appreciate what it meant to be part of the brotherhood of labor.
For instance, as a newly-minted member of the UAW many years ago, I
scoffed at the idea of receiving health insurance as a union benefit.
Why would I ever need such a thing? I wondered.
I was 19 at the time and health insurance was a rare and novel thing,
entirely unknown among my peers. If you werent a union member or a
government employee, chances are you didnt have it.
Today, of course, we know that a lack of health insurance can be a ticket
to bankruptcy and chronic illness, perhaps even the grave.
Yet as a naive college student working in a factory in the Detroit area, I
didnt have the sense to appreciate that wiser heads in the UAW were
looking out for my best interests.
During my late teens and 20s I belonged to the UAW, AFL-CIO, the
Teamsters, and the Detroit Newspaper Guild. Joining the union was an offer
you couldnt refuse if you wanted a job in the Detroit area in the 70s.
It was the price of admission for us factory rats, and personally, I had
no complaints because a union shop meant the pay, benefits and safety
standards were better than the alternative.
Better, say, than those perilous non-union stamping plants where you could
stand at a hammering machine all day in a state of exhaustion, risking
the loss of a finger or a hand for little more than the minimum wage.
Many felt then and now that it wasnt right to require employees to join a
union to obtain a job. But consider, if you werent required to join the
union at the factories I worked at, then there would have been an endless
stream of clueless 19-year-olds to fill the boots of injured, aging or
aggrieved workers deprived of collective bargaining. Workers who could be
used up and spat out without any consequences.
The American labor movement is proud of what it did to establish the
middle class in our country. In 1938, union leaders working with the
administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Labor
Standards Act which led to the 40-hour work week, time-and-a-half for
overtime and the abolition of child labor. The act also bumped up the
minimum wage to 40 cents per hour -- enough to make a decent living above
and beyond the subsistence wage preferred by employers at the time.
Prior to changes demanded by union activists, many Americans worked 10
hours a day, six days a week. Other union achievements included safer
working conditions and benefits such as paid vacations, health insurance,
paid sick days and holidays. Home ownership became a possibility for many
Americans as a result of bloody strikes that ended servitude to the
company store and the wage slavery described in Upton Sinclairs book,
The Jungle, in which workers were paid just above the level of
starvation as a popular business philosophy.
Yet by the time Bob Dylan wrote Union Sundown in 1984 (Sure was a good
idea, til greed got in the way.) the esteem of unions had begun a long
slide in the eyes of many Americans. Added to this was decades of
union-bashing by well-funded conservative think tanks that fed into the
mainstream media. As Dylan wrote as far back as the early ‘80s, union
jobs were being outsourced to Argentina and Brazil, filled by a guy
making 30 cents a day.
Today, the labor movement is at war with the Republican Party, with the
battlegrounds being the state capitals of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and
Michigan. At issue is whether these and other casualties in the Rust Belt
will become right-to-work states, meaning employees will no longer be
required to join unions or pay dues.
In Michigan, public employee unions fear they‘ll lose hard-won contracts
and the right to collective bargaining under the state‘s new emergency
Also, seven Republican state senators have co-sponsored a bill to
establish right-to-work zones in our counties and municipalities. This
could be the hole in the dike that leads to Michigan becoming a
right-to-work state in general.
Gov. Snyder has said that he wouldnt push for right-to-work legislation,
but would sign it if it came from the Republican-controlled House and
Shades of Wisconsin.
There are currently 22 right-to-work states in the U.S., most of them in
the South and the center of the country. The Mackinac Center -- a
conservative think tank -- notes that eight of the 11 states with the
lowest unemployment rates in the country were right-to-work states in
2010. Theres also the claim that Michigans unemployment rate is 50%
higher than the average right-to-work state.
This makes for good union bashing, but faulty logic. Is it the fault of
Michigan union members that the Big 3 automakers made terrible choices in
the cars they chose to produce while Toyota, Hyundai and Honda made off
with their market?
And should union workers be blamed for the disaster unleashed by Wall
Street, which wrecked our economy along with the tax base that supports
our state budget?
Some hope that the union protests in Madison, Lansing and other state
capitals will result in a populist uprising of support of labor, save the
middle class and stick it to the GOP in the next election...
...but that is forgetting that this is the country that bounced the
Democrats out of office for the high crime & treason of enacting a very
modest reform of our health care system. If Americans don‘t care about
the collective health of their fellow citizens (not to mention their own
self-interest), why should they care about labor?
Given that, it should be interesting to see which way the wind blows
leading up to the 2012 election.