Wisconsin Protesters: Can You Spare Some Solidarity?

WPA poster

Sorry, Wisconsin protesters. I want to root for unions. But I can’t. That’s because they’re only for the working man and woman. They don’t seem to care about the unemployed and the legions of Americans forced into part-time work.

As depicted in the British comedy “I’m All Right Jack” — I’m all right, and to hell with everyone else — unions are narrowly focused on union workers. That’s the hidden reason sympathy has declined. A lot has happened to the working man and woman in the last 40 years, and none of it good. Unions have not been paying attention.

Unions brag it was they who put an end to child labor. No, that was the National Child Labor Committee, National Consumers League and ultimately the Great Depression. Jobless adults needed those positions, and in 1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Unions brag it was they who gave us employer-sponsored health insurance. The first employer-sponsored plan was issued in 1929 to Dallas schoolteachers. But those plans didn’t really get going until the 1940s, and then it had nothing to do with unions. World War II froze wages, and a labor shortage left employers scratching their heads on how to attract workers. Answer: Health insurance benefits.

Unions brag that it was they who brought us the 40-hour work week. That’s partly true. The International Labor Organization set the week at 48 hours in 1919. During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover tried to reduce unemployment by capping the week at 30 hours, but he failed. Again, it was good old FDR and the Fair Labor Standards Act that established the 40-hour week.

But who punches a time clock anymore? It’s been 25 years for me, and even then I was part time. Since the 1970s, full-time jobs have evaporated, while the numbers of people cobbling together several part-time jobs, temporary jobs and contract work — with no benefits, of course — have exploded.

“The American worker is in a world of hurt,” says New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. And private sector workers are hurting the most.

For decades now, companies have declared many workers overtime exempt. My mother found this to be the case as far back as the 1970s. She mustn’t work overtime, her boss told her. But “get the job done.”

If you’ve ever called a meeting or handed work off to a colleague or taken out the trash or called a plumber for a repair, then you were deemed to be “management,” and therefore pulling down the big bucks, so overtime pay would be redundant. No raises. Just the “honor” of working harder for the same compensation. Unions had nothing to say about an increase in labor at the same rate of pay.

Unions brag it was they who brought American workers the two-week paid vacation. But during the recession, many workers were forced to part time. They lost their vacations, sick pay and paid holidays, no matter how long they’d worked for the company. All those benefits vanished into thin air, and for most, they haven’t come back.

The comment from organized labor? :::::crickets:::::

I watched the cost of my family’s group (i.e. corporate subsidized) health insurance premiums rise from $22 a month in 1977. Inflation should put it at $77, not the $322 a month it is today. I know union members are paying more for their health insurance, too. But 15 times as much? I doubt it.

In 1945, a third of the workforce belonged to a union. Even as recently as 1970, private membership in unions clocked in at 17 million. But the landscape of the workplace has changed drastically in 40 years, and both private and public sector unions have lost power. Naturally, they’re angry about it.

To quote the title of a 1951 book on Eastern philosophy — “The Wisdom of Insecurity” — welcome to our world, unions. The rest of us have lost even more power than you. Not to mention our jobs, homes and health insurance.

Unions say they’re for the working man and woman, but some of us aren’t so lucky as to be working. The unemployed and underemployed are just barely hanging on, and for the most part, unions have been oblivious to their plights.

If unions want the support of the public, they’ve got to give the public their support. Unions have got to broaden their horizons. But no matter what they do, it may be too little too late.

Unions, where were you when the minimum wage lagged inflation, as it has for the last 40 years? Oh wait. Union members earn way more than minimum wage. So the minimum wage doesn’t matter to you.

First they came for the communists… Ring a bell, unions? Where were the marches on capitals when students were graduating with mountains of debt and no jobs waiting for them?

Where were the marches when middle-aged workers, with their bigger paychecks and sicker bodies, were forced out of companies? Age discrimination is illegal, but it’s hard to prove. To my knowledge, lawyers aren’t falling all over themselves to offer their services on contingency or pro-bono basis. The jobless need that retainer money for mortgages. Or COBRA payments, which can be higher than a mortgage.

Where was the call for a new, 21st-century Works Progress Administration when unemployment crept up to 10.6 percent last year? The real unemployment rate is even worse. In 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined the underemployed (forced to part time) and long-term discouraged workers out of existence. Poof! They’re gone. If you add them back, our current unemployment rate is around 22 percent.

Take a look at this graph, with all the pretty colors. The graph shows percent of job losses in every recession since World War II. We’re the red line.

Percent of Job Losses in Post WWII Recessions (calculatedriskblog.com)

Two weeks ago, a discussion board commenter observed this about Egypt:

Remember the US official unemployment rate? It was 9.6% too. Yet all the news media is telling us that the real unemployment rate in Egypt was much, much higher. Depending on when you turned on your TV, you would hear that Egypt really had a 40% unemployment rate, or a 50% unemployment rate, or a 90% unemployment rate. But they all agreed, the official unemployment rate of 9.6% was false. Do you really think we only have a 9% unemployment rate [in the United States]? Why does it looks so much like Egypt’s official unemployment rate?

So unions, take a tip from the lion-hearted Egyptians. The protesters did not abandon Tahrir Square when Mubarak announced reforms that included 15 percent wage increases for workers. Egyptians, in effect, said: No! All of us, or none of us.

The news has turned The Bangles song title “Walk Like an Egyptian” into a cliche. But, you know … how about marching to state capitals like an Egyptian? March for all Americans, not just union members.

Maybe it’s not too late. Hope springs eternal.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2011]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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2 Responses to Wisconsin Protesters: Can You Spare Some Solidarity?

  1. allen roberts says:

    I just finished reading your article regarding unions, and while I find your perceptions interesting, they are not entirely correct.
    Certainly Unions represent their members first. They must. Federal labor law demands it. That said, for decades the non-union sector piggy-backed the gains won by organized labor. From the 50’s through the 80’s, a majority of employers, union and non-union alike offered health and pension benefits. Likewise, it was this same labor movement that championed medicare, social security, minimum wage, workers compensation, Erisa, voting rights, civil rights, and a host of other legislation to benefit the common good.
    Since the election of Roonald Reagan in 1980, rights of workers have fallen dramatically. The assault from the right has been vicious and continual. Anti-union decisions from the Dotson NLRB to the Supreme Court have severely hampered labor’s ability to organize new workers.
    No true government democracy exists without a free labor movement. For instance, China, North Korea, Iran, Somali. Labor rights don’t exist in these countries.
    Finally, when Samuel Gompers was asked “What does labor want”? He famously replied, More schoolhouses and less jails; more learning and less vice;more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge;in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
    I ask you, “are those the words of a selfish man.”

  2. Norma Vela says:

    As a long-time Union member (actually TWO unions), I have to also speak up. Maybe there is a dispute in history, but I do know that Union have protected my rights, have given me health care and have given me a fair and reasonable wage. If other folks haven’t been able to organize, haven’t been willing to lose months of income by going on strike (I’ve been out on strike three times in my career and the money lost in those strikes will never be recovered by me, but by Future Union Members, which is what we fought for). I fully appreciated the American Worker, whether Union or Non-Union and I believe that rather than working AGAINST the Union, all working folks (employed or unemployed, young or middle-aged) should stand up with Unions and help them become strong again, so that they can fight the fight for Workers Rights so that those rights can become the STANDARD rather than the exception.

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