By Seana Sperling
Unions are under attack by Corporate America and unfortunately, some people believe the propaganda against Unions. Do you like the eight-hour workday? How about the five-day workweek, vacations, sick pay, breaks? Without unions, all of that will go away. The neo-conservatives are busily defaming Unions and hacking away at our collective bargaining rights. Unions force the wealthy into being humane.
In this age of profits over people, we have seen an increase in bullying in the workplace to try and make people more productive, make them do other’s work and even taking breaks away. Also there is a tendency to try and privatize everything from the liquor stores to public schools.
In Washington State the liquor stores have recently become privatized. That was a loss of over 750 Union jobs according to one of the employees I spoke with. The employee also said that they were asked to stay on by the new owners, but without benefits, so they were looking elsewhere for employment. Another result of the privatization is that liquor costs have become higher because of added taxes and it is available everywhere, creating an easy outlet for juvenile shoplifters according to a report from KIRO 7 News.
The school bookstore on my campus was also privatized in the last couple of years and as a consequence we lost one of our best Union Shop Stewards and several other Union positions. (A couple of years earlier, another great Shop Steward was bullied out of her job by her department.)
In 1979 I began learning about the importance of Unions, the reasons they were formed and how much they improved the lives of the middle and working class. The first film I saw about Unions was Norma Rae, which was a fictionalized story about real life Union Organizer Crystal Lee Sutton. Set in a North Carolina Textile Company, where the working conditions were impacting the health of her parents who also worked at the mill, Norma Rae tells the story of her fight to organize her coworkers and their final success in unionizing the mill and getting better working conditions.
Matewan by John Sayles is another favorite film of mine. It is a fictionalized account of the 1920 battle between the miners and corporate thugs in Matewan, West Virginia, a coal mining area where men had terrible working conditions. A former IWW member arrives and begins to organize a strike and is harassed and defamed by the company thugs. (In reality, company thugs began evicting the striking miner’s families from company housing and that is what ultimately provoked the battle, according to Lon Savage’s online article, The Battle of Matewan.)
Nowadays people can’t appreciate the sacrifices that Union Organizers and the workers made because things like sick leave, vacations, coffee breaks, eight-hour-workdays have become the norm. We take it for granted, but many fought very hard and even lost their lives so we could enjoy these benefits today.
The eight-hour workday: I have seen this slip away from some positions. A friend of mine who was a nurse began working three 12-hour shifts during the week, so she could have four days off. This was her choice, however, I do not think that people can be equally sharp on a 12-hour shift as they can on an eight-hour shift. When I first heard that Nurses were doing this, I began to worry because these Nurses are Union members in the State of Washington. What if it stopped being a choice and became the norm? Has it? Many private companies will require overtime of employees as part of the job and in this case the employee has no choice. In some companies, 10 to 12 hour days are normal.
During summer my campus has a shorter week for classes Monday through Friday. My first, second, third, and fourth summer we had a choice of working our regular 8-hour, five-day week or we could do four tens. I never liked the four tens as I was exhausted by the end of the day and even with three days off in a row, it took one full day to recover. Last summer we had no choice, but to do the four tens. Some of us began to complain and because we took it to our Union, the college compromised this year. Now we can do four nine-hours and a half-day on Friday and decide to come a half-hour earlier, if we want to. Granted, nine hours is not as good as eight, but that half-day on Friday is always something to look forward to and we also have some choice.
Unions are under attack because they help the worker stand up to corporate greed. We live in a time when corporations are vying for power over the entire country. They outsource jobs, so they can squeeze every dram of blood from the penny, by paying lower wages in countries that have a lower exchange rate. Unfortunately there are a handful of wealthy multi-national companies that are entrenched in Washington D.C. and many politicians after leaving office go to work for these multi-nationals like Monsanto. I think that some people misunderstand that these so-called American companies have no real loyalty to any one country and therefore don’t really care if their company practices are in the realm of our national ethics. To them Unions are only a barrier against their company’s efficiency and profit margins.
I watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, recently. I was appalled at the attack on Teachers and especially Teacher’s Unions and the underlying tone was that Teachers should not have the protection of Tenure or their Unions. There seemed to be an emphasis on pointing out bad or failing Teachers and subtle support of Charter Schools running through the film. There was also intimation that Teachers were solely responsible for the student’s success. (This last part reminded me of Teaching for Peace Corps in the former Soviet Union, where if a student was failing a class, the Teacher was blamed. I was a new Teacher and the only foreigner in town, so the community cut me some slack, but they didn’t cut my colleagues any. This was part of the old Soviet System.)
There was one extremely disturbing scene in Waiting for Superman that showed Teachers in the “Rubber Room.” This disciplinary action against Teachers is taking place in New York State and it seems like a way to force Teachers out of their Tenure and Union jobs. (I know the East Coast is rampant with group bullying and group stalking, but I didn’t know School Boards were using psychological punishment against Teachers there.) This discipline targets Teachers who are under investigation for “something.” If Teachers want to remain on the payroll while under the investigation, they are sent to a large waiting room where they are restricted from using computers or other electronic devices and must just sit quietly. If a student, parent or someone else accuses a Teacher of anything, the Teacher can be suspended from the classroom and sent to the Rubber Room while the investigation is taking place.
The Rubber Room seems to be another tool to vilify Teachers and the Union. The Union protects the Teacher’s jobs even if they are “under investigation.” The limiting rules of the Rubber Room allow for no productivity while in the room and Teachers are filmed while sleeping or reading and then condemned for collecting a paycheck for doing nothing. A friend of mine from New York told me that a friend of hers, a fine Teacher had been sent to the Rubber Room on false charges. Finally the Teacher was able to get work at a different school according to my friend. A good Teacher was forced out her job with psychological bullying as far as I’m concerned.
We have to remember the sacrifices made by our Union Organizers and the rights they procured for all of us. If people continue to ignore the Rightwing/Corporate attack on our Unions and thus our rights in the workplace, we will spiral into a much wider disparity between the wealthy and the poor. A handful of wealthy can control a poor population, but they cannot control a healthy middle-class that stands up for their rights.