Labor Day: unions; corporate greed

eating a salad isn’t going to fix the systemic problems at your workplace’s Labor Day, my first not working in a very long time. Among other things, I was thinking about unions. To the best of my recollection, I have never belonged to one. Yet I have been a big fan of them.

“The early labor movement was… inspired by more than the immediate job interest of its craft members. It harbored a conception of the just society, deriving from… the republican ideals of the American Revolution, which fostered social equality, celebrated honest labor, and relied on an independent, virtuous citizenship.”

Organized labor unions have “fought for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. The labor movement led efforts to stop child labor, give health benefits and provide aid to workers who were injured or retired.”

One of the conclusions I’ve come to as a former business librarian is that when ownership/management treats workers equitably, the need/desire for unions declines significantly. I have been aware of employees who were offered membership in a union but declined because the benefits seemed fair.

On the other hand, I have some knowledge of the formation of two unions. Both are in Albany, created in the past quarter-century, and both were as a result of the churlishness of management.

In other labor news, I’ve read that the immigration crackdown is targeting labor protections. “Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, but the administration has quietly eroded protections within a federal program for immigrants who come forward to report labor trafficking, sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. The administration is also attempting to crush a union representing immigration judges.”

Truthout says The Answer to Burn Out at Work Isn’t “Self-Care” — It’s Unionizing. “It’s true that healthy food, exercise, and sleep are important ways to deal with stress, and we could all use more of each. But eating a salad isn’t going to fix the systemic problems at your workplace.”

1 in 4 Americans works for a federal contractor. The regime is proposing to drop protections for LGBTQ employees. “Their latest proposed regulation out of the Department of Labor” adds “unprecedented religious exemptions to a long-standing executive order prohibiting discrimination against the employees of federal contractors that includes protections added by President Obama for sexual orientation and gender identity.” His successor promised to keep this order “intact,” but he’s gone back on his word.

Top executives are now earning 278 times more than the average American worker, up from a ratio of 58-to-1 in 1989. A new study, released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows CEO pay has grown more than 1,000% since 1978.

Pay for average workers, though, grew just 12% in the same time period. America’s chief executive officers were paid $17.2 million on average in 2018. Corporate greed is eviscerating the working class.

Hostess: the mostess, for a few

I boycotted Hostess from about 1970 until the Vietnam war was over in 1975.

For me, the issue of the Hostess Brands snack food line apparently going under – I can’t believe that someone won’t buy this venerable line – isn’t the loss of Ding Dongs. It’s that, apparently, the company had “manipulated” its executives’ pay–sending its former chief executive’s salary, in particular, skyrocketing- in the months leading up to its Chapter 11 filing, in an effort to dodge the Bankruptcy Code’s compensation requirements.

Yet the stories I hear on the nightly news talk about the failure of the company to come to an agreement with the unions. Implicit in that is if it weren’t for the greedy unions, we’d still have our Twinkies. Maybe, just maybe, it was the unions who were offered a bad deal, and are now getting a bad rap.

I have a peculiar history with Hostess. During the Vietnam war, the product line was owned by ITT, and ITT built stuff that helped the war machine. So I boycotted Hostess from about 1970 until the war was over in 1975. Truth is, I never much liked Wonder Bread all that much, and after I started eating whole-grain breads, Wonder Bread was inedible. I liked Twinkies, though. Finally, after a half dozen years, I tried a Twinkie again; I thought it was AWFUL, pure sugar. Had my taste buds changed, or did my previous political antipathy make it taste bad? But I still liked the fruit pies when I tried them again, though I preferred the ones by Drake, which had a fun commercial to boot.

Mark Evanier made some interesting points. “They came out with ‘100 calorie’ packs of their Twinkies and cupcakes… but the experiment caused me to swear off their products for good. The size of a Twinkie that got the calories down to that acceptable number was so small as to be unsatisfying and it made me more acutely aware of how many were in the full-sized version.” Other brands did the same thing, and I had the same reaction. As for Wonder Bread, “by the time they did offer a ‘whole grain white,’ it felt insincere on their part.” Absolutely!

I’m not planning on buying up some Hostess products. Despite the cliche, they WON’T last forever like styrofoam.


U is for Unions

There definitely has been hostility towards unions in recent years.

Here is the state of unionized United States.

In 2011, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.8 percent, essentially unchanged from 11.9 percent in 2010. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions [was] at 14.8 million… In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

In 2011, 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.2 million union workers in the private sector.

The union membership rate for public-sector workers (37.0 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.9 percent)…Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $938, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $729.

