Monday, September 07, 2009
Labor Day 2009
Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored" on Labor Day, 2009. Today we offer up yet another of our yearly sermons in favor of organized labor.
Many people don't remember that 100 years ago, workers were fighting and even dying for the minimal basic treatment we get in the workplace today.
Child labor: out.
Fourteen-hour shifts: out.
*Slave wages: out.
*Dangerous, deadly working conditions: out.
*Six-day work weeks: out.
Now you're saying to yourself, "But I do work way more than 40 hours a week, and I don't get paid enough to keep up with my bills, and I have no health care, and I'll get laid off the minute I get sick."
That's because the American labor movement has been crushed. Mother Jones would weep if she could see it.
In the 1950s, a third of the labor force carried a union card. Today, less than ten percent of workers are in unions. Why is this?
*The movement of workers from blue-collar to white-collar jobs. White-collar workers didn't think they would ever need unions. Ahem, wrong.
*The concerted vilification of the labor movement by conservative politicians and talk show hosts.
*The sharp decline in sectors of the economy where unions were strongest.
*Admittedly, corruption and greed among some unions. (I would like to thank those bad apples for spoiling the whole barrel.)
What we've lost with the death of unions is the power of collective bargaining. No one wants to give back wages and benefits they've earned in past decades through unionized activity. But no one also wants to see a company go belly-up because the company can't afford its workers. The concept of collective bargaining doesn't negate common sense. It just requires fairness from employers, not rule by despotism.
My husband receives his health benefits through a union plan. Every year it costs us more, and it doesn't cover some of the crucial health care needs in our household. But if he became ill and needed surgery, we wouldn't lose our house. We wouldn't have bill collectors calling us at all hours and hounding us for money we don't have.
My husband hasn't had a raise in five years. That's because his union has given back its raises, recognizing the problems in his industry. Next they'll probably have to give back wages. But (hopefully) my husband will be protected by seniority and not dumped in favor of a young worker who won't demand health care, or a living wage, or fair working hours.
We at "The Gods Are Bored" regularly petition the bored gods for a resurgence of organized labor. Not because we want to bankrupt the likes of Alice Walton and other corporate owners. But because they aren't sharing a big enough piece of the pie. When less than ten percent of Americans control 90 percent of the wealth, that's not equitable. It's not. Rush Limbaugh can praise it daily as a model for personal attainment, but it is not equitable.
When you get down to it, the 90 percent of Americans who aren't wealthy aren't asking for equality, they're just asking for justice. To this American, the only way we'll get it is by organizing and returning to collective bargaining.
Today my family (sans Heir) will go into Philadelphia and march in its annual Labor Day parade. The event is very anemic now. It's cloudy outside, so probably it'll be even more anemic than the past two years. Nevertheless, it's an important show of solidarity. United we bargain, divided we beg.
This is the first year of my working life that I have been given membership in a union. (They call it an "association," but that's okay. It's a union.) When the union leader introduced himself to me last week, I threatened to hug him. I also pledged that I would not scab if the unsigned contract does not win approval. I could lose my job (slowly and painfully) for this decision, but I won't budge. A world without unions gives us a world where the few get rich on the backs of the many.
In closing I would like to praise my husband, Mr. Johnson, for being on the executive board of his guild. He spends long hours on union business. He helped block his company's owner from taking -- and spending -- the company's pension plan. If not for his union, he would almost certainly be on the street with his hat in his hand. And this is a man who has so many state and national awards that he can't hang all the plaques on the wall -- there isn't room.
Please take a minute today and meditate on the benefits of a unionized white-collar labor force that would run its business and negotiate with integrity. Dare I say this health care debate would be quickly settled, with justice for all?
Happy Labor Day!