Tag Archives: unions

“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.

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We All Know What Labor Day’s About. Or Do We?

Labor Day is the day when we don’t have to work. Instead, we have picnics and barbecues and sit on our lawn chairs drinking beer. There might be a parade with classic cars for the grown-ups and clowns for the kids. Some businesses close their doors for the holiday. Others run special Labor Day sales and back-to-school specials, and deck their stores and commercials with red, white, and blue. It’s a national holiday, so someone must have once thought it was a good idea to give everyone a day off to mark the end of summer. In fact, it was such a great idea that someone made a whole weekend of it.

All of that may be true now, but it wasn’t how Labor Day started. It began as a holiday to celebrate the labor movement, trade unions, and the ways workers have contributed to building the United States. Take a closer look at that. It means the little guys – workers – who dared to pit themselves against Big Business – the bosses – and march, protest, and yes, sometimes riot in pursuit of ideals such as a living wage, weekends off, the eight-hour day, pensions, the ability to strike, and other changes.

(May 1st was also a candidate for “International Workers’ Day,” but conservative president Grover Cleveland felt that May 1st would celebrate a bloody confrontation in Chicago called the Haymarket Affair; socialism; and anarchy. In the fashion industry, Labor Day is considered the date past which one should not wear white or seersucker. But I digress.)

The labor movement and trade unions have fallen on hard times, what with politicians trying to gut their effectiveness, minimal concessions from bosses regarding rights, and the prevailing sentiment that “unions were useful once, but now have gone too far or been taken over by the mob.”

One of the heroes of the labor movement in the 1960s and 70s was César Chavez, a leader of the United Farm Workers’ trade union, which used nonviolent tactics such as strikes, pickets, and boycotts to advocate for better conditions for agricultural workers. He was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Other people have been associated with the labor movement and conditions of workers, nearly all of them leftists in their politics. In 1974, U.S. author “Studs” Terkel wrote Working, subtitled People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s gritty 2001 book Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America chronicled her three-month journalistic experiment of working at minimum-wage jobs like waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Walmart clerk.

This year’s COVID crisis has caused us to focus on who really are the essential workers in our society. To many people’s surprise, it turned out to be manufacturing workers, truck drivers, shelf stockers, and nursing home workers. Whole industries suffered from the lack of waitstaff, bartenders, cleaners, and cooks. Mom-and-pop shops took a bad hit. And of course, police, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other hospital workers were deemed the most essential of all. Some workers were offered “hazard pay” if they continued to stay at their posts during the first months of the pandemic. Many, if not most, workers, unless they were working from home, wore masks and were abused by those who did not. Masks and other personal protective equipment were in short supply in many hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes.

This year’s Labor Day celebrations should be a celebration of these essential workers, not just an end-of-summer opportunity for beer, parades, and speeches about how workers are the backbone of the country and, oh, yeah, what a great country it is, with the stock market (i.e., the bosses) doing so well.

At the very least, we should thank the people who keep society rolling in good times and bad, who manufacture and provide us with the necessities of daily living, and who remain largely unsung until a crisis forces us to pay attention to them – the workers. The laborers for whom this holiday is named.