26 February 2011


Madison, Wisconsin has come to the forefront of United States politicians minds in recent weeks.  With the massive protests in Madison, the sparks could and (probably already have) create a national firestorm over Labor Laws, with Governors like Rick Scott (R-FL) ringing in in support of Wisconsin's attempts to end Unions and Collective Bargaining in that state, and suggesting he may attempt the same in FL.  With all this going on Wisconsin could be a harbinger of what to look out for in 2012.  Forget such divisive discussions as whether or not Gay Marriage should happen in Peoria.  The buzzword is Unions, and the rights of workers to form them to protect their rights and benefits.  

Before I make my case, I feel it important to give you a brief History lesson.  I also feel it is my duty to those of you who read this to mention that I am a former Union Representative, and also was a long term employee of a major US clothing company that rigorously fights to quash even the most minute discussion of Unionization in any of its 2000-plus stores.  I have worked in the Retail Industry in three states here in the US, and all three allow Unions.  There are very few of us who remember this nation before Unions and before the Labor Laws that are today in place because of the existence of Collective Bargaining, and the Union leaders who fought to ensure that employers offer Insurance, that breaks are given during work shifts, that Job Safety is the responsibility of the employer as well as the employee.  I can, however, tell you that without the Unions formed in this country in the first half of the 20th century, the worker of today would not be a happy camper.  Yes, many of the unions we hear about are primarily unions that deal with public sector jobs- Police, Fire Departments, Teachers, Healthcare Workers, et cetera, but there are many non public unions which exist in the US today.  The Screen Actors' Guild (SAG,)  and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Workers' Union (RWDSU) are two well known examples of private sector unions.  These organizations were created to ensure fair labor practices.  Sadly, that little tidbit of US History seems lost in this battle.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, helped create a Union which ensured safe working conditions for Garment Workers.  146 persons perished in that fire because Management had LOCKED the Fire Escapes and Stairwells to prevent workers from leaving early.  As a result, when fire broke out, the workers wound up leaping to their deaths from 9th and 10th story windows rather than be burned alive.  Today, the same managers would be held accountable for those deaths, and for answering to violating the laws now in place to prevent such a loss of life from occurring again.  Many of us remember the film 'Norma Rae' (and if you don't-go rent it) and the impassioned performance given by Sally Field in it.  What few of remember is that the film was based on the life of a real labor leader in North Carolina, Crystal Lee Sutton (Who, in an ironic twist of fate, passed away on 9/11/09 of a treatable brain cancer after her employer provided insurer refused treatment.)  Unions were and are usually created as a result of abuses, either real or perceived, by employers.  They were created by regular people trying to make the world a better place.  That being said, there are definitely some drawbacks. Not the smallest of which being the inherent political struggles within them.

Some of my happiest days thus far were spent in a job where we had no union, a job I stayed with for almost 10 years before seeking the proverbial greener pasture.  But I was then, and am today very aware that the employment practices observed by that company existed because the state in which it was founded (CA) has some of the strongest laws in the US protecting workers.  For every 8 hour shift, we were granted an hour long lunch, and two 15 minute breaks (which exceeds the legal requirements in NY state) as the Operational Guidelines set forth by Corporate HQ were based on the CA Labor Laws regarding employee breaks.  The directive was written that that was the standard of the Company, and that it was to be implemented regardless of State or Local Laws not requiring that they be followed.  As a result of this, and other practices making employees feel valued and welcome and important, I can honestly say it is a Company which probably would not benefit from a Union.  Sadly, it is also the exception to the rule.  In an economy driven by profit and streamlined service, the pressure is on local management to get the most out of every employee by any means necessary.  The means employed are not usually of the mindset that a happy employee is a productive one, and often, such as was the case in Wal-Mart, employers go too far, implementing unfair wage practices and paying women or minority employees less, or by making 'part time' employees work 32-plus hour weeks but not giving them benefits.  Incidentally, in NY, if you work more than an average of 32 hours for 12 or more weeks, your employer is required to grant Full Time status, and provide benefits-something FAR to few workers know, and that ignorance is taken advantage of by employers far too often.  So there are many circumstances in which a Union would be a good thing, and there are many in which it would either not be warranted or necessary.  Do I think a teacher (or anyone for that matter) making $89,000 a year should be require to pay into his own pension and pay a small premium for his Health Insurance?  ABSOLUTELY.  Do I think any state should write a law banning Organized Labor?  NO WAY.

So yes, I believe Unions play an important role in keeping the labor practices in the US fair and equitable.  Also, no, I do not think their tactics are always warranted.  

And Governor Scott, (if you read this because you got mentioned) if you think taxes in Florida are too high, come live up North for a while.  I make less than $50,000 a year, and happily pay my higher NYC tax rate to know my job is in a safe city with good mass transit and to be sure my garbage and recyclables get picked up when they are supposed to.  I am ashamed to call you the Governor of the State I came from.

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