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Harder To Find The Union Label
Published on Monday, September 3, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Harder To Find The Union Label
by Harley Sorensen
 
Today is Labor Day. Perhaps working people should wear black armbands today. Perhaps this day should be designated a national day of mourning. The working men and women of America are slowly being ground down by the forces of greed, expediency and apathy.

America's workers are in trouble. In 1950, about half were represented by labor unions. Now that number is down to about one in seven.

Our politicians don't seem to care much about working men and women. Our last elected president, Bill Clinton, came from the land of nonunion shops like Wal-Mart and Tyson Chicken. In Arkansas, "union" is a bad word, akin to "communist" or "molester."

Our selected president, George W. Bush, is from Texas, where the welcome mat is always out for wretchedly poor Mexicans to cross the Rio Grande and work like slaves for peon wages.

It is well for us to remember, on Labor Day, Emma Lazarus's 1883 inscription for the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

That's a noble sentiment, and we all applaud it (no matter how much we abhor those huddled masses), but there perhaps should be a second inscription: "After you get here, Bubba, we're going to put you to work and pay you as close to nothing as we can get away with."

In America, it was always thus. The first slaves here were not blacks from Africa but rather white Europeans known euphemistically as "indentured servants." Those servants were required to work like slaves for seven years (more or less) to "pay" for their passage to the New World.

After that they were "free" -- free to continue to work like slaves for poverty wages.

(A variation of the indentured servant practice continues today, with Asian women virtually tied to their machines in garment-making sweat shops.)

Considering the conditions for early American workers, it is not surprising that they eventually caught on to the labor union movement nudging forward in Europe.

Organization was difficult. Unions were sullied as "immoral." Then, as now, politicians were in the pockets of big contributors. So working people got precious little help from their elected officials.

When they did get organized, one of the first things they campaigned for was a shorter work day: 10 hours. Twelve hours was too long, the unions argued. And they wanted one day a week off, Sunday.

Employers were shocked and dismayed at these outrageous demands, but somehow the unions carried the day.

If you think today's employers are one iota different than those of 100 or 200 years ago, you don't know much about people. In a dog-eat-dog culture like ours, the big dog will always eat the little dog, given the chance.

Most of us know about -- but few seem to appreciate -- the success unions eventually enjoyed. They got the work week down to five days, the work day down to eight hours. They won paid vacations. They won health care benefits and pensions.

People who work in nonunion shops -- Wal-Mart or Costco, for instance -- very often have no idea how much unions help them. Because unions have improved working conditions for union members elsewhere, the nonunion shop owners must offer comparable pay and benefits. If they don't, they'll have a hard time finding employees, and sooner or later their shops will be unionized.

Modern employers are doing everything they can to keep unions out. One tactic is to do away with "employees" and call them "independent contractors" instead. The "contractors" do all the work employees did, but they get no benefits, and their companies are not obligated to pay Social Security taxes for them or fuss with any messy bookkeeping.

Another tactic is to set up "profit-sharing" plans that make employees part "owners" of the company. Their "ownership" is insignificantly small, but it legally makes them part of management and thus not eligible for union membership.

When it comes to cheating people, American ingenuity is unsurpassed.

Although entrepreneurs hate to reward the people who make them rich, it would be unfair to omit mentioning that unions have done a lot to dig their own graves. It's hard to find a major union that isn't corrupt at some level.

One often returns to Lord Acton's 1887 words: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Labor unions were fine while they were weak and fighting for power, but once they got that power they became as corrupt as the people they were fighting.

To abandon unions because of that, however, is to throw the baby out with the bath water. The focus of working people should be to correct their unions, not abandon them.

To that end, don't look to our politicians for help. Bush, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, is incapable of understanding the concept of unionism, let alone its necessity.

In California, Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, is not one whit better. It doesn't take long in the halls of power and free-flowing money to forget the people who put you there.

Bush showed his utter contempt for working people when he appointed Elaine Chao secretary of labor.

The secretary of labor is supposed to give a voice and some power to working people, but Chao, wife of a conservative Republican senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, is a fox sent to guard the chicken coop.

She seems like a nice person, but not the one for the job of labor secretary. So far she has done absolutely nothing for working people. Her standard dodge is "more study."

So today is Labor Day. Perhaps working people should wear black armbands today.

They have few friends and they are fighting a losing battle.

Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist and iconoclast. His column appears Mondays. E-mail him at harleysorensen@yahoo.com.

©2001 SF Gate

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