The role of unions has been a source of much debate. Some find unions not so important to the modern economy, with such a relatively small percentage of workers currently unionized. Others note that this declining union membership parallels the sharp decline in the share of the country’s income going to the middle class; I count myself in the latter group.

This generates the question, Why did labor unions start in the first place? “Labor unions are associations of workers who are banded together for the purpose of improving their employment conditions and protecting themselves and their coworkers from economic and legal exploitation.” Unions are almost always formed as a reaction to a situation.

There definitely has been hostility towards unions in recent years. A Kenneth Cole fashion ad managed to dis teachers and their unions. A local newspaper writer got into a bit of a kerfuffle over her anti-union remarks.

I have been watching events in the state of Wisconsin with fascination. First, the people elected an anti-union governor, Scott Walker in 2010. Then, as he attempted to make draconian cuts to the budget, and paint union members less than favorably (an understatement), a massive and sustained protest of workers – teachers, firefighters, and many others – literally rocked the statehouse. Now, over a million Wisconsinites signed on to try to recall the governor, in an election, coincidentally being held today.

The librarians at the Albany Public Library have had a union for less than two decades, and it was initiated by the weather. On Saturday, March 13, 1993, there was a warning for a severe snowstorm in Albany, from a storm that already had pelted locations as far south as Alabama and Florida with severe weather. The city had told people to get off the roads. The library director, who I’ll call Bill, could not be reached. The librarians made a collective decision to close the facilities early, and it was a good thing: the airport received over 26 inches (over 2/3 of a meter) of snow in what has been dubbed The Storm of the Century. The autocratic director was furious that the staff had acted without his say-so, and took disciplinary action against some employees. Though the punishment was later rescinded (I believe) because of negative publicity, this became the impetus for a union at APL.

No doubt there have been excesses in unions over the years – my first image of the union involved tough guy Jimmy Hoffa – but unions also can advocate for a fair shake in a manner that individual workers simply cannot.

Last cartoon:

ABC Wednesday – Round 10

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

“Unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.”

On March 25, 1911, 146 young immigrant workers, mostly female, died in a tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within 18 minutes, the fire spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firefighters who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those workers trapped inside because the doors were locked and their ladders could not reach the factory floor. This tragedy galvanized a city and state to fight for labor reform and safety in the workplace.

And now a century later, it’s clear that organized labor is under attack. You may have seen the cookie joke. “You know: a CEO, a tea party member, and a union worker are all sitting at a table when a plate with a dozen cookies arrives. Before anyone else can make a move, the CEO reaches out to rake in eleven of the cookies. When the other two look at him in surprise, the CEO locks eyes with the tea party member. ‘You better watch him,’ the executive says with a nod toward the union worker. ‘He wants a piece of your cookie.'”

Just because I haven’t spoken much here about the attacks on labor, in the US and elsewhere, doesn’t mean that I’m not disturbed by the lies that have been thrown around in the debate.

In particular, I’ve been irritated over the trampling of school teachers, which, of course, hits home. Especially compared with the Wall Street folk who apparently are barely scraping by.

Check out the latest Productivity and Costs news release from the U.S. Department of Labor: productivity rose 2.6 percent in the nonfarm business sector in the fourth quarter of 2010; unit labor costs declined 0.6 percent (seasonally adjusted annual rates). Annual average productivity increased 3.9 percent from 2009 to 2010. Squeezing more with less, which may be good for the business bottom line, but not necessarily for the workers who buy the goods and services that are being produced.

Jaquandor quotes Kevin Drum: “Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they’re on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.”

Another labor story is running through my mind: the “feel-good” story of 2010, the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners. But the 60 Minutes story about them in February 2011 shows that the men are still suffering from a sense of despair. There was supposed to have been emergency food made available, but it was a “pittance”; the men seriously considered suicide or cannibalism over starving to death. The disaster, like so many other mining crises, in the United States and elsewhere, was a function of management ineptitude or callous indifference.

Almost all labor unions evolved from greed or stupidity on the part of those in control. I recall that there was a massive snowstorm on a Saturday in March of 1993 in Albany, and the librarians tried in vain to get ahold of the director. Since the city had called a state of emergency – 26 inches would ultimately fall, making it the 2nd worst snowstorm in city history, after March 1888 – the folks made the decision to close the library. The autocratic director was furious, took some disciplinary actions against those who departed early. The unionization of the librarians stemmed from that event.

So, let not my lack of ranting confuse you; in most cases, I tend to side with the labor unions, even though, I should point out, I do not belong to one. Not every labor dispute is a matter of life and death; sometimes, it’s only a matter of worker dignity.

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