Monday, August 22, 2005

Labor Unions: The Ones What Brung Ya

You know that bumper sticker that says, "If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher"? Well, I've got a slogan of my own for this week as you start making plans for your Labor Day weekend:

"If You Have Time Off Work This Weekend, Thank a Labor Union"

It's remarkable how the lives of today's workers are different than those of a century ago -- not just in the nature of the work (back then, who could have dreamed of making a living sitting on your butt behind a computer all day?) but also in the relationship between workers and management.

In today's world, folks often prickle when the subject of labor unions comes up. Maybe they had a bad past experience (I know I did) or they've heard the negative labor headlines. But recent polls show that if they had a choice, 92% of all Americans wish they had the right to sit down with management and bargain the terms and conditions of their job.

That's what a union does. Plain and simple.

The other bit of bad press about unions comes from fear, I think. Collective power scares people, especially owners. It's amazing what can happen when folks join together for a common purpose. And when they ACT, it can get especially frightening for the powers that be. Collective action often involves confrontation and boy, do most of us hate that. The crankiest I have ever seen management was after some informational picketing ... just a few signs, for crying out loud. Perhaps it's what the signs symbolize that bothers them: their employees are figuring out what Flick, the beleaguered ant in the Pixar movie "A Bug's Life" discovers by the end of the story and he tells the evil grasshoppers:

"You need us more than we need you."

But the grasshoppers had it figured out first as their big boss explained:

"Those ants outnumber us a hundred to one
and if they ever figure that out,
our way of life as we know it is over."

That's what the workers of a hundred years ago figured out. They DID outnumber management and the bosses DID need them more than the workers needed the boss.

Those are dangerous ideas. And they led to a lot of shaking up of the world order.

Those workers were willing to be fired, to be beaten, and go on strike for things like the 40-hour week, the 8-hour day, a place at the bargaining table, and benefits like medical coverage and vacation days. If we had to, would we be willing to do the same?

Look, labor -- like any institution -- has its problems. You may have heard of a big group of folks who recently walked away from the AFL-CIO in order to get back to grass-roots organizing. Heck, only 13 percent of the country's workers even belong to a union (18 percent if you count government employees). Wherever you find a lot of humans, you will find controversy and conflict, but unions try every day to bring respect and dignity to workers who give their time, energy, and a good chunk of their lives to their employers -- what better cause can you think of?

At his retirement party, the crochety long-time shop teacher at my old junior high said his proudest career accomplishment was that he never joined the teacher's union. I imagine if he's still alive he's still enjoying the retirement benefits and medical insurance his union fought long and hard for (without the support of his union dues). And, if he hadn't retired before he was fired for his continued corporal punishment of students, the union would have made sure he was treated fairly if he had been disciplined.

If you don't belong to a union, at least remember the ones what brung ya to the party as you enjoy your Labor Day weekend.

If you want know more about the state of labor in the USA today, check out some fast facts from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like... did you know the average commute lasts about 24 minutes?
That 4.5 million Americans work at home?
That there are 6.5 million teachers?


At 11:17 PM, Blogger Loganite said...

Union YES!


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