Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Recession is the Biggest Union Buster of All

An event as big as an economic recession blankets this country and the world and in so doing, affects everyone in a modicum of ways. Since economic motive influences everything, it proves anew the old saying that money makes the world go round. The media knows that seeking novelty and different permutations of any massive story are in its best interest to cover, because with that comes the attention and interest of the public. When often our its attention grows focused on a relatively narrow band of current events that then get analyzed and spun dry, you'd think it'd be more driven to find a different take or a brand new story. We'd then be able to get a much richer picture of day-to-day life. One of the things I love about the internet is that I routinely find seemingly ordinary stories that slip through the cracks. Frequently, these are the most fascinating of all.

Here my own submission. The local Atlanta chapter of Communication Workers of America (CWA 3204), of whom I was a member and frequently gave my free time to support, recently reached a state of frustrating stalemate in negotiating with the employer currently known as AT&T. Current arbitration and grievances involves the employer's reduction of benefits, increased paycheck deductions to cover health care insurance, and the ever-popular (and ancient) trick of hiring additional workers for less money and in so doing dividing job responsibilities and cutting hours once solely delegated to workers bringing home a higher rate of pay. The corporation calls it necessary expense reduction, and the union cries foul. One hardly needs to guess where my sympathies lay, but in these awful economic times, the biggest strike breaker of all is a factor called high unemployment.

A general strike would have been called weeks ago, but upon reflection the union is being forced to be practical. Strike pay can only last so long and since health care is provided through the employer, it could easily be terminated out of spite. Not only that, in a job market teeming full of out of work or underemployed workers, it would not take long at all for AT&T to fill the slots vacated by its unionized labor force and in so doing, also terminate the employment of its striking workers. These are the unfortunate realities and the reason why the union cannot afford to leave the negotiating table. Years of anti-union legislation started by Ronald Reagan have already severely weakened its bargaining power and when one factors in a horrific recession, one can clearly, shockingly observe what minimal power it has remaining. The romanticized notion of union solidarity and a good versus evil struggle many liberals hold is decades out of date.

I can't help but note the ironies. Some of this fight with no end is over benefits and, in particular, health care benefits, but the union, because it has no other option, continues to cling to negotiation even when at this rate it will probably be at the table for the rest of the year or longer. Forgive me for finding parallels between this scenario and what has passed for legislative strategy in attempting to hammer out a decent health care reform bill. In this example, Republican legislators could well represent union negotiators, since they cannot affect the debate aside from winning a few table-scrap, largely worthless concessions from the majority party who one would think hold most of the chips. They have no choice but to stay at the diplomatic table, since if they pulled away from it, they would look even weaker than they actually are and what's more, they might even find themselves out of a job by the end.

Conservative Americans strangely love a scrappy, outgunned underdog who takes a defiant stand against superior forces and whether he or she wins is often beside the point. If you need confirmation of this, I encourage you to look at George Wallace and count how many states he carried in his run for President in 1968. Moreover, the state where Wallace was paralyzed and effectively removed from the 1972 Presidential race by assassin's bullets was solidly Democratic Maryland, not his home state of Alabama. Nine years after his stand in the schoolhouse door, Wallace had renounced segregation and was polling well. Until the shooting, the Governor was thought to be a serious challenger for eventual nominee, George McGovern. Even from his hospital bed, Wallace won four primaries that year, which included both Michigan and Maryland.

Returning to the notion of unions versus companies, I'm reminded of the the Theodore Dreiser book Sister Carrie. In particular, I reflect upon the character of George W. Hurstwood, who in a depressing reverse American Dream descends from relative wealth to complete poverty. By the end he is so desperate for money to even feed himself that he takes a dangerous job as a scab, where he is paid to run a Brooklyn streetcar during a general strike. The money he receives as he crosses picket lines and takes his place behind the controls of the car is, he quickly finds, not worth the abuse and omnipresent threat of physical violence that greets him as he arrives at each new street. Though I never wish for physical or emotional violence ever as a punitive response, I do understand the attitudes of these turn-of-the-century working class wage earners who were understandably enraged at the lengths by which the company would resort to undercut their basic rights. At this point in American history, the only people willing to take on thankless, potentially even fatal occupations like this were those with nothing to lose, likely seeking first to feed themselves one more day--- alcoholics, the homeless, the mentally ill, and those of the direst poverty imaginable.

Nowadays, so many of us are unemployed and seeking work that the conventional models and programs regarding unemployment assistance and the established channels for attaining a job have been completely invalidated. With unemployment as high as 23% in some states, when one factors in workers who have left the workforce and haven't filed for unemployment compensation or are underemployed seeking full-time employment, one begins to understand the titanic scope of the problem. High unemployment effectively trumped the collective bargaining of the union I cited and unemployment has left government in a precarious, uncharted state where theories have to suffice for the tried-and-true. Republicans are receiving conflicting and mixed messages from their constituents as a result and, hoping to keep their own jobs, all they know to do is to fight for something, anything, even if it's completely illogical and wrong. I am glad that we have called them out for their gross inaccuracies and distortions, but I know there will be more of them to refute the closer we get to the 2010 congressional elections.

As for the unemployment that has thrown a spanner in the works of our entire societal framework, that's a much trickier issue. In time, I believe that it will reach more acceptable levels, but recessions begin slowly, snowball with time, then begin to melt away as slowly as they arrive. Returning to whatever we consider to be "normal" might take a year or more from now. Even so, I would at least hope that we'd take this present opportunity to make the changes that we've kept putting off before now because to be fair, no one's eyes were closed to the harsh realities. The reforms now being exhaustively discussed were guaranteed to create factions, tensions, and decrease political approval ratings in the process. No one can predict the future with any certainty, but along with health care reform and other worthy reforms what we honestly need most is a better way to adapt and quickly respond to the inevitable periods of boom and bust that typify any modern capitalistic system.

I recognize that the best minds are hard at work at this very task, but intellectuals alone can't solve problems like these. We have a responsibility to our fellow person as well as ourselves and no amount of regulation works as it could without a peoples' desire to watch the store and even be the whistle blower when the situation demands it. In a nation of at least 300 million people, there is no way government can do it alone. Even when we were much smaller in population and much less ethnically diverse, Washington, D.C. could not attend to every need it by itself. A relatively small amount of professional politicians can do an adequate job in power only if we assist them in their duties, bring to light injustices as they arise, and hold them accountable for their own actions. What gets me about people who yell and leave profanity-laden tirades on web boards about government-takeovers, or government running their daily lives, or government being too big and too intrusive is that they're giving government way too much credit. Not only that, they're not actively contributing to its improvement--instead, they're just complaining. My response to them now, as it always will be is this: Weak government means a weak economy, means a weak dollar, means high unemployment, means a hit in your own pocketbook. When it comes your time to sit at the eternal bargaining table, if it were me, I'd make sure I had the strongest hand possible.

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