Labor Day... Without Unions?
-by Dorothy Reik
I was on a tear on Labor Day-- no mention of workers or unions anywhere, except of course in the Labor Day Sale ads-- not in the NYTimes or the LATimes! Not on TV! And then I was told that today is about "workers not unions"! That is the problem I think! I was a union member once-- UTLA-- and I am proud to say my very first venture into "klng making" there resulted in Wayne Johnson's presidency. Any older teachers reading this will thank me!
The one news source that headlined workers and unions was The Intercept:
… [N]o country on earth has ever created a strong middle class without strong unions. If you genuinely want the U.S. to have a strong middle class again, that means you want lots of people in lots of unions.But as Robert Eskew pointed out, there has been a cultural shift, as embodied in the candidacy of Donald Trump whose excesses and cheating are admired by the working poor who dream of emulating his ability to live large with no rules and no morals and to screw people like themselves. In the recent past unions were "a cultural force arguing for a 'fairer share' for working men and women."
The bad news, of course, is that the U.S. is going in exactly the opposite direction. Union membership has collapsed in the past 40 years, falling from 24 percent to 11 percent. And even those numbers conceal the uglier reality that union membership is now 35 percent in the public sector but just 6.7 percent in the private sector. That private sector percentage is now lower than it’s been in over 100 years.
That "cultural force" is important. In the mid-20th century, people believed in "a fair deal for working people." Labor Day was created to honor workers.Here’s our other candidate Hillary Clinton’s idea of a Labor Day parade:
Then something changed. Popular culture in the 1980s glamorized greedy Wall Streeters and celebrated the Gilded Age excesses of a tiny but highly visible ultrawealthy class. (Remember Gordon Gekko, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?)
The AFL-CIO reminds us what unions got for us. Sadly many of these gains are being eroded-- for white collar workers too, the ones who thought they didn’t need a union. Title Company workers, the ones who make sure that, if you can afford a house, you will really own it, commonly work 12 hour days now. I remember when the phones all went to voicemail at 5PM sharp. I remember when the operations manager at my bank resisted when I asked for her cell phone. Now all the managers have their cell phones listed on their e-mail signatures. Daniella, who works for me, checks her office e-mail on her phone after hours although I tell her not to. I don't check mine! Wage theft is ubiquitous from construction sites to fast food joints. Unions are about workers. Workers need unions. Non-union workers gripe that public employees have unions and they don't. The answer-- take away public sector unions! NO!! Give private workers their unions back! No more "right to work" states!
So when people bad mouth unions and we can hear them , it's up t us to speak up! We need to defend unions every chance we get. Enjoyed your PAID day off?-- thank the unions! Do you have a five day work week? And eight hour day (at least on paper)? Thank the unions! Here are more reasons to thank unions AND DEFEND THEM.
1- Weekends without workRamona Gregg says every Labor Day she feels “more and more like I'm at a labor union wake and all I can do is pay tribute to what once was a living, breathing, cherished part of so many of our lives.”
2- All breaks at work, including your lunch breaks
3- Paid vacation
4- Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
5- Sick leave
6- Social Security
7- Minimum wage
8- Civil Rights Act/Title VII-- prohibits employer discrimination
9- 8-hour work day
10- Overtime pay
11- Child labor laws
12- Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)
13- 40-hour work week
14- Workers' compensation (workers' comp)
15- Unemployment insurance
17- Workplace safety standards and regulations
18- Employer health care insurance
19- Collective bargaining rights for employees
20- Wrongful termination laws
21- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
22- Whistleblower protection laws
23- Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA)-- prohibits employers from using a lie detector test on an employee
24- Veteran's Employment and Training Services (VETS)
25- Compensation increases and evaluations (i.e. raises)
26- Sexual harassment laws
27- Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
28- Holiday pay
29- Employer dental, life, and vision insurance
30- Privacy rights
31- Pregnancy and parental leave
32- Military leave
33- The right to strike
34- Public education for children
35- Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011-- requires employers pay men and women equally for the same amount of work
36- Laws ending sweatshops in the United States
If you think union members are spoiled and soft, watch Harlan County USA, a true story of what one group of men went through to make life better for all of us. You can dirty yourself long enough to sign up for a trial of Amazon Prime so you can stream it. Roger Ebert's 2006 review captured what the filmmakers were trying to capture.
The film retains all of its power, in the story of a miners' strike in Kentucky where the company employed armed goons to escort scabs into the mines, and the most effective picketers were the miners' wives-- articulate, indominable, courageous. It contains a famous scene where guns are fired at the strikers in the darkness before dawn, and Kopple and her cameraman are knocked down and beaten.Hope you had a lovely Labor Day!
"I found out later that they planned to kill us that day," Kopple said later, in a discussion I chaired at the Filmmakers' Lodge. "They wanted to knock us out because they didn't want a record of what was happening." But her cinematographer, Hart Perry, got an unforgettable shot of an armed company employee driving past in his pickup, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Kopple brought some friends along to the festival. Foremost among them was Hazel Dickens, a miner's wife and sister, now 69, who wrote songs for the movie and led the room in singing Which Side Are You On? Kopple also shared the stage with Utah miners who are currently on strike; although the national average pay for coal miners is $15 to $16 an hour, these workers-- who are striking for a union contract-- are paid $7 for the backbreaking and dangerous work.
Using a translator, the Spanish-speaking miners told their story. One detail struck me with curious strength. A miner complained that his foreman demanded he give him a bottle of Gatorade every day as sort of a job tax. It is the small scale of the bribe that hit me, demonstrating how desperately poor these workers are. Work it out, and the Gatorade represents 10 percent of a daily wage.
Kopple and Perry spent 18 months in Harlan County, filming what happened as it happened. Her editor, Nancy Baker, who was also onstage, took hundreds of hours of footage and brought it together with power and clarity. I asked Kopple what she thought about other styles of documentaries, like Michael Moore's first-person adventures, or the Oscar-nominated "Story of the Weeping Camel," which is scripted and has people who portray themselves, but is not a direct record of their daily lives.
"I accept any and all kinds of documentaries," she said. "Harlan County came out of the tradition of Albert Maysles and Leacock and Pennebaker, documentarians who went somewhere and stayed there and watched and listened and made a record of what happened. That is one approach. There are others, just as valid. All that matters is making a good film."