Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Unions: Learning From History

As State workers protest for their rights in Wisconsin; as teachers in NYC prepare to lose 8,000 in their ranks due to budget cuts; and as workers across America, legal and undocumented, unionized and otherwise, fear for their jobs and their survival, now would be a good time to be reminded about what unions have meant for American workers – and what they mean now.

Unionization here has its roots in the Gilded Age of Industrial America at the turn of the 19th-to-20th century, and became the cause celeb of the 1930s and 1940s. Because of unionization, people who had worked and often become injured, sick or died in factories and mines under unspeakable conditions became heroes and agents of fabulous social change.

Through unionization, the general public became aware of inhumane working conditions. Unions brought forth the five-day week, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, an end to child labor and, increasingly, the inclusion of health, vacation and retirement benefits. There is no question that communists/socialists played a role in unionization – and government and management used this bogeyman to undermine unions and turn workers against them. It was a shitty ploy way back when, and it still is now.

Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers union, working people have, in many instances, begun to take a step backwards. Office workers, in particular, who have rarely had the benefit of union protection, have had no recourse in the face of corporate downsizing, outsourcing, salary and benefit decreases, and constant pressure to take on more work in the same amount time and for the same amount of money.

I do want to acknowledge that contemporary unions in some industries have become corrupt, greedy and uncooperative, and as seemingly uncaring of workers rights and safety as small company owners and corporate monoliths. Given the noble history of American unions, this is a shame and a travesty, and no one can deny that such unions need to clean house and straighten up and fly right.

Members of all unions should be pushing for reform in their leadership and make unions the legitimate voice of working people once again. Some teachers’ unions, for example, which in the past did so much to ensure the protection of teachers and the quality of American education, definitely seem to have lost their way.

In New York, the union wants the 8,000 teachers who are threatened with dismissal to be “the last ones hired,” protecting older teachers and tenure, without regard for the quality of the teachers that remain. Teachers themselves are calling for cuts based on lack of talent and unproductive performance, but their union leaders are not backing them up. This will have a disproportionate impact on poor kids in low-income neighborhood schools, because it’s the newest teachers that generally get these undesirable assignments.

However, the fact that some unions are not what they should be does not exempt employers from treating workers fairly, or the general public from not supporting the rights of working people. Once again, the misguided belief on the part of many people who like to think of themselves as middle class instead of working class results in their not identifying with other workers and championing their cause.

It’s the same delusionary thinking that allows some working people to embrace Republican and Conservative values, even though those political platforms are antithetical to their best interest. In addition, the increasing employment of undocumented workers – illegal aliens whom much of the country fear and despise – have allowed factory work to return to pre-union conditions of sweatshops with child labor.

Indeed, it is a complete lack of a sense of solidarity with working people around the world that has permitted Americans to take advantage of cheap, imported goods, ignoring the fact that the workers in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and other locales are toiling under conditions we rejected 100 years ago.

It would be of great benefit to working people here and worldwide if Americans supported proper union goals and efforts. If we don’t, we run the risk of soon working countless hours for pennies under miserable condi-tions. As we watch the labor activities of the moment unfold, it’s something important to keep in mind.


Edward said...

Interestingly, I met a brillianat young woman at a very chic Madison Avenue gallery opening. The crowd was very UES & European and this oyung lady appeared to fit right in. Much to my surprise when we spoke I learned she was a 2st grade teacher in the South Bronx and was terrified about the upcoming layoffs. Never did she mention once that there were teachers who had tenure but were not cutting it, instead she feared for several friends who worked beyond the call, finanaced special in class projects and even school trips for their students. What do you tell a young dedictaed professional in this day? I have forwarded your Tower blog to her and hope she will know that there are indeed some people out there who understand the wrongness of this situation

Ira said...

So glad you're back blogging again, Jeanne! We need your righteous indignation. And yes, I still plan to get together w/you very soon...hope you can.