BY JIM HIGHTOWER
Unions. Who needs ’em? They’re so passe, so 1930s.
This is the frantic argument being pushed by corporate lobbyists who’re worried by the recent resurgence in union organizing, political punch and public support. Sure, say these corporatists, unions were needed back in the bad ol’ Depression days, when rich executives and investors treated workers with all the respect that a Kleenex gets – use ’em up, toss ’em out.
But, hey, Bucko, that was last century! We’re all in the modern global economy today, where cooperation – not confrontation – is the key. Workers are now called “associates,” and we deal with each of them as individuals in a flexible workforce willing to help top executives cut labor costs. Unions just get in the way of this, don’t you see?
This line of “thinking” was expressed a couple of weeks ago by John Engler, the former Michigan politician who’s now chief lobbyist and noted labor theorist for the National Association of Manufacturers: “In the sophisticated workplaces of the 21st Century, you see management and labor often work closely together to beat the competition. When they’re doing that, the need for unions is obviated. And when management and unions are not working together, unions are not likely to succeed and not likely to survive.”
What Professor Engler is telling us is that, ergo, ipso facto and ad absurdum, he’s a gooberhead.
The need for unions is hardly obviated when worker productivity keeps rising, only to be rewarded by declining wages, elimination of health care benefits and cancellation of pensions. Meanwhile, downsizings and offshorings of American jobs are rampant, and part-time work is the new norm.
Yet, as CEOs energetically apply the ax to workers, they have lavished pay on themselves. It’s a scream to hear corporate chieftains bemoan union wages while unabashedly paying themselves $10,000-an-hour, plus getting luxury-level bennies. Top execs are getting so rich they could afford to air-condition hell – and some ought to be setting some money aside for that project.
Not only are unions needed, there is a widespread yearning for them today. A 2006 poll of the general public found that 68% of us believe that labor unions are necessary to protect working families. In that same year, a survey of workers by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that 60 million Americans would join a union tomorrow if they could.
So, why don’t they?
Because the rules have been deliberately rigged during the past 30 years by corporate lobbyists to make union organizing next to impossible. Want to organize your workplace? Of those who try, 20% get fired. If an organizing campaign is launched, union representatives are not allowed inside the business to talk to employees, but every employee can be forced to attend intimidating, one-on-one meetings with corporate supervisors who at least imply that supporting the union would be bad for their future at the company. And, even against these odds, if a majority of employees say “yes” to a union, the executives can simply ignore them, refusing to negotiate a contract.
Corporate interests are fond of saying that unions are dying, as though it’s the passing of some old loved one whose time has simply come. Hogwash and horsehockey. This is no natural passing, but a roughhouse mugging by guys in Armani suits.
But their rigged game could be up. The Employee Free Choice Act would make union organizing campaigns more fair. If a majority of workers in an office, factory or other place sign cards to form a union, the corporation would have to recognize this reality and negotiate in good faith.
Corporate lobbyists, congressional Republicans and a handful of corporate Democrats are desperate to block this effort to provide a touch of economic democracy in our country. Incoming-President Barack Obama backed the Free Choice Act in his campaign – but will he now have the stuff to stand forcefully against the recalcitrant corporate powers and actually push for its enactment?
This will be an early measure of how much of his “change agenda” is real.