Dr. David Shevin photograph

"You're Fired"

September, 2005

We all saw the statistics about organized labor as the Labor Day holiday weekend arrived. Some fifty years ago, one in three workers in the United States belonged to a union. Today, it's more like one in seven. The AFL-CIO alliance is broken now; essentially, the Change to Win coalition, with its emphasis on organizing the unorganized, has become the new CIO.

Unionism in our country has always had a more uphill battle than elsewhere in the developed world. Lately, I've been reminded how determined the union-busting is that we take so much for granted. In the popular media, we can track business and corporate news constantly. It's seldom that we see out unions' work recognized at all; in the few high profile cases where the rare strike actually shows how untenable working conditions have become, the coverage remains brief and sticks to the most surface issues. Compare the labor coverage here to even the most conservative London papers, and the difference is awesome.

Toward the end of the month, I was surprised that the neighborhood drug store posted a big "Closing" sign. The business did a fairly brisk trade, and hardly seemed a candidate for closure. A couple of the clerks were taking a smoke outside, and I asked about what was going on with the store. The corporation was closing this site, one of the unionized shops in the chain. Instead, they decided to expand another shop six miles down the road. The outlying store was not organized. The union, the clerks explained, was working hard to locate new positions for the displaced workers. Some were willing to relocate. Others were just walking away in exasperation.

Wal-Mart did the same thing with their first organized store. They simply closed it down.

A more complicated scenario emerged for colleagues of mine at a small campus in Massachusetts. A new administration was installed by the trustees at their campus. The fresh president and provost both came from colleges without faculty unions. Here, the American Federation of Teachers was preparing to negotiate their first contract with the new regime. I recently received a sobering mid-negotiation report from the union president. With about seven weeks left on the current contract, here is what the union had seen.

First, the administration put forward a proposal that negotiations not be conducted with union representatives. The administrative proposal was to hold all meetings over the coming contract with a committee of the whole, with all faculty invited to contribute as details were worked out. When the faculty balked at the idea, the next administrative proposal was to meet with union representation, but barring faculty counsel at meetings.

Having failed in these initial moves, the administration set a very limited number of dates for negotiation, and then proceeded to forward their proposals not to the negotiating team, but to the faculty as a whole through letters from both the president and provost. This brought about the filing of an unfair labor practices charge, drawing the union leadership to Boston registering charges, and effectively canceling the first days set for negotiations. Union appeals for additional negotiating times were denied.

This left precious little time on the calendar for substantial give and take. The union filed a proposal for the current contract to be extended for a month in order to allow time for negotiations to continue. The administration promptly denied that request. At the time of this mid-negotiation report from the association's leadership, a colleague on the faculty confided that the scheme of this intractable administration was to have an uncontracted faculty report to campus for classes, enabling the president and provost to fire or to impose working conditions at their will.

Clearly, while things are not looking rosy for Ohio drug store clerks or Massachusetts faculty, life is no bowl of cherries for America's most visible un-unionized work force at Wal-Mart. Public Radio reported a story on corporate responses to workers in the wake of Katrina. The reporter spoke with financial officers and human resource personnel in several industries. Local colleges and several disrupted manufacturing concerns were continuing direct deposit pay to workers, managers, staff and teachers for up to three months while recovery plans were arranged. The casino industry in Mississippi, with an arguably more transient workforce and a reliance on ongoing cash flow, was trying to locate employees with the promise of three weeks additional pay in the wake of the storm. Wal-Mart, by contrast, was paying their displaced workers for three days after displacement from the hurricane.

Yes, you read that right. In response to the catastrophe of Katrina, the Wal-Mart corporation is offering their displaced workers a whole three days of additional pay. If you want a perfect icon of the Wobbly dictum that '[t]he working class and the employing class have nothing in common", then there is your image, 2005 style.

If the departures of the unions in the Change to Win coalition mean a fresh militancy in American labor organizing, then more power to them. The union busters are as vicious as they ever were. If not now, when?

By David Shevin

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