As I write my column this week, always attempting to write for readers in Kentucky and Ohio, I want to share with you two bits of news that I have read recently: No more union coal is being mined in Kentucky, and Ohio is a leader in the nation in terms of industrial accidents (Check the U.S. Department of Labor, Fatal Occupational Injuries by state and event or type of exposure if you want more information).
My position on what I am about to communicate is informed as well by adult students in my night class who are working where overtime is mandated and the hourly rate is low. I also have a student who has a major administrative role in social services with challenging clientele, and she makes $13 an hour. I see ads regularly for new employees in local Miami Valley factories where the pay is $10 an hour.
As the number of union-represented employees continues to decline, we will see more and more exploitation of the young and the mature, as well as of college graduates with degrees in English, history, philosophy and the like who have large college debt, but are forced to work at minimum wage jobs. To reduce costs, we will see stagnant wages and even more use of part-time and contract workers.
For those who believe this is only in manufacturing, do a little research and you will learn that a large percent of the instruction for which you are paying higher and higher college tuition costs is being delivered by adjuncts, often called “freeway flyers.” These faculty drive from one college to as many as three in a day to piece together some semblance of a job with pay so low that it’s embarrassing to reveal to others what their graduate degrees for which they are repaying student loans brings in the market place.
And all the while, we have employers who are crying that the work force is underprepared, not educated, lacking qualities they deem essential. I say to them, “Tell colleges what you want and we will provide it. We also expect you to provide safe environments, suitable pay and fringe benefits. In other words, we expect you to share your profit with the workers who perform the myriad tasks that make you able to prosper.”
One of the participants I teach in an online, interactive program for telecom workers, Pamela Lawson, has me giving this issue serious thought. In one of her recent writings she indicated that we should thank unions if our small children are going to school instead of working in sometimes dangerous places that need small hands and small bodies to complete the work. She goes on to say we should thank unions for health benefits, for the 40-hour work week, for the safety regulations that are in place and monitored, for living wages, and for benefits such as retirement income and health coverage during retirement. She also adds that without unions, the skill upgrading in the many classes she attends such as mine would not be available.
I’ve studied American history on the undergraduate and graduate levels, so I am well aware of corruption in unions. I am aware of adversarial relationships with management. I am aware of the need to make profits so that stockholders will continue to invest and companies can survive and thrive. I am aware of the competition that countries outside of the U.S. provide.
I am also aware of greed, of a feeling that human beings can be replaced as if they were a small part of a machine. I am aware of disrespect. I am aware of the ways in which personal enmity that a supervisor has for an employee can result in that person being “set up” for firing. I am aware of cover- ups with unsafe products and working conditions that have the potential to harm employees and consumers- and sometimes do – when cost cutting and profit override considerations of health and welfare. And I am appalled by suggestions that the retirement eligibility for Social Security benefits should be raised to age 70. Those advocating this have obviously never worked on factory floors.
I am also aware of employees who are told to match employers’ contributions to their 401(k) accounts when they are barely making enough to pay the bills and deal with the rising costs of their share of health care, fuel to get to work and a host of other essential expenditures. This came home to me recently when a friend is now being told that in addition to the annual screening recommended for breast cancer detection, she must have additional screening, but her insurance won’t pay for this until she has spent $7,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. This is a huge chunk of her income.
As membership in unions continues to decline, who will step forward to speak on behalf of American workers. If you believe your state legislators, your elected officials in Washington, D.C., will do it, I will warn you not to hold your breath.
What is the solution and how can we define it and make it happen. It may be something in lieu of unions and that’s fine with me. I would, however, ask you to reconsider the next time someone asks you about unions before you say, “I’m against them, and let me tell you about…”
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