence of the union movement.
The Republicans have fooled a segment of the population, just as the Fascists did in Europe in the 1930s Today, in many states, governors and legislators have been elected with the aid of corporations and billionaires, with the goal of totalitarian rule. One example is Michigan, once the most pro-labor state in the country.
3. THE KEY ANTAGONISTS
Governor Rick Snyder of that state and a legislature with a majority of Republicans have ended unionism as we know it. They have established strong right-to-work laws which say that unions cannot use normal techniques that bind organizations together. Consequently, union members can be divided, and unions easily broken up…or prevented from organizing in the first place.
If your goal is totalitarian government, then breaking unions is a big step forward. That is exactly the goal of billionaires like the Koch Brothers and Philip Anschutz, Bob Perry and Sheldon Adelson, plus corporations like BP Oil, WalMart, and even companies like Papa John’s pizza…taking your money but using their profits to turn any remaining American workers into the wage slaves of China that make these global corporation owners so wealthy.
Controlling the media, the Right Wing of the Republican Party, the Neo-Fascists, protect their masters the huge corporations and the big corporate farmers and the health insurance industry and big oil and chemical polluters by focusing their propaganda on unions.
Commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly have been paid literally tens of millions of dollars a year, every year…incredibly wealthy men now, all of them, to lie about unions, to distort and create fear about unions. They do it every day. Rich men pay media corporations to put them on the air by subsidizing their programs and then selling advertising on those programs which have no competition.
Once Limbaugh was on as many as 1600 radio stations, working for a Right Wing group out of Texas, a group which became Clear Channel, the largest radio network in the country, he was all you could hear in the afternoon from Alabama to Arizona from Florida to Oregon. Anywhere you drove in the country some outlet was pouring out his vitriol against the Clintons, blacks, Democrats and Liberals.
This foolish, perverted, dunce, this drop out, this misogynist, this scum of the earth, Limbaugh spent all his time trying to create a false image of America, to scare the bumpkins into voting for war and for politicians like Louie Gohmert of Texas whose goal seems to be the total destruction of American society.
His network was founded by a group of Texans, basically funded by the same people who funded George W Bush’s elections to governor and to the Presidency. The Clear Channel network owners did more than any other group to create a Texas where education, health care, wages and children’s health are at the very bottom of the barrel, and where pollution is at the top of the heap. It is now owned by Bain.
You need to spread the word. People must use their heads. Who are the unions working for? Corporations? CEOs who make 400 times what the average worker makes? Are they working for people who make in one week, in some cases, what workers make in a year?
No. Unions supported the Senators and Governors and House members who support living wages, who deny corporations the right to simply steal workers’ pensions. Think about the people they worked for. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a man totally committed to the worker.
They worked for Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a woman in a mostly Red state, who nevertheless works tirelessly in the Senate to cut waste and send those who steal on government contracts to jail. She backs workers and individuals as one of the leaders in expanding health care and cutting the costs of health care for seniors.
The unions spend enormous amounts of money, not enriching themselves, but arguing and negotiating decent work rules, and incomes and benefits for workers. The unions have only one function…to advocate for workers. If you are a member of a union, you can vote in your leadership, you can become a local leader in your area.
Today, unemployment is rampant. Fifteen million, maybe as many as 25 million people unemployed or employed in jobs that pay less than they should be making. Corporations have become so adept at shrugging off the workforce arbitrarily that we have tens of millions of workers working in the only jobs they could find, not the jobs they were trained to do.
At Hostess Bakery, a century old company, the CEO and senior executives repeatedly made bad decisions, failing to upgrade plant and equipment, borrowing money to expand their own salaries and bonuses. Soon they were taken over by a financial firm whose only interest was the dissolution of the company.
The unions fought back threatening to strike unless management made more sensible decisions. Soon, the corporation’s public relations staff began to use the union’s negotiations as a scapegoat, despite the fact that only 5,000 of the employer’s 20,000 employees were unionized…but the most vocal.
Management would not give in. Why should they. They were there to close the company down, sell off the assets, bankrupt the firm and take what was left in fees. The company did go bankrupt…but not before cutting union workers and other workers wages to poverty levels…which was when the union had finally struck.
And what was the result? The corporate management shut down the company and…in a final irony…appealed to a district court to give them a huge part of the money they had borrowed to supposedly improve the company…to spend a year with enormous salaries to shut it down. So they made money going in and made money going out. And the workers, at least until the bakeries are sold off to companies who really want them to succeed….are out of luck.
