Monday, August 21, 2006

Union Watchdogs

During the 50's and 60's, the heyday of American labor, union membership was about 35 percent. By 1980, it had fallen to 22 percent of the work force. Currently, only about 14 percent of American workers belong to a union.

I think it is not coincidental that during the same time period that union membership was falling, American manufacturing lost seven million jobs to outsourcing. Or that real median take home pay for workers has dropped $1 an hour from what it was in 1982. Or that the low unemployment rate trumpeted by the government is actually about 12.5 percent if the unofficially unemployed are added in. (See how clever the feds are when they drop the additional 13 week unemployment pay period laid-off workers used to count on? Once you no longer collect unemployment benefits, you are no longer unemployed! So as people run out of unemployment benefits, the unemployment rate drops.) Or that American employees work 1978 hours per year compared to 1400-1700 in Europe. Or that 46 million Americans have no health insurance benefits, 31 million of whom are employed. Or that since 1985, 97,000 defined benefit pension plans have been done away with. (Defined benefit means you are promised x amount of dollars per month upon retirement. Most companies prefer to contribute to an IRA. Thus if the stock market tanks and the value of your IRA goes down, too bad so sad for you, it's nothing to your former employer).

I have ranted about the short-sightedness of American labor ever since President Reagan destroyed the air traffic controller's union back in 1981. The majority of Americans cheered Ronnie for showing those air traffic controllers who was boss, never thinking that s--t rolls downhill and most of us were positioned downhill from the air traffic controllers. As long as I can remember, we've been resentful of the auto workers, the elite of American labor. Instead of fighting ourselves to get a bigger share of the corporate pie, we were jealous of those who were able to move into the middle class on the strength of a blue collar job. It wasn't fair, we sulked. Instead of hoping to climb higher ourselves, we wanted to bring them down to our level.

Well, we've come close to accomplishing that mission but I don't know how happy we are about it. Ford and GM are practically on the verge of bankruptcy, both having laid off tens of thousands of workers. Because as they've gone down, we've gone down even farther. As they've lost benefits, we've lost benefits. As they've taken pay cuts, we've taken pay cuts. Their s--t is rolling right down the hill at the rest of us. Just in Wabash, the kinds of of good-paying blue-collar jobs many of us used to depend on to raise our families, are being decimated. Alloys workers were recently starved into giving up a huge share of their pie. General Tire, which used to be one of our primary employers is now GDX, with a parking lot that is almost empty compared to the "good old days". Celotex is a skeleton. Once you start down the path of "we have to bow to the company's will to save our jobs", you wonder where it will end. How much sacrifice on our parts will it take for America's employers to be satisfied?

And what happens to places like Alloys and its employees impacts even jobs that were never union or high-paying. I've heard through the law enforcement grapevine that the Sheriff has recently told his jail staff and deputies that they will be going on a new schedule. Instead of the four days on and two off they currently work, they will be going on a 4-2, 5-2, 4-2, 5-2, thus working 2 extra days a month for no additional pay. This is on top of having their working hours increased from 8 to 8 1/2 per day when he first became sheriff. At one time, this would have been unthinkable - expecting employees to continually give more time with no corresponding increase in pay. Now, I suppose, we've become so accustomed to "givebacks", we accept them as our lot in life.

Unions were the pace-setters. They set the standard and companies that didn't want to become unionized tended to match them to keep the unions out. Voila, both union and non-union workers benefited. Now there are no pace-setters and we are all worse off for it.

I've heard people complain about what the unions became - arrogant and greedy - and I can't really argue with that. But the unions were like our economic watchdogs. If they became too vicious, the answer was to re-train them, not to do away with them. Union members had the votes to insist on change if they'd been paying attention. Without any watchdogs to protect us, we are vulnerable to having our pay and benefits and pension plans plundered and that is what is happening. Unions weren't only the watchdogs for their own companies but for the entire neighborhood.

Corporations are often arrogant and greedy themselves (think Enron) but we aren't simply in favor of abandoning business as beyond salvation. Presumably, we favor reforming the individual companies that step over the ethical line. It should be the same with unions.

But, we have been complicit in killing off our own watchdogs so when they come for our wages and benefits, there is nothing we can do but stand and cry.