The care and feeding of Unions (or lack thereof)

Author’s Note: This post doesn’t have anything to do with BDSM, the lifestyle etc.  So feel free to skip over it if it’s not your cup of tea.

I work in retail.  Specifically a grocery store. Obviously, I’m not going to say which one, but suffice it to say it’s a moderately sized one, in the United States.  I’m also a member of a union, specifically the UFCW (United Food & Commercial Workers).  It’s not a huge union, it’s affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and it does represent many of the workers at grocery stores throughout the United States.  That being said, there are many grocery store workers it doesn’t represent.

Unfortunately, over the last 30-40 years unions have started to shrink dramatically, and been given short shrift.  When you think about a lot of the things that you might take for granted, like a 40 hour work week, weekends off (mostly, depending on your job) child labor laws, OSHA regulations etc., you might want to thank the labor movement and unions.  They’re the impetus or the grease for the wheels of industry.  Without the labor movement of the 1930s and 40s, none of this would be the norm now.  But nowadays, unions are dying, for many reasons, but mostly because large corporations would prefer to keep their employees under their thumb more, and less organized.  Less organization means they can call the shots more, and keep their labor under more control.

During the 1970s, the largest corporations were in the automotive business.  GM, Ford, and Chrysler (The Big 3) had most of the clout and market share and their unions had large memberships and a good amount of power.  Union members were making probably $20-30/hour, the pension plans were well funded and members were happy, working well and retiring without much of a problem.

During the election cycle of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was running against Ronald Reagan, Reagan didn’t have much in the way of support from labor unions.  Ironically, PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic COntrollers union after some debate endorsed Reagan for the Presidency.  In August of 1981, Reagan essentially dissolved the same union when he fired the air traffic controllers for what he said was an illegal strike.  Overnight 11,000 people were not only out of a job, they were barred from ever being employed again as controllers.  Certainly, this was quite unprecedented in the history of the US, but it turned out to be a major catalyst in the downfall of unions today.

Today, the corporation with the most workers is Wal-Mart.  Are Wal-Mart’s employees unionized?  Absolutely not.  Wal-Mart is so anti-union they have their own division that constantly is on the prowl looking for people that might be considering talking about unionizing, and if they get wind of such an action, they kick into high gear to bust it up, even to the point of closing a store that might be considered towards unionization.  They want their employees to be controlled by them, not a union.

In 2000, in Jacksonville, Texas, a Wal-Mart’s meat department’s employees voted 7-3 to establish a connection with the local union.  Wal-Mart’s knee-jerk reaction was to ultimately fire all the meat cutters and butchers in their entire company and replace all of the previously fresh cut meat with pre-packaged meat.  They stated that this had been their plan all along, but there were no indications anywhere that this was the case.

Now, I’ve worked for grocery stores that were unionized and non-unionized.  When I first started working for a company where there was a union, I honestly felt that there wasn’t a need for the union.  It was required if I wanted to work there that I had to be a member, and I was required to pay dues every week.  Too, a small amount of my paycheck went toward the union-backed health care plan, and ultimately my pension (if I worked long enough) would be handled by the union as well.  The company that I was working for didn’t have any sort of pension plan, health care plan etc.  They were just the place where the union employees worked.  After 17 years of working through the union, I finally had a situation where being a union member mattered.  Suffice it to say I was terminated from my job for something I didn’t do, but through negotiation and arbitration, I got my job back.  Had I not been a member of the union, it’s very likely this would not have occurred.

I certainly see more and more that unions are having less and less impact on the health and safety of workers in the US.  Between ‘right to work’ and corporations getting more and more from their workers and giving back less and less, certainly keeping wages stagnant and decimating pension plans, I wonder in 50 years if there will be any labor unions at all.