Why We Need Stronger Unions

The Employee Free Choice Act is again up for a vote. This bill passed the House last spring and was tabled in the Senate. Here’s why I think we should all be supporting this bill.

We need strong trade unions. It’s that simple. Before the passage of the National Labor Relations [Wagner] Act in 1935, workers were at the mercy of employers who, if left unchecked, will do anything to strengthen their own position and profits at the expense of employees. That was true then and it’s true today.

Then excessive employer power  had disastrous consequences for the nation as a whole,  resulting in economic polarization, and the formation of a ruling aristocracy. Today, with many of the hard-won employee protections whittled away by 30 years of  anti-union ideology, we see the very same imbalance as well as a much-remarked-upon formation of a ruling aristocracy.  The great dichotomy of income we have now is nothing new:  it’s due mainly to letting our laws, regulatory agencies and vigilance over the rich and powerful lapse.

Labor unions provide a more level playing field. But, the rich and well-connected will always have the edge.

Unions are vital to supporting the strength of those who work for a living. Today, that includes not just the stereotypical trucker, steel worker or auto assembly line worker, but teachers, including college professors, nurses, doctors, state employees, retail workers–indeed, anyone who can be exploited by those they work for. As we have seen in this country, when we had no unions, we had the same conditions we so decry today in other countries–child labor, indentured servitude, no overtime, unsafe working conditions–you name it. Unions helped remove these egregious conditions.

We no longer see little children covered in soot  hauling coal buckets out of deep pits. But, employers find a way. We do still have pressure to relax oversight in coal mines or to defund regulatory agencies leading to the horrible accidents we’ve witnessed in the last few years, such as the West Virginia Sago disaster in 2006. Employers are always contrite when their cost-cutting actions result in death or mutilation of the workers, especially so  when the whole country knows about their behavior as happened during the saga of Sago.

In the last few decades as unions have been progressively defanged by a right-turning government as anti-union ideologies have prevailed. Many Americans, in fact, during this period have become convinced through relentless right-wing propaganda that that unions are bad. Bad for whom?

As an example of this knee-jerk anti-unionism, I couldn’t help but notice that during the Congressional discussion of the automakers’ bailout, many of our lawmakers seemed delighted to focus especially on the high pay and benefits enjoyed by the autoworkers as a result of their union membership.   The figure of $75 per hour was initially bandied about, said to be the sum total of wages and benefits. This soon was discovered to be false with $45 more like it.

With CEOs like John Thain, late of Merrill Lynch, redecorating his office for $1 million shareholder dollars and bestowing $4 billion in bonuses on those who tanked the company, with these very automaker CEOs arriving separately by private jet to petition for taxpayer dollars,  AIG getting $180 billion in taxpayer bailout and immediately passing that out as $164 million to its executives, how can our law makers   zero in on $45/hour pay for workers? Isn’t that what we would like as many of us as possible to make? Do they want to condemn their constituents to minimum wage jobs which I would remind them, as they probably haven’t bothered to figure it out, amounts to $6.75/hour in California. If someone gets a full-time job at this pay and we all know that most companies, including our state and federal governments, make every effort to hire just below full-time so they don’t have to pay benefits of any kind, the weekly pay is $270 per week. Who can live on that? Unions help to raise the standard of living for all of us.

We the people and our lawmakers should be making every effort to encourage unions and union organizers. Let’s put a stop to the insidious practice of out-sourcing what used to be good City jobs to private contractors who pay menial wages. Let’s stop the practice of hiring part-time even in our colleges and universities which you would think would be models of good employers. But no, there as everywhere, cost-cutting is the norm. And, the first place cut is always the vulnerable worker.

Forcing millions to work for peanuts, to scramble for crumbs, to balance precariously on the edge of financial ruin is hardly a good way to run a country. Yet, that’s what we have progressivley  done as a country during at least the last 30 years.  Employees need a way to negotiate better conditions and pay with their employers, many of whom as we have seen on Wall Street, have no compunctions about raking in everything for themselves, leaving nothing for anyone else. Protecting workers through unionism will at least mitigate this rampant greed.

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