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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B of A Strikes Again! Outrageous

Wow, as ranted on in a previous post, these fatcats really don’t get it…

How much has B of A gotten from us the taxpayers at this point–$25 billion and then another $25 billion recently to help clean up the Merrill Lynch mess? Check out a previous post on that little detail. You remember Merrill CEO John Thain tanked his  company, sold it to B of A, ran up another $15 billion in 4th quarter losses and then, fired [laid off–what do you say when a big time CEO is jettisoned?]  by B of  A, he first made sure to dole out $4 billion in bonuses to his loyal cohorts. Can’t get too much more clueless or, more likely,  arrogant than that…

But wait, maybe it is possible…Three days after receiving  the first $25 billion from us, the unwashed masses, the inarticulate  taxpayers, the bigwigs at  B of A, along with some fatcats from AIG [remember them?] hosted a conference call with some conservative activists and business representatives. The purpose? Why to make sure that labor’s most cherished legislation would go down in flames, The Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier to sign up union members.

Much bushwa has been spewed about unions, mainly, I would guess, from people who don’t need one, who are already rich. The simple fact is that as union membership has declined precipitously in this country, so, too, has the middle class’s slice of the pie. We’ve all heard by now that during Bush’s years the top 400 richest  Americans paid less than 17% of their incomes in taxes while doubling their median incomes to over $2.4 million.  At the same time, middle class income has declined by a median of $2000. Without unions it’s going to go down even further because without unions workers do not stand a chance against well-heeled employers.

Most taxpayers are middle-class or poor and many of these would benefit from unions. So what nerve of  B of A and AIG, beneficiaries of the collective largesse of the American taxpayer, to urge their listeners to send political contributions against the passage of these bill as well as to “vulnerable” Republican campaign war chests. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you

Companies generally have a right to urge others to vote however they want. But, these companies are no longer private. They now belong in large part to the taxpayer. At the very least, their leaders had better shut up about which political party to vote for… How did it happen that Republicans became “vulnerable”, for instance? Even better, these short-sighted, rapacious money-grubbers should start thinking what they can do for the country that just saved their companies’ collective butts  rather than what they can do for themselves…

Anyway, I ‘m mad and I’m not going to take this anymore. B of A needs to straighten up and behave like a good corporate citizen.

B of A–bah, ptui!    images4

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How Do These Fat Cats Get Away With It?

The other day I watched a snippet of an interview between Maria Bartiromo of CNBC and John Thaine , CEO of  Merril Lynch, which I have not been able to get out of my head.  Thain is newsworthy because he  had just been given his walking papers.   John Thain, you will remember,  had been brought in about a year ago to take over at Merrill which continued to leak money under his leadership.  Then, about mid-year  he accepted  a buyout from Bank of America. The alternative, I guess, was to follow in the footsteps of Lehman Brothers.

So, good going John Thain–you get brought into Merrill Lynch at God-knows-what astronomical salary and proceed to lose $40 billion in one year.  Even after the buyout from B of A in this last quarter, he presided over a loss of $15 billion. That’s B for billion.  Maria was sort of incredulous about this and kept pushing for some kind of reason for this complete hemorrhage. Well, he opined, he had inherited a tough situation.

Again, Maria is back at him: how much of this loss is legacy loss and how much because of new endeavors you undertook…Well, mumble, mumble…

And, how about those, $4 billion in bonuses??? Again, Maria kept after him. The unflappable and almost expressionless Thain went on about paying “the best people” to “protect the franchise”. Apparently, all these people could go elsewhere. Really? In December of 2008? Where are they going to go?  Who wants a bunch of the “best people” who just lost $40 billion in one year and tanked their company into quasi- oblivion?  Eventually, he admitted that “compensation levels are being reset”.  What does that mean? In January 2009 as opposed to December 2008? You,  Stone Face John and these people just lost $40 billion…


Thain perhaps deserves some credit, Maria brought out, because neither he nor the B of A CEO, Ken Lewis, had taken a bonus this year. Wow! But what were their salaries to begin with? And, it turns out, Mr Thain had spent $1 million to “redecorate his office.” How do you spend $1 million redecorating an office? Sheepishly, he admitted it was a “mistake” and promised to reimburse the company.

Folks, this is what we are up against. These people running our financial institutions are living in an alternate universe. People I run into every day are losing their homes, their jobs, their pitiful pension money, and these people have to be dragged onto TV to be made to see that $4 billion is a lot of bonus, $15 billion is one quarter is complete failure and $1 million to redecorate an office even in the good times is an extravagant waste of stockholders’  money.

What is it with these people? Citigroup cries they’re going down the drain, so they get  a giant bailout from you-know-who, and the next thing you know they’re purchasing a $400 million private jet made in a foreign country.  It took an outcry and a big storm in the House  for that little purchase to be scotched. Remember AIG? Too big to fail, the whole world would swoon if they went under, governments would topple, economies crumble—so, gigantic bailout paid by you-guessed-it. Then, almost immediately, came the news of a $250,000 company trip/conference to I think it was a 5-star Newport Beach hotel. After the screaming on that one died down, they were grouse-hunting in Scotland…

What does it take to make these financial geniuses to take some responsibility? They are the “best people” so I am sure they felt entitled to their big bonuses when things were going well. After all, they are the Masters of Wall Street. Why is it when now things are so bad, they don’t seem to feel any sense of involvement at all? “Legacy” losses?  Puhlez…