Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor Day

It's odd celebrating Labor Day in this country given the war being waged against labor by many of the most powerful members of our society, and the outright vitriol coming from elected representatives who malign working men and women as nothing more than selfish, lazy, union thugs. At the beginning of summer, on Memorial Day, you will find no shortage of people stepping to the front to wave their flags in honor of soldiers who gave their lives. But at the end of summer, on Labor Day, these very people actually become the "selfish, lazy, thugs" they condemn, enjoying a three-day weekend of picnics and family time, ignoring the thousands who gave their lives so that they can enjoy a middle-class privilege, brought to them by unions.

Indeed the middle class exists because of the Labor Movement, although it's not surprising that so many Americans are unaware of this fact, and can be so easily manipulated by politicians with anti-union agendas, because most public schools have relegated this vital piece of our civic history to a few paragraphs in text books, if it's taught at all.

And just because you don't belong to a union, don't think that your life is not better because of the long fight in which labor has been engaged on your behalf.

The very weekend you are currently enjoying has indeed been brought to you by people who fought and even died because of the radical notion that families should have time to be together, that children should not burn up their tragically short lives in sweat shops and coal mines, that mothers and fathers should expect workplaces where they won't be maimed and killed, that they should not be beaten, have their wages arbitrarily withheld, or be forced to work 61 hour weeks (the average in 1870, meaning many worked far more hours than that) with no hope of a day off. Oh, these were great times for business owners, but they were hell for everyone else.

You can thank labor for your employer-based health care coverage, your living wage, your paid sick leave, vacations, and holidays. Without a Labor Movement you would not have workers compensation for on the job injuries, unemployment insurance, pensions, anti-discrimination laws, or family medical leave. You would have no "due process," living at the mercy of your employer, who may well be a good guy, but just as likely is not.

Wages and the standard of living, even for non-union workers, in states with laws that support unions are higher; states with union-busting laws have lower wages and lower standards of living. That is a simple fact.

I've heard people argue that unions are somehow anti-capitalism (as if that's an inherently bad thing). Of course, I see how a strong union might cut into corporate profits (which are currently, even in this horrible economy, among the highest in the history of the world, in real dollars) but from where I sit unions are pure capitalism. Why can't individuals with a service to sell, be it teaching or steel working, ally themselves together to negotiate the best deal possible? I mean, it's certainly democratic. And isn't that what corporations do all the time with their mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships? If capitalism is just for those with capital, then it's clearly and fundamentally anti-democratic and should have no place in our society.

I've heard people argue that unions are somehow selfish. I find that a singularly silly assertion. Really? Selfish? People getting together for the common good, sticking together, sticking up for one another, acting in the best interests of "we" instead of "me." That's selfish? Yet somehow a corporation seeking to  squeeze every nickel out of the hide of it's most lowly worker isn't selfish? Please.

I've heard people use anecdotal arguments that union workers are somehow lazy. I have no doubt that there are actually lazy union workers, just like there is laziness in every aspect of life. But you've got to do better than anecdotes to convince me. The actual research shows that unionized businesses are made more productive through reduced worker turnover which leads to lower training costs and more seasoned workers, which results in not only higher productivity, but better quality. Actual research shows that higher paid workers forces managers to actually do their jobs of more effective and efficient planning.  Actual research shows that employers who involve union workers in their decision-making process see an almost 10 percent increase in productivity. Companies like Costco with a high percentage of its workforce unionized enjoy 20 percent higher profits per worker hour than anti-union bottom feeders like Sam's Club. Productivity statistics put the lie to the claim of laziness.

And as for the argument that union workers are thugs. Look at the history of the Labor Movement and tell me who the real thugs are.

I'm writing about this on my education blog because of the hits teacher's unions have been taking lately, in places like Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, but really right across the country. In fact, more than just hits, they are under full-on assault, and not just from politicians, but by the corporate "education reformers," who seem to find, without any evidence, that those rotten union teachers are the cause of our "educational crisis" (which in itself is a myth made up solely to serve their agenda of high-stakes testing, privatization and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession).

I am not a union member, nor have I ever been, but I'm waving my flag today not only for abused and hard working teachers, but for all of my brothers and sisters who work for a living, who continue to fight for their fare share of this democracy, and who envision a better more egalitarian and democratic future for our children.


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Rachel said...

Very well said as always. You are a true inspiration, as a teacher, and as a person.

Grace said...

I'm not anti-labor by any means, but I am definitely anti-union. I was required to join a union to work a summer job at a large grocery chain, and my fellow employees had just finished a union-induced strike against the store. What did they gain? Less health benefits, less time off, and fewer pay raises. As a teacher, I am also required to join the teacher's union, which does little to no good for me.

A hundred years ago when children were being crushed by the machinery they worked in, women sent to the poorhouse after their husbands lost limbs or died from illnesses incurred from their workplace, a dramatic change needed to take place and protect these people. The unions accomplished that. But today, the government regulates health and safety conditions, and healthcare prices have been evened out across the board after the healthcare bill has been passed (I know b/c I just bought health insurance). Unions are not necessary for people to work, and in fact often accomplish the opposite. I could go on and on with too many examples from people I know who have worked under unions and been forced to take longer on a construction job than was needed, and the corruption of union bosses. Unions are not necessary for labor. Hard-working people and fairness are.

