Saturday, March 21, 2015

Do You Have a Right to Work?

Let's say that you like working on cars. Cars are your life. There never has been any question of where you wanted to work---the local auto plant in town. The money and benefits are great, and what's better, they're hiring. So you fill out an application. After a few days, you get a phone from the plant's human resource department and set up an interview. She wants to hire you. An appointment is made to come down and see the company physician for a quick physical. The human resources manager asks you to come back in for an orientation.

At the orientation, you go over the various procedures like safety issues, clocking in and out. Then comes the shocker. You're told that you are required to join a union in order to work there, but you're not interested in joining a union. You're told that the plant is a "closed shop", meaning that in order to secure employment there, you have to join the union. You tell her you're not interested in a union; you just want to work on the car or truck assembly line. At that point, a union representative is brought in to talk with you.

You politely listen as she explains that the union has been in place since the 1950's; that the union would protect your job in case something should happen; that they would provide you with a shop steward in the event of performance issues or any hearings; the union would negotiate on your behalf---collectively---pay raises, health and other benefits, your hours, and job safety issues. All you need do is sign the union card and agree to have the union dues automatically deducted from your salary. Easy peasy.

After the union representative finishes speaking, you politely explain that you don't have any interest in joining a union. You are aware of your responsibilities, and as an adult, take full responsibility for your actions. Furthermore, you are quite capable of speaking for your self should you get into any trouble. The representative explains that without their steward, you could run the risk of being taken advantage of (implying that you couldn't trust the company).

The union representative reminds you that unions have been at the forefront of child labor laws, women's suffrage, job safety, voter
registration, and even the Civil Rights movement. Those were all powerful and important issues, but each has been addressed by the federal government and are now laws. What about wages and benefits? Unions have been out in front in protecting wages, limiting hours, and securing benefits for their members. That's true, however, those too have been largely addressed by various federal laws. As for negotiating wages, over the past decade or so, unions across the country, have negotiated away much of benefits they had fought for over years, which has also included pay cuts, reductions in worker seniority and are only just now getting some of those back. Besides, the company has offered a retirement package before the company unionized, and offers a similar package at its non-union plant.

At this point that the union representative is getting agitated. She adds that the union also has a political education committee which would act on your behalf by endorsing candidates and making political contributions. Where does that money came from you ask, and she says that it is automatically deducted from your paycheck. Ok then, who selects which candidate or issues your money gets directed to? As it turns out, it isn't you. The committee would make that decision for you. What about the candidates they endorse, do you get a say? Not directly, but you do get a vote. However, the final decision is made by the committee. In some cases, only the political election committe makes the decision and in others, only the union president decides. But, you explain, you aren't partial to either of the two parties, but who were some of the candidates they endorsed in the past?

As it turns out, all were of a specific political party, and few if any of them, support the same issues as you. Accordingly, you point out that it made more sense if you donated to whom you wanted rather than have a portion of your salary going to individuals you didn't agree with. Besides, it didn't make any sense to dig deeper into your pocket to donate to those candidates you agree with; it was like you were working against yourself.

After a few polite closing remarks, you're informed that either you sign the union card or don't get the job. At that point she leaves. Funny, you think, wasn't that the company's decision to make? You could see her speaking with the HR manager outside the door. A few minutes later, the HR manager enters and asks if you have any questions, otherwise you were free to leave. You told you can start as soon as you turn in the signed union card. You mention that you did have a couple of questions.

How is it that you answered a company job announcement; filed out an company application; interviewed with company personnel; went to a company doctor; but in order to accept a job that you really wanted--- that you had studied hard for in school---spending countless hours after and before school; that would hopefully be your life's work---you had to join an organization that you weren't the least bit interested in, not to mention an organization which would not support your views politically in order to work there? In fact, you're told that they, not the company, decides who works there based on whether you sign the union card or not. Two words---closed shop. A closed shop means simply that in order to work there, you had to join the union whether you wanted to or not, and you have to abide by their rules and pay their dues.

Closed shops came about during the heyday of union membership---the late 1940's and early 1950's. Within the past few decades, many companies have sought to circumvent closed shops by moving the company to either states which had "right-to-work" laws, meaning that individuals can't be compelled to join unions, or the plants were closed and work shipped off to countries where workers are paid sweat shop wages with no benefits and they had little or no rights whatsoever.

