“You Can’t Scare Me…”

No, this isn’t a Halloween post. If the postage stamp you see here isn’t enough of a clue, the rest of the title phrase is “I’m Sticking to the Union,” a song by Woody Guthrie.

(Woody Guthrie also wrote the song “This Land Is Your Land,” which isn’t the patriotic staple it’s been made out to be. An alternate verse goes:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Another verse was derogatory about the government’s response to the Great Depression. Guthrie was quite the socialist. But I digress.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Unions.

Unions have a bad rep. I’m not saying that there aren’t any reasons for this, but I am saying that unions have a real, positive function. Not all unions are about burying Jimmy Hoffa beneath the pitcher’s mound at some baseball stadium. They don’t all insist that their members can’t work for reasons specified in some clause-filled contract. And not all of them take weekly dues from employees’ paychecks while not doing anything at all for them.

Unions have legitimate functions. They always have.

Unions got their start when workers rebelled against companies and bosses that exploited them – kept their wages low and their jobs dangerous. And not just low like wages today are low. During the Great Depression, when Woody Guthrie was singing and the IWW organizing, Okies lived in camps and tried to feed whole families on the few cents a day they got for picking fruit.

The corporations fought back, of course. They employed strikebreakers to bust heads. (The union organizers were not blameless peaceniks. In addition to strikes and work stoppages, some of them resorted to bombs.)

But eventually, unions became legal and started working toward making life better for employees who had formerly been exploited. They got beneficial laws passed and virtually invented the 40-hour week, weekends, and vacations. They worked to outlaw child labor and unsafe working conditions in slaughterhouses and coal mines.

They’re so important that Cornell University (and some others) has a College of Industrial and Labor Relations, in addition to the usual ones like the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and my alma mater, the College of Arts and Sciences.

But what have unions done for us lately? I actually have an answer for that.

You see, my husband belongs to the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers union. And last year, he became a shop steward. Most of the time, that means that he and other union reps handle grievances that store employees have – instances where the management isn’t abiding by the contract on matters such as scheduling, taking breaks, and other routine matters.

The contract (and applicable law, for that matter) says that employees are entitled to breaks at regular intervals. A cashier at his store, who also happens to be diabetic, wasn’t receiving those breaks for lunch or even pee breaks when she needed them. Her managers weren’t giving her regular breaks because they were understaffed and no one could relieve her so she could relieve herself, as it were. The shop steward (my husband) and the union representative for the area brought a grievance and the management had to start filling in for the cashier themselves if there was no other employee available to give her a break.

Most people think of unions as people who negotiate wage and benefits packages with management. That is one of their most important functions. Recently, Dan was involved in the negotiations. They went on for months, in fits and starts. In the end, the company agreed to a $.50 per hour raise for all the workers – even the cart-pushers. It was less than the union wanted, but more than the company first offered.

Yes, there are problems between labor and management. And unions have been weakened over the years by unfavorable legislation that has tended to favor employers. (Don’t get me started on so-called “right to work” states. They’re anything but.)

But overall, I think that unions are still an important force in the business environment and a necessary one. From what I’ve seen, the UFCW is attentive and involved, putting forth their efforts to better the working conditions for employees. I’d like to think that Woody would have approved.

More salted caramels, please!

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