Teacher Tom said...

That labor unions are imperfect institutions is a very poor argument against them, Grace. Indeed, the same can be said for every institution.

And "a hundred years ago"? You are wrong. There are elected representatives TODAY ( and corporations and major media figures ( who are arguing TODAY for the abolition of child labor laws! Thousands, of workers died on the job during the past decade because conservative politicians chose to not enforce worker safety regulations. Without unions we would back to the dark days in seconds. Look what they do in countries without a strong labor movement. You are simply deluded to believe otherwise.

Everyone can come up with anecdotes to show that any institution is imperfect (that's, in fact, what the education reformers are doing with teachers right now) but the actual facts do not support your position.

I'm sorry for the anger, Grace, but I have no patience for union-bashing. Not today. Not while you're enjoying your weekend instead of being locked up in a sweat shop.

Aunt Annie said...

You can add Australia to your list of places where unions are often demonised. I have had cause to be grateful to my union representative in a situation where my boss was happy to discriminate against me in a most blatant fashion; if you haven't had to call on your union for help, you really don't understand what it's all about at a gut level.

Yes, unions can be corrupt, but so can bosses and governments and police. Unions, ideally, are just a group of common people defending their legal and moral rights.

Mrs. Mink said...

Teacher Tom, I really appreciated reading your blog today. I teach in Idaho, where we, too, are the bad guys. Thank you for your words...
Aunt Annie, you are so correct when you say that no one understands completely until they are in need of a union's support! "Defending"...our "legal and moral rights" amen.
Happy Labor Day!

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you Aunt Annie: Bam! That's the essence of it.

And yes, Mrs. Mink, I should have mentioned my neighbor Idaho, although you are not bad guys . . . There are just some bad guys who know how to get elected.

Kevin said...

Great blog!
I'm always amazed at the arguments against unions, the talk of "union bosses" is supposed to be threatening, but who do these "bosses" represent?
Workers! Sure unions are not perfect, but they are the only representation many workers get. I really like the analogy with capitalism. These members then are just share holders in the same way a corporation works, except there are more of them and they are not as well paid. Unions still have power and they are the voice of the middle class.

Carrie said...

Nice read as usual... At times I do feel like Grace with her sentiments as I've seen some of the issues at hand. I am definitely grateful for the roads put down by unions and in many cases they are necessary to protect workers. I do believe that the corruption gets media attention which over-shadows the good they are doing. I think there are MANY corrupt union heads which give the institute a bad name (primarily in auto and construction industries as far as I can tell)

Then there are unions that push too far which give concessions that seen as "privileges" that end up hurting the profession's image, especially in budget crisis times. I think this is where teachers are falling at least here in Michigan (as I don't know about other states). When contracts state a certain max number of contact hours and better than average health benefits are being paid, people get leery about where their tax dollars are going and is that really "necessary", then start blaming the unions for the high cost and school budget crisis. My home district (and many nearby) though the unions all worked together to make concessions that were fair to the teachers and the districts. They were definitely necessary or teachers would have gotten the short end of the stick for sure in this round of cuts.

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Lori said...

As a student teacher, I was a member of a teacher "union". It always frustrated me that they are even referred to as such. They are professional organizations whose members are primarily concerned with protecting themselves from unjust lawsuits. It is not much different than lawyers, doctors, or any other professionals. We are generally respected community members who are unfortunately prone to alligations. Thank God we have a choice to attempt to protect ourselves.

Alec Duncan said...

Another insightful blog post, Teacher Tom. As an ex-union shop steward it always amazes me when people say things like "what have unions ever done for me?" or "unions are greedy and undemocratic".

What is really ironic is that the groups who are most anti-union and who spread misinformation about what unions are and how they work are almost always members of unions themselves. Oh, they aren't called unions, but they are unions nevertheless; they are organisations of members dedicated to advancing the causes and interests of their members within the economic and political framework of their industries.

Here in Australia these "non-unions" have names like The Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, The National Farmers' Federation, The Australian Industry Group, and The Australian Federation of Employers and Industries. There are dozens of others, all dedicated to serving their members needs - and there's nothing wrong with that; this is a democracy, and the right to freedom of association is a cornerstone of democracy.

What is wrong is when these same organisations seek to infringe upon the rights of employees to form their own representative organisations - unions - and to place legal barriers to the rights of union members to seek better working conditions. It's hypocrisy of the worst kind, and worse still it's working.

Unions get a very bad press here in Australia, not least because the "non-unions" have vast budgets for advancing their political agendas and the Media is, in general, strongly aligned with the "non-unions". People read union-bashing articles in the press, and see similar stories on TV and on the web. It's hard for unions to compete, with their minuscule budgets and lack of access to union-friendly Media.

As a result we are seeing union membership decline and an ongoing erosion of the hard-won working conditions that unions gained us in the past. Australia was the first country to introduce the 8 hour day - and now it's a distant memory for many people.

Understand, I am not anti-business; I'm in small business myself. But I'm pro-union because unions are absolutely necessary to address the imbalance of power between the individual worker and the employer: "united we bargain; divided we beg".