Solidarity or Poverty

Minimum wage essentially means, I’d pay you less but it is against the law. Food service and big box store employees are the fastest-growing job segments in the USA, and their workers are generally paid minimum wage. Low-wage employees are the working poor and are dependent on Medicare and food stamps. The wealthy that own these corporations are conservatives who want smaller government but expect the government (read taxpayers) to subsidize them and their workers. That means the taxpayers are making up for the low wages that fast food and big box corporations pay their employees. We are told fast food jobs are entry-level jobs for teenagers so paying them only minimum wage is the way it should be. Teenagers make up only 17 percent of food preparation jobs as older, underemployed Americans took those jobs.

Tyree Johnson of Chicago works at two McDonalds and still can’t get 40 hours a week with both jobs added up. With over two decades of seniority he makes $8.25 an hour.  That is a far cry from the $8.75 million that McDonald’s, paid CEO Jim Skinner last year. Twenty years ago, when Johnson started at McDonald’s, the CEO’s compensation was about 230 times that of a full-time minimum wage worker. Current data shows the compensation between CEO Skinner and minimum wage worker Tyree Johnson is 580 times. The pay gap between the average S&P 500 CEO and the average U.S. worker, which was 42 times in 1980, widened to 380 times in 2011. The proportion of fast-food workers who receive food stamps rose to 26.9 percent. McDonalds and other fast food companies company pay substantial amounts to lobby against minimum-wage increases. McDonalds like Walmart has a group of experienced managers, lawyers and executives to parachute into locations where union activity is suspected. In 1998, after workers at a McDonald’s in Ohio went on strike to protest unfair wages and working conditions, the leaders all lost their jobs.

While wages have stagnated or decreased, worker productivity has surged in wealthy countries. Over the last 20 years in Germany,  productivity jumped almost a quarter while monthly wages stayed flat. Workers are getting a smaller piece of the pie around the world due to the trend to technological strides, globalization and the weakening of labor unions. Labor unions brings me to Michigan’s new “right to work” law that lets employees opt out of paying dues to the unions that represent them. I saw it written up in an article with this in the introduction, “A law designed to eviscerate the membership rolls of labor unions in the state in which the mighty United Auto Workers makes its home was rammed through both houses of the Michigan legislature and signed into law.” My first thought was “mighty United Auto Workers?” Did they mean the UAW that approved of a two-tier system where workers with seniority preserved their pay scale, with basic wages of about $28 an hour, while new hires are now paid half as much? Do those on the first tier think that those on the second tier pay half as much less as them for milk, gas, utilities or even a new car? I realize between competition and a poor economy that the US auto industry was hurting. Perhaps the first tier could have taken a cut in wages or benefits so that a second tier wouldn’t have had to be set up. Yes, it would have been hard for the first tier to go backwards but the fact is they have opened the door for future concessions for their tier. If you doubt that you have forgotten about Delphi. Delphi set up a second tier where that tier would at some point reach wage parity; next contract was a third tier that never reaches wage parity. Next contract a fourth tier was stopped but in the end when some plants closed the first tier went to a wage scale ranging from $14 to $19.50 an hour — down from the traditional $27. Tiers for younger workers eventually leads to “tears” for all workers. I know it personally as I saw it happen at a plant I worked in for 28 years before it closed.

I certainly realize that Republican governors and their Republican legislatures want “right to work” states because they want to punish unions for funding Democrat candidates. Republicans also attack public education because teachers unions back Democrats. Trial attorneys back Democrats so Republicans push for tort reform to limit the money the attorneys have to donate to Democrat candidates. Acorn backed Democrat candidates so Republicans destroyed them. Given all this I think “right to work” laws are not the worst thing to happen to unions. One of the worst things causing a suicide to unions is union members who vote for Republicans because of single issues despite the fact the Republicans want to destroy unions. Unions also need to do a better job of selling themselves. It is pretty hard to go up to a new second tier worker and tell him why he should be happy being a union member. He is thinking I’ve got a guy telling me I should thank him because I make less than half of much as him. I’ve seen union meetings where members were not allowed to speak or ask questions because they didn’t sign up at last month’s meeting (if your union is lucky enough to have monthly meetings not two a year) to get a spot on this months agenda. Where the Hell is the democracy and solidarity in that brothers and sisters? If like in the old days a union rep had to go around the workplace and collect dues from workers in person members could at least bring up issues they are concerned about.

I’ve seen unions (that don’t have a closed shop) try to tell their members they should join because of discounts they could get on vacations, sporting events, car insurance etc. Heck, I had one union pass out free membership cards to Sam’s Club. These idiots didn’t even acknowledge that Sams is a union busting store. Sell the union to potential members not B.S. discount trinkets. Explain that the union will democratically respect all members and unite them in solidarity to provide the best life for them and their families. Sorry, but having two or more tiers is not a selling point. Tell potential members that 81% of union workers have job-related health coverage, while only 50% of non-union workers do. Union families pay 43% less for family coverage than non-union families. Let them know that 72% of union workers have a guaranteed, defined benefit pension, compared to only 15% of non-union workers. They need facts about how the wages of union members are, on average, 27% higher than those of non-union workers. Let them know that women, African-Americans and Latinos all make more being in unions. It’s a fact that when unions are strong, wages go up, health care coverage improves and pensions are strengthened. When unions are under attack, as they are in Michigan and elsewhere, the middle-class further deteriorates.

