2005-11-04 / Columnists

The Progressive

A House Divided
By John Paul Culotta

Most Americans believe that when workers join unions they will secure better wages, better benefits, some semblance of job security, and freedom from arbitrary and capricious employers. In many European countries, workers enjoy protections and guarantees from the abuses most workers in this nation endure as a matter of course. Most European countries and Canada still have strong labor union movements that force their political system to consider worker’s safety, working conditions and rights as a major national priority.

Employers in many countries cannot fire employees at whim. Labor tribunals ensure that employers must have evidence as to the suitability of the dismissal of workers barring economic necessity. In this country, unions for the past three decades have become weaker and many think their purpose has ceased to exist. After the Second World War, this nation understood the importance of labor unions in a democratic society. This nation had Japan, Western Germany, and Italy recognize free collective bargaining unions and the right to strike as part of the constitutions of the defected nations. Poland, twenty-five years ago, became free from the shackles of despotic communism, by the strength of the nation’s workers through their union, Solidarity. In South Africa, unions first opposed apartheid before any other segment of society. In this nation, unions have supported social progress by fighting for an 8-hour day, a 5-day week, free universal education, social security, health care for workers, and civil rights. Increasingly, unions are a voice for immigrant workers, both legal residents and undocumented.

For the past three decades, the real wages after inflation of our nation’s workers has decreased as unions have lost clout. Manufacturing industries are becoming a less important part of our nation’s economic life. Globalization has forced American workers to live with lower expectations. In the past, it was part of the American myth that workers would be able to live decent lives, have a secure retirement, health coverage, and afford university education for their children by working. Increasingly, American families need two wage earners in the family in order to survive. The New York Times reported recently that six figure earning families sometimes need government assistance in order to secure housing. There is now housing subsidies for the upper middle class. In recent weeks, General Motors and the United Automobile Workers have come to an agreement regarding cuts in health insurance benefits. This at a time when most Americans are having difficulty paying for health insurance and college costs. Dignity and a just civil society cry out for a strong labor movement. Unions represent just 7.9 percent of private-sector workers, down from 35 percent 50 years ago according to the New York Times, October 11, 2005.

Unions in this country have become stronger in the public sector, which is for government workers. A weak union movement in the private sector weakens the clout of unions in the public sector and weakens all of American society. American workers in non-union industries, offices, and mercantile establishments were paid better wages, had better benefits, and had safe working condition when unions were strong. Unions are a lobbying force for all workers. Employers will pay more if unions are strong in order to maintain a non union shop and not lose valuable and trained workers to the lure of other employers that have recognized unions as a bargaining force. Unions can be reactionary forces. Racist unions have been a part of American society. There was some exclusionary aspect to some unions based on limiting worker access to membership in some craft unions. Some union officials were and are corrupt. Despite these negatives, workers and all of society are better served when workers have a voice in determining their future. Democratic values do not need to end when a citizen goes to work.

The Bush administration has been anti-union. Workers in many federal positions are denied union representation. Governors in Indiana and Missouri have rescinded collective bargaining rights for state employees and have tossed away contracts between the state and the unions that represented state workers. Last year, Governor Rowland of Connecticut was sentenced to prison as a result of favors he accepted from contractors that did work with that state. State workers could have done the work the contractors were willing to bribe government officials for the privilege of doing. Increasingly, states have decided to take work from their civil servants and award the work to political cronies. When states decide to contract out work normally done by civil servants protected by law and union contracts, the results are increased fraud, political malfeasance and misfeasance, and additional costs to taxpayers. No bid contracts in the Gulf region after the recent disaster is a recent example of the erosion of political and economic standards that a government allows when there is no strong, effective and respected counter balance for the public and private sector worker. The public sector unions cannot be effective without strong private sector unions.

In recent months, seven major American unions have left the AFL-CIO and founded a new federation. It would appear this makes for a divided labor house. The new federation pledges to organize workers in jobs that cannot be replaced by machines or sent outside our borders. At this time, there is a major effort to organize 6,000 janitors in Houston, Texas. Janitors, cashiers, nursing home aides, home health aides, and security guards will be a major focus of the new federation. This new federation, represent a loss of over nine million workers to the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Service Employees International, which represents janitors and maintenance workers, and Unite Here that represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers, and the carpenters union formed the new federation. Many believe the new federation, named “Change to Win,” has weakened the union movement further. Others believe the competition will strengthen the workers across the nation. Change to Win has pledged to organize in the Gulf region that has been hard hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In Washington, DC the AFL-CIO has also pledged to organize workers in the region. Change to Win has pledged to unionize Wal-Mart.

May both federations be successful and reunite into a major catalyst for positive change.

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