So there you have it folks. Although the story was entirely fictional, the situation is real. Is it better to join the union, where the jobs of everyone is more or less protected, or take a chance? Some can certainly fight back or negotiate their own pay, but many can't. In some cases the costs of wages, benefits, and protecting unproductive workers have proven to be too much and companies have closed or moved. Unions essentially negotiated themselves out of a job. Many companies have retirement or 401k programs. Much of what unions championed down through the years are now laws, with workers having recourse through OSHEA (including its "Whistleblower Program"), the Labor Department's Wage and Hour division, the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC), plus various State and local agencies.

On the political side, instead of looking for themselves, unions have been in bed with one political party since the 1930's instead of playing each party off each other. Also, instead of supporting the best candidate for the rank and file, they nearly automatically endorse just the one party's candidate even if that particular individual doesn't even support unions! And let's not forget that in many cases, the member doesn't even have any say so where their money goes, which is often on issues or individuals they completely disagree with, meaning they have to dig deeper in their pockets to support the cause or candidate they want, and heaven help them if they actively support then non-union endorsed candidate or even put out their yard sign! Currently, some unions are pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants since many are employed in mow skill and mostly unionized jobs. Amnesty would open the door for them to join the unions, and thus add desperately needed dues to the union's coffers. However, the influx would create more demand for jobs than there are available jobs, thus driving down wages and benefits while driving up unemployment.

What do you think? As corporations have become more feudalistic and some, like banks and oil companies, have essentially taken over governments like ours, have unions become passé? Have they outlasted their usefulness? Certainly big business would like for to think so. Unions have traditionally balanced the scale of power. Of course, unions aren't perfect. Some became corrupt through their Mafia involvement while for others, it became hard to distinguish union management from corporate management, especially when looking at their salaries! Unions have been at the apex in many social issues that we now take for granted. They were responsible for a vibrant middle class and growing economy, and as unions have declined, so as the middle class and so has America overall; so much that we face the largest disparity in income since just before the Great Depression, but then this isn't 1929 and the American economy is no longer the largest or strongest.

There are of course alternatives to unions, such as worker owned companies (co-ops), employee associations, employee-managements boards where employees and management elected representatives to a special board on a rotating membership basis which deals with employee related issues such as work conditions, complaints, and worker innovations. In addition, there's been a trend in business to create a more horizontal hierarchy and empowering employees, not to mention occasional outings, ongoing surveys, and workshops. I served as an employee liaison with management at several companies where I worked, including in an Assistant Vice President role working on projects to improve morale, productivity, and efficiency; a happy workplace is a productive workplace, at least that was the idea.

Right now, certain groups (primarily conservative and pro-business) are pushing for "Right to Work" laws, with Wisconsin having just recently enacted such a law. Proponents claim that "Right to Work" makes companies more competitive and gives workers more options, which they cite as being critical in today's global marketplace. Opponents, however, refer to the effort as "Right to Work for Less" and claim that without union representation, workers will be taken advantage of, have less job security, and will eventually be forced to take cuts in pay and benefits without any recourse except walking out and trying to find another job when jobs are hard to come by. In addition, unions point out that in "Right to Work" states, they'll be forced to cover non-union employees which they can't financially afford to do; such a move could ultimately bankrupt many unions. Unions are already having to compete, directly and indirectly, with companies and workers overseas who aren't unionized and earn pennies on the dollars and often without any benefits or even basic health and safety regulations while management and Wallstreet investors pocket the difference. Proponents, however, cite lower costs of living standards which justify the lower wages and benefits aren't something workers don't deemed as important.

Many on the political Right look at unions as "communist" or "socialist" (their two favorite terms) and champion the idealistic individual concept of popular Americana myth, while those on the Left see unions as an entre into the middle class, a better life for themselves and their children, along with the possibility of a college education. This is especially true among minorities. They see unions as a means to having good health care and providing for a decent retirement while working in a safe environment. Some of the principal goals unions have fought for, such as safe jobs or a means to fight against employer harassment or discrimination, are now federal laws and give workers some legal recourse. Certainly popular opinion has swung against unions in recent decades. Historically, union participation peaked in the early 1950's and has been in a steady decline ever since with only 11.3% of the workforce being unionized (about 6.6% of private employees and approximately 35.9% of public employees). Running near parallel, the purchasing power of the middle class has declined as union membership has dropped.

So, what do you think dear reader? Do you have an unobstructed "right to work" or is their strength in numbers? In which direction does the future look brightest for ordinary individuals amid the global marketplace and increasing competition for fewer jobs, Citizens United and the demise of our democratic republic, the 1% oligarchy versus a declining middle class and the widening income disparity?

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