This is what management can do. On the other hand, if 20,000 rather than 5,000 workers had been unionized, all this could have been avoided by actions that could have been taken earlier in the whole process. Because that is what unions can do, if workers understand that only unions, only collective bargaining can make a difference.
The Right Wing media, with total control of radio and three-quarters control of television news, is only too glad to blame the unions. They always say the same things. Unions ask for too much money, too many benefits. In the meantime, they justify CEO salaries, each of which would be the equivalent of 400 employees. Executives who ruin a company and who are making between $500,000 and $50,000,000 a year blame workers who make $20 an hour.
Sensata has a plant in Freeport, IL. At that plant, 200 workers were laid off and forced to train Chinese workers who were sent to Freeport to take their jobs. This happened during the summer and fall, and the national media pointed it out. On MSNBC, Progressive advocate for the Middle Class, Ed Schultz broadcast the issue on prime-time television.
Schultze asked Candidate Romney to intervene since he was the CEO of Bain and still holds Bain stock. But Romney would not. Even the positive image that he would have created was less than the adherence to the hard-and-fast rule of today’s American management…reduce wages at any cost.
The Sensata plant was profitable. This was not about profits. Sensata itself has sales of $1.5 billion and net income of over $350 million. This was about excess profits, the kinds of profits that show no mercy, that take no prisoners, that care nothing about people. And that is why we need unions. Unions are about sharing profits equitably among ownership, management, employees and stakeholders.
But, for American management today there are no limits on greed. There is only one way the greed can be stopped. Unions. Let’s step back a minute and quickly remind ourselves of what unions have accomplished in the past.
Once again, unions produced the 40-hour week, the 8-hour day, overtime rules, health insurance, the minimum wage and the national legislation that helped protect union organizing. The unions have been allies of and supported civil rights, women’s rights, and progressive Presidents like Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and most recently President Obama who were responsible for virtually every social benefit and insurance program organized for the sick, the elderly, veterans and the disadvantaged ever accomplished by the American government.
If we had stronger unions, we could defeat proposals to cut more taxes on the rich, consolidate more media and more manufacturing into the hands of fewer and fewer enormously wealthy families. Unions do and could even more support actions like those of Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy demonstrations.
4. UNIONS AND SOCIETY
So how does this compare with other nations? Generally speaking, the rest of the world has more unionization than the United States. Australia has 18%. Austria, 28%. Canada, 30%. Belgium, 52%. Germany, 19%. Denmark 68%. Norway, 54%. Japan, 19%. Italy, 35%…no major country, except perhaps France…a unique situation (more progressive than the U.S.) has low a percentage of unionized workers as we do and in all those countries, health insurance is universal, education is free, vacations are longer by far, unemployment is higher and lasts longer, and retirement is about 40% of income.
Everybody lives better than we do. So why do people come here, immigrate here? A variety of factors. First, is space. In Japan, people sleep in rooms the size of a closet in many cases. In Germany there are 82 million people in about the same geographic area as California. But California is, by far, our most populous state. Yet it has only 214 people per square mile, whereas Germany has 609 per square mile. Montana is also close in size to Germany and has about 7 people per square mile.
Many people come here for an education, from China or Korea or India. Once educated here they are often in demand by American companies and stay here to work in those specialties. Mexicans and others from Central America come here for the same reason, but also for jobs in a variety of occupations, especially unskilled occupations.
As you can see, Europeans especially have unions that protect wages and guarantee job security, retraining and even in an economic depression as this one (caused by the scandalous behavior of Wall Street.) And they influence government to provide better living conditions…health, safety, conservation, and social equanimity.
So immigration to the United States from advanced countries is not about unions. It is about other factors, special education, opportunities for small businesses, use of specialized skills more in need here than in some of those countries and greater living space. Europeans are confined to the space that they have, and it has been settled for thousands of years.
The vast majority of those who immigrate to the United States are from impoverished countries in Latin America, our “partners” to the south, whom we have exploited but never spent commensurate time in helping to develop. They are not unionized and contribute to our unskilled labor and to needed functions in society. As they take residence, they learn skills and, understanding how it is to be disadvantaged, often become some of our best union workers.
America needs unions, more unions not less. We need to restore the influence of unions and end the practice of union busting. Employers like General Electric and other corporations have huge work forces and many are unionized. Yet these corporations do not find it necessary to spend all their time fighting unions. It is time we ended this assault by the ultra Right Wing on unions and now begin to make an assault on those who would enrich themselves at the expense of workers and the entire fabric of American society.