Thursday, July 16, 2009

Unions

My friend told me she'd been called in by management and informed that her job of several years was most likely winding down. She might work a few more days, or perhaps, weeks but being permanently laid off is now something she should expect. Not a pleasant prospect at 60 years old - too old to be employable, too young to retire. It's not that the company won't still have a substantial number of employees working but they are all relatively new hires. They make $9 a hour, quite a bit less than my friend earns. Ironically, her daughter got fired from her job on the very same day. And, guess what? Her employer is also hiring new workers and what is their new starting rate? Nine dollars an hour.

We debated whether it was a coincidence or if business is making a concerted and cooperative effort to lower the standard wage for new employees to the neighborhood of $9 an hour. Are there websites where corporate managers hang out and discuss these things?

"Okay, Guys, it's decided then, we'll all pay 9 bucks to start. That's high enough that no one can accuse us of paying slave wages but low enough to cut costs. Of course, we have to find ways to get rid of our old employees who are making more. In a bad economy, it's a buyer's market and they'll have to take what we give'em and be damn glad to get it." And so it is and so we are.

America has hated unions for a long time. Even the most put-upon workers were contemptuous of unions. Was it jealousy, I wonder? They were working for lower pay under crappier conditions while the union elites were making the big bucks and receiving huge benefits. Instead of aspiring to at least part of what the Autoworkers or the Steelworkers had won for themselves, we wanted to bring them down to our level. God, fools that we were, we did management's work for them.

And how self-righteous were the employees of non-union plants that matched union wages? They thought they had the best of both worlds - all the benefits without having to picket or pay union dues. And their bosses patted them on their agreeable little heads and said, "you don't need no steenkin' contract."

And, of course, the unions didn't help themselves much because like all large organizations, the head honchos got greedy and corrupt. And, geez, in some of the unions I've belonged to, we voted in some of the most ignorant representatives we could find, like it didn't matter, instead of the ones we needed, the brightest people with the best negotiating skills.

Still, corporate America's leaders were greedy and corrupt too but management wasn't foolish enough to throw their cooperative partnerships away in favor of going it alone, like workers did.

At one time, approximately a third of us were unionized. Then, we voted in a series of Republican administrations, starting with Ronald Reagan who were aligned with the corporations and willing the help them by busting the unions. Sadly, no one clapped louder when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers than their fellow working Americans. Yeah, by God, they got what they deserved. The Great Communicator told us so.

There was a time in America's history when a scab was the lowest form of life. The members of my blue collar family would have starved before they crossed a picket line, realizing as they did that if working Americans didn't stick together, they would fall apart. We didn't stick together and we have fallen apart. My state, Indiana, is a right to work state. That means, as an employment attorney advised me when I was fired by the sheriff, that "if you're not working under a contract, your employer can fire you if you come to work wearing yellow socks and he doesn't like yellow socks." Lots of us are working without contracts these days and lots of us must be wearing yellow socks, or their equivalent, too.

When we lived in Houston, Texas, the first question you were asked at an employment interview was, "how do you feel about unions?" If you hoped to have any opportunity for a job, you'd better give the required answer. No one really minded much then. The Houston economy was booming, there were a lot of jobs available and wages were high. Maybe they did care later when it all went to crap and they were at their employer's mercy (and, in case you haven't noticed, the majority of employers don't have much mercy) but by then it was too late.

By now, it doesn't even make much difference if you do belong to a union. Little by little, organized labor lost numbers and clout. Only about 8 per cent of us belong to unions now when we need the protections afforded by collective bargaining the most. Eight per cent isn't enough to have the strength to take on management in a fair fight.

Except for the few who were willing to man the battlefields in the management/labor war, working America is, collectively, a herd of sheep. We are so easily manipulated to cooperate against our own best interests. Back in medieval days, we would have pulled our forelock when our Squire passed by, content to be one of his faithful little peons, probably selling out any rebels who tried to plot the overthrow of the feudal system. In slave days, we'd have been the ones who loved Old Massa, resenting instead of admiring, those courageous few who made a break for freedom.

Herd animals are vulnerable to predators unless they band together but we've been brainwashed into believing that banding together is unAmerican and so they pick us off one by one. We stand and watch without protest until it's us but by then, it's too late.