A tad askew from the traditional view

Monday, August 15, 2005

99% of Us are Beneficiaries of the Labor Movement

One thing about getting along in years is you can always talk about the old days. And no matter how many eye-rolls you get, or how many sighs you hear, you can keep right on talking, because it's your inalienable right.

Fifty years ago, I was with a large company as a white collar worker. I was completely convinced that my employer cared very much about the level of my morale. We all were. Everything they did led us to that conclusion. Occasionally, someone might be fired for cause, but never was anyone laid off. The company had a Twenty-Five Year Club that encompassed at least half of all the employees. The members were proud to belong to it and the company seemed to be proud of them, and showed it in many ways. We all aspired to be members some day.

The feedback we would get as it came down the food chain only reinforced our feelings of comfort and security. I remember hearing that another large company in the area had hired an efficiency expert to come in and make changes. We were told that it had a negative impact on morale, however and that it had backfired on management and caused a drop in productivity. It was discussed with interest at every water cooler and we were told that such a thing would never happen where we worked.

Today, I read or hear stories related to working conditions and shake my head. What could have happened to cause such a drastic change? There are announcements of major layoffs involving thousands of employees on a regular basis. Sometimes, the layoffs are staged over a period of years, thus leaving the workers to worry from paycheck to paycheck, month to month, and year to year. In some instances the eliminated positions are transferred to outside contractors who hire the laid off workers and put them back to work doing the same job in the same space - space now sublet to the outside contractor - at approximately half the salary they made previously. Further, it is not uncommon for long term employees, whose jobs have been outsourced, to lose their pensions and health insurance benefits entirely.

The other day I was thinking about this general situation and fixating on how it was back in the fifties when I remembered that the company that literally turned itself inside out to make us happy did have one other very definite area of concern - unionization. The labor movement was riding high in those days. The unions aggressively exploited every opportunity to expand into new areas of opportunity, be they blue collar or white collar. Non-union companies, such as mine, were paranoid of the union movement and employees at unionized companies were doing well. The names of the union leaders were well known to everyone because of the power they wielded for good or evil - John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa, to name a few.

Then, I thought about how the power of the labor movement has diminished. How the AFL-CIO is threatening to break up, and how little we even read about the unions these days. The facts seemed to be suggesting the possible existance of a fundamental law in economics - namely, that the well being of all workers in America is directly related to and proportionate to the well being of the labor movement. And history tells us that the term "workers" in this case means everyone below top management. The junior officers in financial institutions, the mid level managers, the engineers, the scientists in drug companies – many of these workers, who very likely consider themselves to be disassociated from the labor movement, are, in fact, suffering from a high degree of work related anxiety these days, and the reality of the situation is that their job security has evaporated in lock step with the deterioration of the unions' power.

Unfortunately, our government has played a major role in this trend. President Reagan, himself a product of and beneficiary of the actor's union, unintentionally perhaps drove the largest nail into labor's coffin when he fired the striking air traffic controllers back in the eighties. This event more than any other precipitated the downward momentum of the labor movement. In addition, the large amounts of moneys "donated" by management to our politicians have resulted in legislation that has further weakened the unions. The term "management," as used here, means those who own and control the vast pools of corporate funds. Furthermore, a number of states are likely to be targeted by business groups and others associated with the Republican Party for the purpose of imposing legislative constraints on organized labor, such as requiring unions to obtain permission from their members before making political donations. Such a law has already eroded the political power of unions in the state of Utah.

It is a sad commentary on our money-based political system that it ends up benefiting the few and ignoring the interests of the many, and this is perhaps best illustrated by the recent history of the labor movement. Our forefathers' concept of democracy - a concept that is claimed to be embraced by the conservative members of our high court - has been totally corrupted by the ability of our politicians to lay their hands on unlimited funds.

Fifty years ago, my father told me that he believed strongly in the Pendulum Theory. He incorrectly thought of himself as management because he wasn't a member of a union, and he predicted that the momentum enjoyed by the labor movement at that time would come to be reversed. He was right on that point, of course, and if he was still alive and working today, he would most certainly be surprised to find that his job security had come to be reversed as well. We can only hope that the Pendulum Theory will hold true once again. In order for that to happen, however, it would seem that drastic changes would have to occur relative to campaign financing, and that is like asking those who are raking in the money to give up their rakes. Not a likely event - unless the electorate becomes sufficiently fed up, or the country experiences an economic catastrophy that forces it to change its direction.

Seventy plus years ago, the Great Depression ended managements' last great heyday and ushered in the era of labor. Will this be the silver lining if that dark cloud should once again cross our economic horizon?.......

12:16 AM

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