Insidious Anti-Labor Bias Hurts Workers

By Joel Connelly
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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In what I hope was an early-morning miscue, the weekend KPLU newsreader recently told listeners that “labor bosses” were gathering in Wenatchee for the Washington State Labor Council’s annual convention.

Defining terminology, on the airwaves and deftly inserted in mainstream media, has been one of the right wing’s small triumphs in forging America’s new Gilded Age.

Anyone who protests social injustice is a “bleeding heart.” Those who commit themselves to its prevention are “do-gooders.” “Liberal” is practically a curse word. Anybody who preaches reconciliation is “soft” – on crime, on communism, on “Islamic fascism.”

Union officials get labeled as “bosses,” while executives who slash corporate payrolls or dump employee pension plans get celebrated as “cost cutters” and “downsizers.”

A generation ago, Sen. Robert Kennedy was joining Cesar Chavez as the leader of California’s impoverished farm workers broke a fast by taking communion. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was checking into a Memphis motel to continue his support of striking sanitation workers.

Nowadays, vulgar billionaire Donald Trump gets feted on a TV show where his function is to say, “You’re fired!”

Labor leaders are lucky to get one network talk show invite a year – on the Labor Day weekend. Talking heads from conservative think tanks get to tell us who counts, and who does not, in the new Gilded Age.

One recent book, “Epitaph for American Labor,” published by the American Enterprise Institute, actually argued that the free market has removed the need for workers to organize and assert their rights.

“America today is more than ever an equal-opportunity society where individuals can rise on their merits, a condition that makes unions irrelevant,” wrote author Max Green.

Unions are in decline. In 1960, organized labor spoke for one-third of America’s work force. John F. Kennedy formally launched his fall campaign before a huge Labor Day crowd in Detroit’s Cadillac Square.

“The labor movement lifted up working people – not just union members, all working men and women,” the late Monsignor George Higgins, longtime adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote shortly before his death.

Nowadays, labor represents less than 15 percent of the nation’s workers: As a union member, I am part of only about 10 percent of workers in private industry who remain organized.

In the Puget Sound area, labor still counts – at times, in places.

The burn barrels that go up periodically outside Boeing’s Everett assembly plant signal a union – the aerospace Machinists – that can still sustain a strike, win a fair contract and turn back management’s demands for concessions.

By contrast, the 2000-01 Seattle newspaper strike was an unmitigated disaster in its impact on employees and employers alike.

A well led, focused organization – the King County Labor Council – was pivotal in electing Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

An initiative sponsored by the State Labor Council is responsible for Washington having a $7.63-an-hour minimum wage, compared with the pitiful $5.15-an-hour federal minimum.

On the minus side, the Service Employees International Union spent more than $250,000 on an unsuccessful 2004 primary challenge to state Rep. Helen Sommers. The Democrats’ budget brain in Olympia fought back, and won.

Driving past the SEIU’s big purple phone bank trailer – parked off Denny Way – a question often came to mind: Why don’t you go pick on a reactionary politician somewhere?

But the value of unions goes far beyond political clout.

If you work in a corner office atop a glass skyscraper, these are the best of times.

The stock market is up. Executive salaries are way up. Even though we are at war, the Bush administration has cut taxes for the wealthy – and wants to cut more.

But if you wash windows or floors in that skyscraper, life is a struggle. It involves taking a second, even a third job.

Even if you are a midlevel employee, chances are that your income has lately gone flat.

“The problem we face is not only a loss of living standards, but a loss of moral standards as well,” Monsignor Higgins wrote. “Increasingly our economy is sending the message that it values accumulated wealth over honest work. In this economy it seems that everything is going up – except the earnings of working people.”

In the new Gilded Age, and the new global economy, demeaning people does not matter.

Consider the Enron employees who believed reassurances from company brass, only to lose jobs and retirement savings.

Or airline retirees who have seen companies file for bankruptcy protection and dump pension plans.

Or laid-off workers who watch the downsizing boss reap millions in salary and stock-option benefits.

A few years back, a retired Philadelphia laborer told an AFL-CIO-sponsored discussion: “There is no longer the relationship that once did exist between company and employee, where there was a bond, a family type of feeling. Today, it’s a ‘me’ feeling: What’s the bottom line? What am I going to get out of it?

“I think that this situation is ugly, not only for us as workers but for us as a country.”

4 September 2006

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