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Posted by Henry Meyerding on Nov 25, 2007 - 6:48:57 AM
Recently, I had a conversation with some folks at work and the subject of unions came up. It is always amazing to me how ignorant many Americans are about unions and how negative their opinions are about them. These folks came out with all the usual negative clichés: unions are disruptive, counter-productive, expensive, top-heavy, and generally a mistake. Henry Ford couldn't have said it better; that was certainly his opinion. One fellow even allowed that his father had been against unions, too. To my mind, the problem here was that these people were expressing ideas they'd never had. They were parroting ideas that they'd been educated into.
I expressed the idea that as a worker, I would be dumb if I didn't side with workers and their unions, but they told me that unions weren't on the side of the worker. Evidently in this country not even the workers are on their own side.
America in 1900. Here are some realities of that by-gone, largely pre-union day:
The work week was six days long and lasts 84 hours for most workers. Even retail workers had an average work week of 72 hours.
There was no such thing as health benefits.
There was no such thing, for most workers, as a vacation, paid or unpaid.
Most working men and women worked their whole lives: there was no retirement.
Most working people died before the age of 65.
Most workers lived their entire lives with essentially no disposable income, as we understand it.
Child labor was the norm, usually starting at the age of six.
Most women worked, contrary to contemporary assumptions, in menial labor for very low wages.
Approximately 70 percent of urban workers lived in substandard slums.
For most people there was no chance for education past the sixth grade.
Here are some of the contributions to the American way of life that we take for granted:
The five day work week.
Vacations and legal holidays.
Retirement, pensions, and social security for ordinary people.
40 hour work week and overtime for most workers who work longer hours.
The concept of work-life balance.
Workplace safety regulations.
End of child labor and universal right to college preparatory education.
Mention any of these and most Americans counter by saying that unions weren't responsible for winning these rights. If not unions, then exactly who? Certainly not the financiers and industrialists like Morgan, Fisk, Getty, or Rockefeller - they fought against unions because they perceived, correctly, that the unions threatened their stranglehold on wealth and power. These men fought against all workers rights, improvements in working conditions, and a living wage. And it was a fight - a war in fact that went on for generations and killed thousands of men, women, and children. Patriotic Americans are always ready to recognize dead American soldiers who gave their lives in defense of
America, but never recognize their American brothers and sisters who died in defense of
America's working people.
For decades, union organizers were beaten and jailed on trumped up charges. Their work to end legalized abuses of workers was gradually more and more successful, right into the Great Depression. Eventually the unions got powerful enough to begin to affect legislation and make real progress in advancing democratic, egalitarian reforms.
Well, then folks say that unions are flawed and failed to make good on their promises. Are unions perfect? Of course not. Unions are made and run by people. They are often severely flawed. One of their worst defects in the American experience is the fact that in many unions the union bosses have come to be almost indistinguishable from the industry bosses: they are both rich and powerful and their children go to the same schools - they have lost touch with their workers and in many cases do a poor job of protecting their workers' interests. But even in some of the worst cases, the results of their mistakes have been better than an absence of unions would have been. This argument always reminds me of the argument about the failings of democracy: sure it's flawed, but even with its flaws (or maybe because of them) it is still better than any of the alternatives.
So, with all the good that unions have done for people, why do so many Americans perceive unions as the problem? This is no coincidence. There are many business and management organizations that have been formed to oppose unions. These organizations have used many methods, from counter-organizing in communities, to controlling the content of textbooks in schools. Corporate media almost never presents labor actions in a positive light, but almost always presents anti-union business activities as necessary and beneficial.
Unions are something that business are not: unions are democratic - members vote on things and elect their leadership. They are a democratizing force in society, which is why so many of the things unions have accomplished have been the things people wanted most. Whereas unions decline and business gets stronger we see rollback effects like a larger gap between rich and poor, nullification of workers protections, and increases in the percentage of people living in poverty.
Capitalism is all about concentrating wealth. Its goal is to make very large piles of money, which are used in the pursuit of power. Lower wages, fewer benefits and regressive taxes benefit the boss, not the worker: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Capitalism is a means of gathering power. Unions are the workers' way of gathering power. Unions use the power of many people to balance the power of many dollars. The most amazing and depressing thing in all this is that so many ordinary folks have been fooled into betraying their own interests. Many ordinary folk identify with the rich and powerful elites, who not in reality would give them the time of day, instead of identifying with their friends and neighbors. Mark Twain called it "getting drunk on the smell of somebody else's cork."
After all, who wouldn't want to be rich? And if your goal in life is the pursuit of wealth, you will have a natural desire to protect the prerogatives of wealth and power. The fact that 80-90 percent of the people will never achieve any kind of real wealth does not prevent them from helping the powerful to prey upon the weak. This is referred to in the Bible as worshipping Mammon. Jesus was against it.
Obsession with wealth and the irrational ambition to increase wealth is the principal sickness with which we and our society are currently encumbered. It might be the single biggest reason why our species may not survive very long on this planet.
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