Monday, February 6, 2012

The Power of Unions

Child Labor - Coal Mines
Today's article is personal.  We are insignificant average people.  We live in your neighborhood.  We shop at the same stores, and just like you, the only time we matter is during an election cycle.

We are sharing something personal in the hope more of us can relate to each other and put things into perspective.  When politicians forget about us, America's Unions, do not.

In 1975 my husband worked for a cannery during the summer that made cans for Hunt's foods.  The job was grueling, sweaty and dangerous.  Men lost limbs and not everyone would last longer than a season.  The minimum wage in 1975 was $2.10 an hour and my husband's beginning wages were $11.25 an hour. - This was a union job.  As a recent high school graduate, his wages were higher than his dad's.

My father in-law supported his family working as a custodian for the city and his salary was $10.50 hour.  On this salary they had managed to buy a house, raise four children and support ailing grandparents in a neighborhood where most people would not want to live then, or today.  The kids turned out alright.  

*** We lost great-grandma three years ago.  She was 105.  
Medicare was instrumental in meeting her medical needs and we can thank Unions and Democrats for this and the $300 a month she received through Social Security.  Granted the money was barely enough to cover some basic need, but there was dignity in her life.  She was able to contribute a little something and give $5.00 to a grandchild for her birthday or good grades.  She played Bingo twice a week with her own money.  Unions and quality of life go hand-in-hand.

In 1977 my husband went to work for a chemical company that used to compete with Dow Chemical.  Dow Chemical not only paid higher wages and provided greater benefits but a few years ago purchased the company he used to work for.  His starting salary was $16.50 and hour and he worked there for thirteen years.  

With the increases throughout the years, he ended with a paycheck of $22.00 an hour.  This was his base salary, it did not include massive overtime - most of it forced  - or bonuses.  He also received a pension plan and health care for his entire family.  

The job also came with a grueling shift schedule and dictatorial working conditions.  The workers were on-duty during their days off and if the replacement worker did not show up at the end of the shift, the man that had already worked 12 hours straight with only a 15 minute lunch break would have to stay for part of another shift.

It was not unusual for my husband to work 16 hours straight some days.  As a 24 hour a day operation, the plant did not shut down for the holidays and vacation time was reluctantly given.  The caveat: If they didn't use it, they'd lose it because they could not carry it over to the next year.

What You Need To Know

When they had a chemical spill, they shut down the factory and closed all the vents and doors to prevent any complains about air quality for miles, but mostly it was the hefty fines they were avoiding.  The workers inhaled that air 24 hours a day.  The chemicals arrived in rail cars and tankers, the "small stuff" came in 55 gallon drums piled high on pallets.  Most of the chemicals that arrived to the plant have been proven to be carcinogens at much lower exposure rates.  These men and women were exposed to massive quantities on a daily basis for decades.  Many of my husband's co-workers are very ill or have died.  They are/were in their mid-forties to mid-fifties.

The workers had no control on the quantities they handled or how much contact they had with the chemicals.  Back then, safety consisted of paper masks, respirators, fresh air masks and rubber gloves.  This was a non-union job.

Bad batches of mixed chemicals were trucked away.  From reliable sources, much of the slush was "treated" through another chemical treatment and filtered through sand to trap the majority of the slush.  The resulting clear liquid was dumped on the San Francisco Bay.   Clear did not mean it was not toxic, but much easier to flush down the drain.  This daily practice went on for decades.

The tankers that brought the chemicals to the factory needed clean tanks to pick up the next batch.  Typically, they would stop in a field or gas station with a hose and flush out the tankers.  The resulting slush was dumped in open fields on the ground. This was discussed on the movie Erin Brockovich.  Same people, same tankers, same chemicals.  

Perhaps finding a cure to cancer through the use of more chemicals is not such a great idea.  A better implementation of time and resources might be in eliminating the cause altogether.  For instance, agricultural chemicals banned in the United States were produced by this company and shipped to Mexico to use on their crops.  Those crops came back for sale to the United States - We thought you'd like to know. 


The reason the chemical plant paid such good wages is because Union shops in the area paid $1.00 more an hour to their workers.  Private companies had to compete with unionized factories in both salary and benefits.  But could easily overlook safety and there was no one there to have the worker's back.  They were on their own.  Every man for himself.

At this time my father in-law was still working at his union job for the city earning almost $19.00 an hour.  His son earned more but in those days, getting a city job meant stability, more paid holidays and a decent retirement after putting in over 20 of their most productive years. 

In the 1990's my husband worked for a power plant that has been written about in Jeff Sharlet's Book, The Family.  His salary was higher than what I mentioned earlier and more than enough to allow me to quit mine and raise our newborn.  Six months after quitting my job, there was a horrific accident that left my husband unable to walk, let alone work.  

