Monday, March 12, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Imagining Free Choice

Terry McKenna is back today, to touch on a theme that extends far beyond the boundaries of organized labor. For we live in a time of a corporate presidency and government-by-intimidation; the same union-busting, anti-labor, dehumanizing tactics used by the Wal-Marts and Nikes of this world are eagerly imitated in Washington—and being a U.S. attorney doesn't make you immune.

This Bushian hatred of humanity and cynicism toward any form of professional competence has reached such a demonic level of darkness that it must be ritually exorcised wherever it passes. At least that's what the Mayans think, and I can't question them there.

And now, Terry McKenna, on the Employee Free Choice Act:

Sierra Club

This week, I want to highlight the Employee Free Choice Act. In case you haven’t heard or read about it, it’s a pro union measure that just passed in the House. If it becomes law, union organizing will become as simple as signing kids up for little league. And that sounds OK, doesn’t it? Of course, in doing so, the law also takes away from employers most of the tools* they have used over the past 30 years to prevent their employees from joining unions. As you might imagine, the White House is against it.

The bill’s intent is to reverse the decline of American unions. Is this a problem? For workers it is. For businesses, the decline has been a boon. Thus, it is an issue worth discussing. By the way, one of the reasons for the decline of unions is the decline of large-scale manufacturing. But this disappearance hardly explains all of it. As our economy manufactures lots of low wage service jobs in places like Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s, the failure of unions must be attributed to other factors.

So where is the debate on this important issue? That there is none is the problem. And there’s the rub. Not everything wrong in America can be tied to George Bush or the Republicans. In fact, our polity is unable to grapple with most of our problems. Thus, our polity is FUBAR.

And note, I am not pro-union, nor am I anti-union. Unions brought middle class prosperity to American workers after WW2. But as the dynamics of the world economy changed, American unions were unable to recognize the need for change and became an albatross around industry’s neck.

In the absence of honest discussion, I’ll take the stage with my platform. Here are the issues as I see them:

1. The average worker has little power in a negotiation with his employer.
2. Benefits for workers create explosive future liabilities for employers. Even more so for older and retired workers.
3. Young new hires do not need a living wage, but as they approach age 30, they do.
4. All workers need a health insurance plan and a retirement savings plan.

So what has this to do with unions? Nothing or everything. The American system chose to rely upon employers to provide #4 and as a result, we end up with #2. Unions solve #1, but when they secure #3 and #4, they help create #2.

And then we have the dislocations caused by global trade, outsourcing and immigration. So, for American laborers who hope for #3 and #4, they may be competing against illegal immigrants who are willing to live packed into a shabby rooming house, and paid almost nothing. For more on that, check out Bob Herbert's column in today's New York Times. Just think of a drywaller, or house painter who formerly earned a fair wage, and who now finds his trade full of low paid former Mexican peasants. In fact, it’s hard to find a non-Hispanic drywaller or house painter, except at the very highest end of the trade.

If the new law passes, we can expect aggressive efforts to unionize, and if successful, we should see a real challenge to the Wal-Mart business model. But then we can expect to see even more of #2.

The alternative is to scrap the employer benefits model. This is starting to filter into a lot of discussions, but as we can see from President Bush’s health care proposal, we don’t always see good ideas coming along with it. Here’s my:

A. Implement a single payor health plan, funded by employer contributions and a monthly premium for all employees and retirees. Premiums for employers and workers will be uniform across all industries and all ages;
B. Mandate that all employers fund a 401 k with at least a 3% match for all employees and consultants (even if paid via a 1099);
C. Mandate a living hourly wage minimum for all workers age 30 and over. I’d pick $15 per hour.

And that’s it.

Oh, there should be no need to change the union rules if we do this, because workers would be well protected. But if we don’t, then we should pass the new law, and hope for the best.

*Re the tools employers use to stop unions, I’ve seen this in my own workplace. Some 14 years and two employers ago I was engaged in a three day simulation of a union organizing campaign. We were line-managers in the claims operation of a large insurer. We were first lectured on labor law, then assigned roles and made to act out an attempt to sign up workers (I had a simple part as a claim examiner). In our roles, we attended union organizing meetings, and then company meetings designed to program us against the union. Then we voted. The sessions were so intense that one of the pretend union organizers almost had a break down.

The bottom line here is that in the current system, employers have learned how to exploit labor law to their advantage. The NLRB-sponsored election timeline gives the employer a distinct advantage in breaking a union organizing effort. For workers who don’t have a saleable skill (and that is typical of most workers who would benefit from a union) they are scared to death of losing the job they have. Both sides play hardball, with the workers in the middle. It’s no wonder that unions lose most elections.

—T. McKenna

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In this context, I am often reminded of what Socrates meant when he described himself as a "gadfly" to the Athenian state: he understood that he was actually helping his society this way. In the same way, to be a gadfly to corporate America is to help it to become better, more responsive to human needs and planetary values. As the Bushies and their lapdog media have shown us, any idiot can sit in the choir and sing the tune that's played by power; but it takes creativity and compassion to make the music of dissent—the healing dissonance from which all true growth arises.

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