Around Christmas in 1981, Polish tanks spurred by the threat of a Soviet invasion rolled all over Poland to crack down on a huge insurgency led by Solidarity, the celebrated trade union. President Ronald Reagan responded at the time by condemning the crackdown, defending the right to strike and calling trade unions “one of the most elemental human rights.”
Maybe he was remembering his years as a union boss, back when he led the Screen Actors Guild. But Reagan’s memory must have been slipping even then. Just months earlier he had himself responded to a strike by the nation’s air traffic controllers by firing 11,000 of them, barring them from federal employment for life and busting their union after spending a good deal of time demonizing the organization as a threat to the American economy.
Clearly, it is the union-busting Reagan, not the union-admiring one, that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters appealed to as they amassed some $46 million, most of it from out of state, to fight a recall election. Walker won last Tuesday. He did so on the strength of a single, central idea: that unions and collective bargaining rights are evil. His supporters claimed all week that the election is a preview of what we’re about to see leading up to November. They’re right. The Walker election is the latest illustration of a common theme in American politics when an “elemental human right” is turned on its head and used to stir prejudice.
We’ve seen the tactic used against women during the suffragette era, against blacks during the civil rights era (and through 300 years of slavery). We’ve seen it used against immigrants in waves since the founding of the nation. We see it used against gays, whose right to same-sex marriage was turned into a very effective tactic to get-out-the-homophobe-vote in 2004 and 2008. And of course we now see it used against unions and their collective bargaining rights.
Those rights aren’t ever going to hurt you and me. They are a negotiating issue, not an economic issue. They give workers a stronger voice against bosses, slightly leveling a field disproportionately slanted toward management anyway. Labor unions have their excesses, their heavy-handed policies, their at-times expensive dues. But in the conduct of business, they can’t hold a candle to the rapacity of companies that outsource workers, offshore profits, evade taxes, shirk environmental responsibilities and, as the crisis of 2008 showed us, would have wrecked the nation’s economy absent government bailouts.
Labor unions demand job security, better wages, stable health and retirement benefits. Those are essential rights of the workplace, historically secured not by managers and owners, but by unions. Dues and strikes have been a small price to pay for the windfall benefiting all workers, nonunion workers included. Nut labor’s day is over: It’s 11.8 percent of the workforce (6.3 percent in Florida in 2011), down from a third of the wage-earning workforce in 1960.
Reagan started a new round in the war on workers in 1981. What the Wisconsin battle shows is that the war on labor, also an American tradition as old as bigotry, is as brutal as ever, despite what that war has left us with.
Have a look at the largest employers of the 1960s, when labor unions were at their strongest: GM, AT&T, GE, Ford, US Steel, Westinghouse, General Dynamics, Chrysler, ITT, International Harvester. All powerful manufacturing companies that literally built the nation and that the world depended on, and did it with well-paid union labor, whose retirees fill Florida (and Palm Coast) homes.
Look at the largest employers of 2010: Walmart, Kelly Services, the temp agency, McDonald’s, Yum, the operator of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants, Target, Pepsi, CVS Pharmacy. Virtually all non-union companies that build nothing and pay their workers barely subsistence wages, but serve as the feedlots of consumers. That’s not prosperity. It’s economic obesity on credit. Those retirees will have neither pensions nor other means to afford retiring to Florida like their predecessors. Sure there’s Silicon Valley and Apple innovations. But they use slave labor from abroad, where collective bargaining is as alien as a square meal. Maybe Florida Realtors can appeal to Bombay’s and Shanghai’s graying nouveaux riches.
So go ahead. Celebrate the demise of labor unions if you like. Ultimately, the demise you’re celebrating is your own economy’s. Congratulations. The evidence is all around.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.
The facts are as plain as day. Yet the results are disastrous for Labor Unions.
Well written and so very true.
Liana G says
Public unions foster an environment too loyal to gov’t. Such loyalty is detrimental to democracy. The enormous size of our gov’t already has our democracy seriously compromised. This is not good!
Kip Durocher says
The gains brought to all Americans by unions are almost
forgotten by current society. Union strikers who braved death
at the hands of business gained the 40 hour work week. It was
not a gift of the businesses. Vacations, work site safety and the
right to collective bargaining were all won by unions ~ nothing
was offered by capital for the worker.
