"ENJOY WEEKENDS? Give thanks to the Bible," declared a headline in The Free
Lance-Star last week.
This explanation was news to me. Heathen that I am, I always thought we had
the labor movement to thank for the weekend--as well as for other things
such as the minimum wage, workplace safety protections, and prohibition of
I'm not alone on this. The consensus among labor historians is that bosses
and politicians made concessions to workers after having something like the
fear of God put in them--but that happened because men and women marched in
streets and sat down on factory floors, not because the powerful cracked
open the Good Book and realized the error of their ways.
Still, The Free Lance-Star's faith-based dissing of the labor movement
pretty much captures the spirit of our times (in more ways than one). Unions
are routinely dismissed as anachronisms, which is no surprise given that
organized labor can lay claim to only 8 percent of all private-sector
workers these days.
It's this dismal state of affairs that led the Teamsters and the Service
Employees International Union to bolt the AFL-CIO earlier this week.
The dissident unions are part of the Change to Win Coalition, which argues
that the AFL-CIO has spent too much time and money on politics on behalf of
the Democratic Party and not enough on building up union membership.
That's a losing strategy, the coalition says.
John Wilhelm, an official in UNITE HERE, one of the unions in the coalition,
said in a recent forum published in The Nation magazine: "It is not our
preference to leave the AFL-CIO at all. But the definition of insanity is
doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
Some union leaders, however, argue that the coalition is creating a rift in
the labor movement that will benefit the enemies of working men and women.
"I think the only one who wins from this is George Bush and his minions who
are trying to weaken labor unions," Gerald McEntee, president of the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the
McEntee's concern is not unreasonable, but Change to Win's SEIU is one union
that has seen membership gains in recent years. Maybe the coalition can
duplicate that success under the guidance of SEIU President Andy Stern. It's
worth a try.
It's also important to note that the Democrats haven't exactly fought tooth
and nail for workers in recent times. Why, one might ask, should the labor
movement remain so close to the party?
It makes sense to build up a power base independent of the Democratic Party,
formulate an agenda that benefits the people who make up that base, then
pressure the Dems (and the moderate Republicans still out there) to fall
into line. Historically, this is how meaningful change has occurred in our
No one should doubt that unions still have a crucial role to play in a just
society. Workers who belong to unions get better pay and are more likely to
receive benefits and pensions. Women and minorities in particular profit
from union membership.
Many Americans might not know these facts, but employers do. And America's
biggest employer, Wal-Mart, has acted on this knowledge with an anti-union
zeal that's unrivaled among today's fat cats.
It's easy to understand why Wal-Mart is hostile to unions. Under the current
balance of power between the company and its employees--uh, I mean
"associates"--the average hourly wage is $9.68. That's substantially lower
than the average hourly wage for all retail workers, which is $12.28. (In
case you're wondering, the average hourly wage for all nonsupervisory
workers in our labor force is $15.90.)
In addition, only about half of Wal-Mart's employees can afford to buy into
the company's health-insurance plan. As a result, Wal-Mart employees are
turning in droves to government-funded health programs to ensure that their
children can see a doctor when they're sick.
Wal-Mart stands in marked contrast to Costco, which has a partly unionized
work force (the Teamsters represent about 15,000 workers at Costco stores in
California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia). Costco pays an
average of $16 an hour, and 82 percent of its employees are covered by
company health insurance.
If the Change to Win Coalition wants to prove itself, it must zero in on
Wal-Mart the way the labor movement took aim at Ford and General Motors in
an earlier era.
There's still a war to be won out there in the American workplace, and that
big, yellow smiley face should be a rejuvenated labor movement's first
Rick Mercier is a a writer and news editor for The Free Lance-Star. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.