::Literate Blather::
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Essay: A Vote for Labor

When I was a newspaper reporter many years ago, I joined in on a clandestine operation.

Union organizing.

A large, out-of-state media company bought the mid-size newspaper where I worked. The new owners’ first order of business was scaling back staff, slashing salaries (with a wage freeze) and eliminating or reducing benefits. That’s what corporate buyers do when they want to maximize profits on an investment – they cut the fat.

“Fat” these days equals employees.

So the reporters and editors at my newspaper got smart. We signed cards to join the Newspaper Guild. We needed protection and decided collective bargaining with our new owners was the best way to get it. By the reaction of my friends and family (most of them dye-in-the-wool capitalists), you would have thought I announced my intention to join the communist party.

Corporate America and their enablers on the right have done an excellent job of systemically weakening labor rights in the last 25 years. But their real victory has been in destroying the perception of unions among workers – painting unions as the last outposts for lazy, discontented ramble.

Union members, according to this script, hate to work, sleep on the job, and undermine free market competitiveness. In other words, unions are anti-American.

So it is it any wonder that union membership has plunged from more than 30 percent of the workforce in the last 60 years to less than 8 percent today? And as workers fail to work together to ensure their future is it any wonder that while productivity rates hit all time highs that wages have continued to stagnate?

Labor unions are rarely given credit for workers’ rights we now take for granted (even as some of them are being to be chipped away by the corporate hegemony): the eight-hour work day, the weekend, minimum wage, paid holidays, laws against child labor, and enforcement of laws to make workplaces safe and healthy.

Unions have been good for the United States, but it’s the best kept secret in the country.

But until workers begin to realize the truth, we’ll continue to be met with news like this: the New York Times recently reported that the gap between rich and poor in the United States is the widest since 1928. The articles reported that the economic gains realized in 2005 in the United States went entirely to the top one percent. The bottom 90 percent got nothing.

Here’s the good news: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a survey that 53 percent of Americans were join a union if they could.


Because the hellacious push by Corporate America for faster and better productivity is killing us all.

For white collar workers knowledge workers, the eight-hour, 40-hour work week is already a myth from the past. The number of U.S. businesses offering paid vacations dropped in 2004 to 68 percent of companies compared with 87 percent in 2003 – a drop of 19 percent in one year. One in six U.S. workers was unable to use up their vacation time – and we have fewer vacation days than any other industrialized nation (see: Employee Bill of Rights).

Enough is enough.

Robert Kuttner, a columnist for the Boston Globe, reported on several of the stats in this essay as well as on the the efforts by the Democrats to strengthen the Wagner Act, the law that allows workers to freely choose collective bargaining through unions. Since Reagan was in office, the act has been undermined and rendered nearly obsolete. Supporters want a union to be certified as soon as the majority of workers sign union cards. Today, there is a long, protracted period between cards being signed an election.

When I was working for the newspaper, it was during this period when our new owners hired high-priced union busters to come in and eliminate the possibility we would vote yes. Our corporate owners stopped at nothing. We were taken out to expensive dinners; we were rewarded with bonuses and incentives. Executives told us horror stories about unions destroying newspapers – lies about them putting newspapers out of businesses. Employees who were identified as “weak” links were pressured by their managers.

It got ugly. But in the end – we voted for the union. I never had any doubts. When corporations spent huge money to defeat a union, they do it for a reason. The reason is they lose control and money. Union shops get better pay and better benefits. As an employee – why wouldn’t I vote for that?

Yet I had one of my managers tell me that he felt personally betrayed by his staff. I told her she shouldn’t take it personal because it wasn’t about her. It was about us. About workers who voted to watch out for each other.

Senate Republicans have threatened to filibuster the new Wagner Bill enhancements and President Bush has vowed to veto it.

The time might not be now for a resurgence in labor unions. But that time is coming – more quickly than Corporate America might like.

It's about time.

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