By Thom Hartmann
Tuesday 19 September 2006
Unless you are a CEO, you don't have a lot of leverage to demand benefits at your workplace. Every year or two, you might go to your boss and ask for a raise or an extra day of vacation, but usually you can't do much about what hours you work, what health benefits you receive or how your retirement benefits are structured. Unions give workers that leverage.
Unions are designed to give workers a voice in decisions that affect their jobs. They allow workers to negotiate with their employers for wages, health benefits, retirement benefits, and good working conditions. In the best circumstances, unions partner with companies - both have an interest in satisfied, happy workers.
Unions create a middle class by allowing you and me to ask for the wages and the benefits we need to become or remain middle class. Unionized workers earn higher wages, have better benefits, enjoy greater job stability, and work in a safer environment. In 2003 union workers earned an average of 27 percent more than nonunionized workers. Seventy-three percent of union workers received medical benefits compared with just 51 percent of nonunion workers. And 79 percent of union workers have pension plans.
Conservatives have slandered unions for more than a hundred years. Professional people have bought the line that it is unprofessional to be in a union, that only blue-collar workers unionize. People worried about their status and legitimacy - like nurses - tend not to join unions.
But it's not true that unions are just for blue-collar workers. Unions are for anyone who wants to be middle class. Teachers are almost all unionized. Actors - most of whom are not Sean Penn or Charlize Theron and don't get paid big bucks - are almost all unionized. Anyone who works needs the rights that unions can provide.
Most of us don't think about workplace rights. We assume that because we live in America, we have all the rights we need.
There are no constitutional protections in the workplace. Most people are at-will employees, which means they can be hired or fired at will. Federal law protects you from being fired because of race, age, gender, or disability, but it doesn't protect you from being fired for saying that the boss is overworking you or the company's actions are immoral. You can't say that sort of thing in the workplace because the workplace is not a democracy.
Why does that matter?
If you can't talk freely about your working conditions, you can't negotiate changes to those conditions. If you're afraid the boss will fire you if you complain about overtime, you have no way to prevent your boss from requiring you to work extra hours.
We have a democracy in this country because the Founders realized that they could not change the king of England's lousy taxation system unless they had representation in government. Democracy gives us the power to create a society that matches our needs. Democracy in the workplace allows us to negotiate the conditions of our work.
According to Thea M. Lee, assistant director of public policy for the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), for there to be democracy in the workplace, workers must have fundamental rights. These rights include freedom of association - which means the right to organize and bargain collectively - and prohibitions on child labor, forced labor, and discrimination in employment.
You may think that we have all of these rights now. We don't. US workers have almost no right to organize. Every 23 minutes in the United States, a worker is either fired or harassed for trying to unionize. Our president goes around the world, talking about the importance of bringing democracy. We loved Lech Walesa and his union movement in Poland. But today, if the middle class is to survive, we need a Lech Walesa in the United States - or at least some honest education about our own country's labor history.
In 1874 unemployed workers were demonstrating in New York City's Tompkins Square Park. Riot police moved in and began beating men, women, and children with billy clubs, leaving hundreds of casualties in their wake. The police commissioner said: "It was the most glorious sight I ever saw."
Three years later, on June 18, 1877, 10 coal-mining activists were hanged. That same year a general strike in Chicago - called the Battle of the Viaduct - halted the movement of US railroads across the states. Federal troops were called up, and they killed 30 workers and wounded more than a hundred.
In September 1882, 30,000 workers marched in the first-ever Labor Day in New York history. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was established, and it passed a resolution stating that eight hours should constitute a legal day's work. Hundreds of thousands of American workers began following that rule.
In May 1, 1886, the Knights of Labor took to the streets to call for an eight-hour day. Eighty thousand workers shut down the city of Chicago. On May 4, 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown that killed seven policemen. Eight of the people present were rounded up, tried for murder, and sentenced to death. The Haymarket riot became the symbol of labor injustice in America.
This is but a fragment of the history of the labor movement in the United States. Matters improved when labor got organized - but not much. In fact, by the 1920s things looked a lot like they do today: the robber barons were in charge, and the situation for working people was bleak. The rich were incredibly rich, and the few middle-class workers were deeply in debt. The labor movement appeared virtually dead.
It took the Republican Great Depression to wake people up. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt to speak the truth. If a politician said the same things today that Roosevelt did in the 1930s - openly accusing big business of being anti-American and antiworker - he'd be accused of socialism and communism. Very few national figures have the courage to speak out today the way FDR did back then.
Roosevelt provided courageous leadership. In his first term, he had sent to Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act, which set standards for wages and working hours and established the right of laborers to organize. This set the stage for labor groups to bargain for wages and conditions. Thanks in large part to FDR's work on behalf of labor, in the 25 years after World War II the real incomes of the middle class doubled.
Today America is regressing. Middle-class income has stopped growing. The net worth of those who earn less than $150,000 per year (which includes everybody from the working poor to the highest end of the most well-off of the middle class) is down by 0.6 percent.
The problem isn't the economy. Corporations are making more money than ever. The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling.
What's happening is simple: the rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle class is disappearing.
We can easily trace this decline to Reagan's first public declaration of war on the middle class when he went after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. He broke the back of the air-traffic controllers' union and began the practice of using the Department of Labor - traditionally the ally of workers - against organized labor and working people.
Reagan liked to say he was against "big government." What he really meant was that he was against Roosevelt's New Deal. He was against Social Security, the minimum wage, free college education (he ended that in California as its governor), and programs like the Works Progress Administration. He believed in the discredited concept of "trickle-down" economics - the theory that if you create a corporatocracy, the rich will nobly spend some of their money to help the rest of us.
The American people don't need handouts. Our workers just want to be paid a living wage for a fair day's work. We can't count on the corporatocracy to give us what we earn, so we need a strong labor movement to give us the power to negotiate our wages and benefits.
Ultimately, it's all about power.
Workplaces are not democracies - in the United States they're run more like kingdoms. Employers have the power to hire and fire, to raise or lower wages, to change working conditions and job responsibilities, and to change hours and times and places. Workers have only the power to work or to not work (known as a strike).
The strike - a tool that can effectively be used only by organized labor - is the only means by which workers can address the extreme imbalance of power in the workplace. And because organized labor is a democracy - leadership is elected and strike decisions and contracts are voted on - unions bring more democracy to America. We spend about half our waking lives at work - with a strong labor movement, at least we can have some democracy in the workplace; and democracy in the workplace leads to a strong middle class.
Thom Hartmann is the author of Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It, from which this piece has been excerpted.