Republicans claim that unions are corrupt so they need to be eradicated. Several studies have shown that less than 1% of unions had corruption problems. On the other hand a 1980 investigation by Fortune magazine found that 11% of corporations are corrupt. I’m betting that corporate corruption is much higher in 2012 but don’t look for Republicans to call for eradicating corporations anytime soon. We’ve all seen corporations who don’t care how much they pollute our children’s Earth or don’t give a damn about exploiting children in Third World sweatshops. I haven’t seen unions who want to destroy our children’s future.

You’ve all heard the lies about how our valley has been destroyed by strong unions. The most complaints I have had with area unions I’ve been in is that they are too weak and in bed with the company. We’ve all heard conservatives claptrap about how unions protect bad workers. That one couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ll bet you’ve seen in your workplace just like I have that the worst workers are promoted into management. Unions sometimes fail to represent their members. The members then have the responsibility to do what they can to make the union realize that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” If you want a stronger middle-class then you’ve got to fight for stronger unions.

Jorre Parra a UAW member from Columbia is the kind of direct action bad ass I want for a union leader see here why I say that.

A U.S. company that hasn’t paid U.S. income tax since 2008 yet gets corporate welfare and has exported U.S. jobs.

The Strawbs: “I’m Part of the Union”

Tom Morello: “The Union Song”

With all their faults, trade-unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than any other association of men.~ Clarence Darrow



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4 responses to “Solidarity or Poverty

  1. Eric O'Neil

    People might be interested in the recent article by Bill Fletcher in the Progressive. Bill talks about how difficult it is to be an anti-imperialist in the mainstream union milieu. . I would add the deep contradictions in being an environmentalist as well. Wouldn’t true solidarity demand a concern for workers of all nations and a commitment to a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.? Also please do not use the Orwellian term, “right to work” without an immediate clarification. It is a term planted by the right to confuse and divide us. I am much more concerned about a strong working class than a strong middle class. In solidarity, Eric O’Neil

  2. elecpencil

    Thanks Eric. It is even harder for workers not to be caught up in imperialism and capitalism when pension have been replaced with 401K Wall Street mutual funds. Mutual funds means workers are mutually stuck in a system that would farm their job out in a second to make a profit for share holders. I would like to see unions be truly International Unions. In places like forests and mines etc. the union is also a player in environmental destruction. I did say “right to work” means “a law that lets employees opt out of paying dues to the unions that represent them.” I probably could have explained it a little more but I always attempt to keep my articles short (I never accomplish that). I guess I’m reluctant to separate the working-class and the middle-class as I don’t want to be divisive. I tend to hope they will see that they are all be part of the 99%. .

  3. Hey Jim. Sorry I never got a hold of you. Last Saturday was a long day and I ended up having to drive a fellow Wob back to Columbus after I dropped Staughton and Alice off at their home. And if you will allow my excuse, my phone was dead as well. Anyway, that’s that. I thought this article was very balanced, and did something unique but necessary: It highlighted and defended the great need for unionism as well as showing all the advantages unionism has won for all workers, while highlighting the weaknesses and failing of the business unions. I am also leary of the business unionisms over emphasis on the “middle class”. In the beginning of your article you highlighted that the most prevelant jobs in our fragile economy are retail and food jobs. Well, noone who works these jobs, unless both spouses work full time, is in the middle class bracket. After 3 1/2 years with the Kroger Co., as head liquor clerk, I made 10.40 an hour and still qualified for over 200$ in foodstamps. The UFCW is always talking about saving the middle class, fighting for the middle class, and i still have no idea who the hell they are talking about. Most of the middle class jobs are gone. The unions won good wages and benefits, but didn’t gain real worker power- in fact, giving manangers the right to close factories/plants and move jobs at a whim. And they did. So we are left with low paying, poverty-level jobs. And we need the workers to organize!

    Your critique of business unions resonated with me. I have experienced many of those disillusioned feelings over the years. I do agree that the middle class has more in common with the working poor and that we should all work together, however, I feel like business unions try to keep people from class consciousness by pounding away with their “middle class” propaganda to many of us who aren’t even in the middle class. Alright, I’ve said enough. Hi Eric. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays All.

    Solid, Andrew

  4. elecpencil

    Andrew sorry we missed meeting up but I hear things went good in Cleveland. I’m glad you could drive Staughton & Alice. I work a service sector job and my low annual income definitely qualifies me for being on the low side of working class. With my wife working we are the lower side of middle class. I have been trying to follow the Occupy idea that we are the 99%. I think that talking about working class and.middle class might be divisive. After all so many middle class jobs are being exported we will all soon be not working class but poverty class. I’m afraid we have too much complacency and people have to be down so low that they have to jump up to reach the bottom before we fight back. Occupy was a good first step but we need to get into buy nothing mode to get the attention of the powers that be. We also need to remind our representatives and union leaders that they represent us. Happy Holidays!

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