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Who Can Believe How Far We’ve Fallen?

How many stockbrokers, lawyers, bankers, accountants, or aluminum siding salesmen would turn down a big, fat pay raise if it came with strings attached? What if accepting that raise was contingent upon future new-hires being denied the opportunity to earn those same wages? Would they make a personal sacrifice for these unsuspecting, future employees—reject a pay raise as a matter of principle—or would they take the money and run? My guess is that most would take the money.

And yet we hear the pejorative term “sell-out” applied to union negotiators who agree to two-tier arrangements. Under a two-tier wage/benefit schedule, new-hires can never receive the same compensation as those employees already on the payroll. We hear “sell-out” applied to the UAW (United Auto Workers), and, unfortunately, we hear it applied with little or no understanding of how ferociously the union resisted it, or how forcefully the two-tier configuration was crammed down their throats.

Look at the record. First of all, no one but organized labor categorically opposes the two-tier system. That’s because only organized labor has the ideological and institutional solidarity to generate that opposition. Second, unions are known to have risked their own economic well-being by designating the two-tier as a “strike issue.” Again, how many bankers would put themselves at risk to help future bankers? And third, the history of collective bargaining shows that those unions who accepted the two-tier were dragged to that decision, kicking and screaming.

I’ve sat at the bargaining table when the two-tier was broached. It’s an insidious negotiating device. To begin with, the company comes at you with a steamroller. They paint a dreadful economic picture, one colored with dire scenarios of massive takeaways, lay-offs, even plant closures. In the case of the UAW, the companies’ woes were already public knowledge. Everyone knew Detroit was getting creamed by Japan, and that the UAW had lost over a million members, reducing it to a shell of its former self.

Management tells you that they’re sinking, that they need help, that they need a lifeline. It’s terrible news. The picture is dark; prospects are dark; the meeting room itself seems to palpably darken. Then, suddenly, a ray of light….when they announce that there’s a way out of this mess, a way that won’t require paycuts, or penalties, or furloughs, or layoffs, or increased medical premiums.

If the union will allow the company to low-ball all future employees, the company will promise not to penalize any existing employees. Simple as that. Everyone not only gets to keep all the goodies they currently have, but there might even be a modest pay raise in the piece. All they have to do is allow the company to change the way they compensate new-hires. But the company also somberly warns the union: If they reject this two-tier proposal, those necessary cost savings will have to come out of the membership’s own hide.

When the union presents its standard objections—that these draconian steps aren’t necessary, that they’re contrived, that they aren’t fair, that they’re un-American, that they’ll be resented, etc.—the company reminds us that no one presently on the payroll, not one single person, will be affected by this arrangement, that it only applies to hypothetical workers, to “fictitious” workers, to workers who don’t technically even “exist.”

They make it sound eminently reasonable. They remind the union that if any potential new-hire examines the contract and doesn’t like what he sees in the two-tier arrangement, he’s free to walk away and find work elsewhere. After all, it’s a free country. No one’s going to be forced to do anything or sign on to anything that doesn’t make absolute sense to them. In other words, it’s your classic win-win situation.

But make no mistake. By acknowledging that the beleaguered UAW had its back against the wall, no one is suggesting that the two-tier is defensible, because it’s not. Indeed, it’s unfair, it’s extortionate, it kills morale, it erodes solidarity, and, ultimately, it betrays you, because even after you agree to it (against your better judgment), the company continues to chip away at your wages and benefits—as if you never agreed to anything.

The two-tier is an abomination. But the problem isn’t how to identify it; the problem is how the heck do you stop it from finding its way into a union contract.

The job declension that exists today resembles something like this (listed in declining order):

-Full-time, fully paid and fully benefited workers

-Two-tier workers (lesser pay, lesser benefits)

-Common jobs (mediocre pay, occasional benefits; Walmart)

-Perma-temps (sufficient hours, no benefits)

-Temps (spotty work, no benefits)

-Undocumented workers (less than federal min. wage, no benefits, victimization)

-Part-time workers (supplemental income, no bennies)

-Day-laborers (low pay, no bennies, no guaranteed work)

-Panhandlers

Clearly, those who have it best are the men and women employed in full-time jobs at decent pay with good benefits (e.g., union workers in a big-time manufacturing plant). Correspondingly, those who have it the worst are the guys, usually Spanish-speakers, who hang out at Home Depot looking for pick-up jobs.

That top category, where people make decent wages and enjoy good benefits, used to be considered standard procedure in America. No one really felt it was that big a deal. After all, good jobs were what this country was supposed to be all about. Today those “regular” jobs are considered a luxury. That’s how far we’ve fallen.

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