Republicans are skilled at convincing people to vote against their
own financial well being thru duplicity and the stoking of bigoted
fears and bogus “values issues.”
“Labor is always the superior of capital.” A. Lincoln
Great piece Pierre and so true.
Sad Times says
Hey, all…. it is “we the people” who are voting these folks in…. we are the ones who are saying “no” to the unions…. we are the ones who are saying “no” to the middle class…. we are the ones who are allowing the Republicans into power… giving them the ability to slowly decrease the size of the middle class… to the point that the “top 1%” have the power and the money…
And the rest of us will be left with almost next to nothing…. with little money for food, clothing, shelter… forget about health care.
Just ask these folks….how does a family of 4 live off of a $10 an hour salary… how do they get any treatment for health problems when their job provides no health care? People will continue to get sick…. so, Republicans, who pays for the doctors, hospitals, and medicines?
Why don’t they have answers to these questions?
If you like 5 day 40 hr work weeks you can thank Unions. If you like benefits that supplement your earned salary you can thank Unions…. And for those who feel those pensions may be a bit much… stop your envy and start demanding that from your current employer. You deserve it. And lastly not all pensioners are making $100,000 a year. Most are lucky to get $20,000 if that. So before you start knocking, those who have helped you even though you may have not been a Union member should remember where these basic labor rights came.
Johnny Taxpayer says
Interesting, the author provides example after example of unions in the private sector to explain what the Wisconsin recall election means even though what happened in Wisconsin had NOTHING to do with private sector unions only PUBLIC sector unions. And the so-called draconian measures passed in Wisconsin, aren’t quite as devastating as this author would have us believe. For example:
Before the reforms, Wisconsin state workers received health benefits about 2.3 times as valuable and pension benefits about 5.7 times as valuable as what workers in large private firms receive. After the reforms, state employers health benefits are only twice as valuable and pension only 4.5 times as valuable.
Before the reforms, Wisconsin state employees received total compensation (salary and benefits) about 29 percent higher than comparable private-sector workers. Now they only make 22 percent more.
Wow those poor, poor public employees are really struggling.
All the comments thus far focus on all the so-called benefits we’ve gained from unions over the years. The problem with this trip down memory lane is that the very benefits they claim the unions fought for are now codified into federal and state law and simply won’t be changed. Can you really make the claim with a straight face that if unions go away all of a sudden our children will be cranking out 80hrs a week for a $1 a day down at the local coal mine? Do you think as union power diminishes, all of a sudden OSHA is going to go away?
And finally, as per usual the author never misses a chance to lob insults the United States, and those of us who live here. “also an American tradition as old as bigotry”. The author and I share something in common, we both CHOSE to make the United States our home. The difference is he never misses the opportunity to bitch and moan about this chosen home. I mean obviously the utopia he came from has no racial divide, no history of bigotry, treats women equal to men, has allowed gay marriage for decades, and allows labor unions and any other group for that matter to organize and make demands of it’s Government, right?
And when you can’t find a job in manufacturing, Thanks Union!
@johnny taxpayer…..spoken like a true republican.
Jim. R says
Jt wants to blame the unions for the loss of manufacturing jobs when it’s Globalization and so called Free Trade that is the reason.
The ability to buy the political system is what allowed the deindustrialization of the U.S. to occur. It should be obvious that as the unions power and membership have declined the living wage jobs have disappeared, you have to have your head in a very dark place not to see the class war against workers that has been going on for the last 30 or so years, and I say that with a straight face.
Johnny Taxpayer says
How do you explain Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, and BMW all building new manufacturing plants and now building cars previously built overseas, in the Southeast US, where they don’t have to deal with the demands of the unions? Adding new jobs in these areas that pay very good middle class wages?
INCENTIVES from state and local governments. What is a very good middle class wage? Is it $10.00 an hour,or $20.00. Tell me, what is your idea of a very good middle class wage? Unions didn’t kill jobs, greedy big business did!!!!!!!!!!!
