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On America Working: The War on Workers
Published on Monday, September 4, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
On America Working: The War on Workers
by David Sirota
 

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige labeled one "a terrorist organization." Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called them "a clear and present danger to the security of the United States." And U.S. Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., claimed they employ "tyranny that Americans are fighting and dying to defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan" and are thus "enemies of freedom and democracy," who show "why we still need the Second Amendment" to defend ourselves with firearms.

Who are these supposed threats to America? No, not Osama bin Laden followers, but labor unions made up of millions of workers -- janitors, teachers, firefighters, police officers, you name it.

Bashing organized labor is a Republican pathology, to the point where unions are referenced with terms reserved for military targets. In his 1996 article, headlined "GOP Readies for War With Big Labor," conservative columnist Robert Novak cheered the creation of a "GOP committee task force on the labor movement" that would pursue a "major assault" on unions. As one Republican lawmaker told Novak, GOP leaders champion an "anti-union attitude that appeals to the mentality of hillbillies at revival meetings."

The hostility, while disgusting, is unsurprising. Unions wield power for workers, meaning they present an obstacle to Republican corporate donors, who want to put profit-making over other societal priorities.

Think the minimum wage just happened? Think employer-paid health care and pensions have been around for as long as they have by some force of magic? Think again -- unions used collective bargaining to preserve these benefits. As the saying goes, union members are the folks that brought you the weekend.

The government's numbers explain how unions have helped their members. According to an analysis of federal data by the Labor Research Association, average union members receive a quarter more in compensation than nonunion workers. Eighty-nine percent of union members have access to employer-sponsored health care, compared to just 67 percent of nonunion workers. Unionized workers receive 26 percent more vacation than nonunion workers.

Unions also benefit nonunion workers. That's thanks to the "union threat effect" whereby anti-union companies meet higher standards in order to prevent workers from becoming angry and organizing. For instance, Princeton researchers found in industries that are 25 percent unionized, average nonunion workers get 7.5 percent more compensation specifically because of unionization's presence.

The flip side is obvious: The more corporations and politicians crush unions, the more all workers suffer. It is no coincidence that as union membership and power has declined under withering anti-union attacks, workers have seen their wages stagnate, pensions slashed, and share of national income hit a 60-year low. As Council on Foreign Relations scholars put it, the decline in unions "is correlated with the early and sharp widening of the U.S. wage gap."

Big Business claims union membership has declined because workers do not want to join unions -- a claim debunked by public-opinion data. In 2002, Harvard University and University of Wisconsin researchers found at least 42 million workers want to be organized into a bargaining unit -- more than double the 16 million unionized workers in America. A 2005 nationwide survey by respected pollster Peter Hart found 53 percent of nonunion workers -- that's more than 50 million people -- want to join a union, if given the choice.

Increasingly, however, workers have no real choice. According to Cornell University experts, 1 in 4 employers illegally fires at least one worker during a union drive, 3 in 4 hire anti-union consultants, and 8 in 10 force workers to attend anti-union meetings. When workers petition the government to enforce laws protecting organizing rights, they are forced to go before the National Labor Relations Board, which is both run by anti-union presidential appointees, and chronically understaffed so as to slow down proceedings. When Democrats have tried to expand workers' union rights by introducing the Employee Free Choice Act, the GOP has prevented a vote on the legislation.

So when GOP lawmakers pledge their commitment to workers at Labor Day celebrations today, remember -- Republicans are waging a war on the very workers they purport to care about.

David Sirota is the author of "Hostile Takeover" (Crown, 2006). He is the co-chair of the Progressive States Network (www.progressivestates.org).

Copyright © 2006 The San Francisco Chronicle

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