Labor Day '99: the benefits of unionizing in the BUF


Expanded from the 9-5-99 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

"The role of trade unions is to try to keep big people from kicking around little people."
--Lane Kirkland (1922-1999)

You will spend almost your entire life at some form of work. It can and should be rewarding. A few years back, comedian Paul Rodriguez put it best.

"If you love what you do, you're rich. When you wake up in the morning and you can't wait to get at it, you're rich. You're rich."

We don't have enough of that kind of wealth and the benefits it can bring. Family violence and road rage owe much of their origins to the workplace. Even drudgery becomes bearable if your work is valued, if the foreman and the boss treat you with respect, listen to what you have to say, help you deliver a performance of which you can all be proud. And compensate you fairly.

A 1935 federal law once guaranteed workers the right to organize themselves without fear of recrimination. The right to take advantage of the strength of numbers. The right to demand a fair return for their lives' work.

That statute remains on the books, but is largely ignored. For the past 52 years, governments at all levels have been making the land of the free and home of the brave into a laboratory spawning the most repressive labor laws in the industrialized world.

If you're looking for the reason why Disney chief Michael Eisner made $576 million last year and you didn't, that's a pretty good place to start.

A just and democratic society stands on a tripod balancing power between business, labor and government. In this country, corporations dominate the other two and the tripod stands in serious danger of toppling.

This weekend, buried somewhere in some boring wire service story about the changing nature of work, you will find a passage about the widening gap between the super rich and the rest of us. The pay of executive supersuits has risen 400 percent this decade, while yours and mine climbed an average of 28 percent, roughly the rate of inflation if we're lucky.

The earnings of the top 2.7 million families now eclipses the income of the bottom 100 million. While the tax bite on lower income earners increases, corporations and the top five percent of individuals see theirs continue to plummet.

You will be lucky to read half a line about the decline of unions as a primary reason for the national imbalance in paychecks and politics.

"Next to love, the most precious thing you can give is your labor," campaign guru James Carville said in 1993.

How precious is it? The fortunes of empires have been made by those willing to enslave and harness the labor of others. From Baja California to Bangladesh, go look at Nike or a thousand other sweatshop entrepreneurs today.

Your work won't increase in value unless you figure out better ways to market it. I've got just the solution: good, old fashioned, free enterprise salesmanship. Herewith, suggestions on how to sell the labor movement to new generations of workers.

A few of the following ideas are probably prohibited by some obscure law, regulation, court precedent or turf agreement between two unions which had a tiff during the Eisenhower Administration.

Well, this is a holiday weekend. Tomorrow's Labor Day. I'm going to give orthdoxy the day off and come up with the Barbwire Union of the Future. Even the acronym is hip - BUF, as in healthy, muscular, well defined, in shape.

At minimum, some of these suggestions will require changes in thinking. Others may need changes in the law.

But unions exist as creatures of national and state legislatures, which explains why worker associations must be politically active. They stand in constant danger of being legislated out of existence.

Unions stand as arguably the most heavily regulated entities in the country, certainly moreso than atomic weapons manufacturing. Regulatory paperwork is both staggering and costly to members.

Add the daily demands of the organization and unions don't have a lot of time or money for marketing. Therein lies their greatest failing. Not to worry. Here's the BUF program for the new millenium.

MAKE MEMBERSHIP EASY. For five bucks, give an associate membership card to anyone who walks in off the street.

MAKE MEMBERSHIP PAY IMMEDIATE DIVIDENDS. Provide many of the same things for which that marketing behemoth called the American Association of Retired Persons has become famous: Credit union privileges. Low cost credit cards. Auto, life, health and accident insurance. Discount travel services, car rentals, gasoline, hotel rooms, restaurant meals.

DEVELOP MARKETING SYNERGY, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts, just like a union. Make a magazine subscription automatic with membership. This will build a base with which to launch cable TV channels and radio networks.

All of the above will serve to facilitate the one thing which makes the Michael Eisners of the world quake in fear: informing workers of their rights and the benefits of standing together, bargaining collectively for better wages, working conditions, health insurance and retirement.

DON'T TURN OFF EMPLOYERS, ACT IN THEIR BEST INTEREST. Imagine a worker going to the boss and saying "Mr. Smith, I know you're having trouble paying for the company health insurance. You should talk to my union about getting into our plan. It can save you a lot of money and deliver better services and benefits." On that day, you've made the boss a union member.

ALLOW UNION MEMBERS TO CONTROL THEIR OWN PENSION FUNDS, HEALTH AND WELFARE PROGRAMS. The dangers to corporate power inherent in allowing workers total control of their own money became so apparent that it was outlawed by the Republican congress which came to power in 1947. Management has forever after retained influence over vast sums of employee benefit money.

Starting in the Reagan 1980s, unscrupulous corporate raiders began to take advantage of those antique flaws in the law. They ruined lives by skimming billions from pension funds and leaving aged workers to starve in poverty.

That vulnerability still exists. Workers should not only be able to democratically control their own money, but also should be able to freely invest it in their own companies.

Employees should not be able to take over only when the company has no other choice but folding, as in the case of many steel mills.

Workers can individually buy stock on the open market right now. Give them the choice to use their health and welfare and retirement funds to buy more without management having an equal say. Wall Street will love it and the increasing employee influence will create more harmonious and rewarding workplaces.

Perhaps one day Michael Eisner won't make more in a year than the Nevada gambling industry pays in gross gaming tax.

Money is power and workers should be allowed to use their own to better themselves. Let's go to work on it.

That will bring a happy Labor Day indeed. Have your own this weekend.

Be well. Raise hell.


Nevada Labor | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
Guinn Watch | Deciding Factors


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past three years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 9/5/99.

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