Johnny Taxpayer says
Starting pay at Kia’s plant in Georgia is $14.90-$23.50. Which is much higher than starting wage at Chrysler or GM plants in the Mid-west, that’s if there are even any jobs available at those plants.
Do I think $14.90-$23.50 an hour is a very good starting middle class wage, ($31k-49k per year) for a manufacturing job that requires minimal education/training past highschool? Absolutely.
The unions themselves are the reason they may soon be extinct. They are doing it to themselves. I would like to personally thank the unions, for they are the ones who brought us decent wages, work conditions, benefits, etc. I do not belong to a union, but often wished I did. Unfortunately, in this economy, the Unions refuse to budge on contract negotiations. Case in point, Neshaminy School District, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, they have worked without a contract for 4 years. Why? They want pay raises and they do NOT want to contribute into their health plan. They are one of the highest paid in the State. The average salary for a teacher is $80k. Yes, you heard me. They pay zero for their health benefits. In this tight economy, they refuse to budge. They want pay increases of 3% a year. The county can’t afford that. So they strike, several times a year. Now the students will be in school until the end of June. Teachers will not attend graduation, they didn’t decorate their bulletin boards, they didn’t write letters of recommendations for their graduates last year. They did this as protests of no contract negotiations. They receive ZERO sympathy from people. They should be lucky to have a job that had benefits and paid so well. They don’t see it that way.
This is an example of why unions are being targeted. We can’t afford them. If they would learn the definition of Negotiate, maybe we could get somewhere.
I do believe unions serve a purpose, and I would like to see them stay around. But use some common sense. They are strangling cities. How about doing like the rest of us and go a few years with no pay raise, and pay a little bit into your health plan. It’s what the rest of the world is doing.
Jim. R says
You just don’t get it, it’s about having the right to bargain and negotiate working conditions and pay.
If you don’t have that you are little more than a slave that can be treated any way massa likes.
In those Japanese companies you don’t dare criticise management or complain about anything ,if you do you will be out on the street
Jim. R says
What do you think a teacher is worth?
80 Grand a year is too much but a CEO gets multi millions as a bonus and stock options, even as a companies stock goes down or the company fails and that’s OK.
The captains of industry ( as they used to be known) are now considered great businessmen if they ship American jobs offshore and employ slave labor. Something is definitely twisted here when people complain about what a teacher makes and have no problem with the vultures who have wrecked this country.
Jim R – what do I think a teacher is worth? Well, what they are worth, and what they get paid and the cities CAN afford are two different things. It’s apples and oranges. Teachers are PRICELESS. My Mother is a retired teacher from Seminole County. The BEST. She had her Masters degree. Never saw $80k. I would love it if we could afford to pay our teachers, firemen, police officers what they are Worth. However, our taxes would be so outrageous. Now let’s be reasonable. We would all love to make 6 figures and NOT pay into our health benefits. We would all love to have companies pay into our pensions, while we pay zero, and after we retire, live the rest of our lives on the pension, that never expires. It goes until we die. But unfortunately, reality sets in.
If every house in Palm Coast had a resident living in it, and had a job, and could pay taxes, the city would have no problems. We could pay everyone, not worry about cut backs or lay offs. But that’s not the case. Too many layoffs countrywide. Too many people not able to pay taxes because they have no income. Taxes pay teachers, police, and firemen’s salaries.
If you read my previous post, I never said the teachers didn’t deserve their salary. However, right now, the city can’t afford pay increases and they need to pay a little towards their health benefits. That is not unreasonable. But they think it is.
Jim. R says
Maybe if we went back to the progressive income tax and the super rich were taxed on their obscene incomes the rest of the people wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in. You should worry more about the wealth inequality that has destroyed our Democracy, and less about what you see as outrageous wages and benefits for workers. Not too long ago one job could support a family of four, that would probably about 80 thousand a year in today’s dollars. Maybe this seems like a wild idea to you because you were not around when jobs came with benefits and wages that were adequate to support a family and also had retirement plans. Just because things have deteriorated to low paying jobs with no security or benefits doesn’t mean it should be that way. It’s class warfare and not only have the vultures won but they have convinced most people that they don’t deserve a piece of the pie
Jim. R says
If you want to know why there are no good jobs in the US,and there never will be, Read This