The company was at fault, but by then, the powers that be, had managed to put in place laws that prevent employees from suing the company.  The power plant got away with it and business continued as usual.  This was a non-union company.  We were left to fend for ourselves.

If it weren't for social security disability and Medicare, this family would be living in a cardboard box in an alley.

Today, in our area, there was a snippet on the news for people who are looking for a job. The segment is called, "Job of the Day" and the job for today was Chemical Operator.  The same job my husband had in 1977 - The starting pay is $12.00 an hour.  This is a non-union job

Unions do more than collective bargaining, they insure safety in the work place, they ensure workers are not taken advantage of and most of all, they are what made middle class, home ownership and a comfortable retirement possible.  They also provide workers with legal representation, knowledge and information they normally don't have access to on their own.  These perks are out of sight most of the time, but when push comes to shove, it really makes a difference in the lives of ordinary people.

My father in-law is comfortably retired and his pension plan included most of his annual salary which is supplemented by his social security.  He still lives in the same house they bought in 1964 for $16,900. In 1964 he thought he could not afford the down payment on the old house.  He only had $3.00 in his pocket at the time, but the Realtor worked it out where the $3.00 was his down payment.  Great true story.

No one should have to fight to earn living wages.  A power plant or chemical plant worker should, by today's standards, be earning at least $56 an hour.  The work is dangerous, the hours are grueling and the toll on their bodies is incomprehensible to white collar workers, let alone the 1% who benefits in the trillions of dollars from their blood and sweat.  

Unions matter more than people realize and this is a good thing for the 1% because they are hell bent on destroying what is good in America.  The longer we remain unaware, the more time they have to make sure Unions don't recover and workers are left to fend against them on their own.  All for a god-damn profit.

There is a big difference between surviving and living. Unions make living possible.

PEACE - Olivia

Recommended Reading:

Working Life: The U.S. Labor Movement and Its Achievements
U.S. Department of Labor: Wage and Hour Division
AFSCME: Labor's 10 Top Accomplishments

In This Blog:


Image: Child Labor - Coal By SGGH at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons


Blue Trooth said...

The demonization of Unions is probably the most self-defeating and Un-American political talking point going around. While screaming that Teachers are over-paid, the CEO that is paid millions to guide a Corporation into bankruptcy is touted as a successful "job creator" unfairly criticized by the envious.
There are many reasons I support Unions. As a member of a management team in the late 80's, we avoided unions by periodically conducting surveys and responding to employee needs. Well, without any binding contract, it was fairly simple for employee benefits to be modified as soon as a change in management and/or ownership occurred. I've seen people on their way up get crushed by poor management decisions based on "crunching the numbers" without any concern for the most important variable in the productivity equation, employee morale. My first job was a Union job. It paid for my College education. I was convinced that management could achieve the best of Union benefits without costing the employees any dues. My experience in the 80's did prove that it could be done in the short term, but it also proved that maximizing productivity is no match for maximizing the bottom line profit. It's much easier to reduce labor costs through cuts and drop the short term savings to net profit. A net profit that is expected to grow every year. It's also common knowledge that looking to labor costs is a sign of mismanagement when it's a "first option". Well, it's common knowledge to competing managers anyway, but not so common among shareholders and some taxpayers.
Probably the best argument in favor of Unions is to project the labor market without any Union influence at all. Rather than looking back and saying "see, this what you get" (Upton Sinclair anyone?), look forward. We've seen stagnant wages and reduced buying power already. This, despite record level productivity. Not surprising, Union membership has decreased year after year since just prior to the reversal in the relationship between productivity and wages. There IS a connection. Project it to the future and the elimination of the minimum wage regulations is not too hard to imagine.
One last thought. Maybe it's better to refer to "Employee Unions"? While I naturally think of the people that belong to a Labor Union, too often the focus is on spokespeople and political action groups. This allows the anti-union folks to ignore the benefits for the people on the job and attack the "leaders" and the structure.

Olivia Emisar said...

Great point on "employee Unions" It never occurred to me that when people think Unions they think of representatives on tv rather than the millions of people who benefit from membership.

Brian Ford said...

Thanks great article will post this in our Union hall to share and motivate our membership
USW local 00639

Olivia Emisar said...

Thank you Brian, I am honored. Don't work too hard.

Tim Schutte said...

I was born with spina bifida. My father worked for Nash-Rambler, then American Motors (now part of Chrysler Corp.), and without the health care package from the UAW, my parents would have been bankrupted by the medical expenses I incurred.

Thank you for my life, UAW--Solidarity Forever!

Olivia Emisar said...

Your story is what people need to know about unions. So glad your parents were in that position and hope you are doing well.

Thank you for sharing with us.