Labor at the crossroads

Labor at the crossroads

“Labor Day is traditionally a time for picnics and parades. But this year is no picnic for American workers, and a protest march would be more appropriate than a parade.”

Last week, those tough words were uttered not by a fiery union organizer or laid-off worker but by Robert B. Reich, a university professor, economist and author who was Secretary of Labor when Bill Clinton was president.

Reich minced no words detailing the source of discontent that demands a protest march.

“Not only are 25 million unemployed or underemployed, but American companies continue to cut wages and benefits. The median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation. High unemployment has given employers extra bargaining leverage to wring out wage concessions,” he wrote.

“All told, it’s been the worst decade for American workers in a century. According to Commerce Department data, private-sector wage gains over the last decade have even lagged behind wage gains during the decade of the Great Depression.”

The diminutive Reich – he stands 4 feet, 10 inches tall, due to congenital Franklin’s disease – nevertheless is a giant in the field, a fierce and uncompromising advocate for American workers who spares none in his assessment.

“Perhaps there would still be something to celebrate on Labor Day if government was coming to the rescue. But Washington is paralyzed, the president seems unwilling or unable to take on labor-bashing Republicans, and several Republican governors are mounting direct assaults on organized labor,” said Reich.

His essay issued in advance of Labor Day 2011 makes clear why this annual celebration of work comes in a time of crisis for most working men and women.

The title of this piece – “Labor at the Crossroads” – refers not only to members of organized labor unions but to the entire labor force of the United States. While CEO pay and the fortunes of those at the top continue to soar, there is genuine pain in the rank and file. Where it goes from here is the real question, hence the reference to a crossroads that presents a real choice whether this country will continue down a path that has proven so damaging to so many people – or reverse course and begin to narrow the income gap between labor and capital, which has surged to unprecedented levels.

Reich’s plaintive declaration packs a wallop. He concluded, “So let’s bag the picnics and parades this Labor Day. American workers should march in protest. They’re getting the worst deal they’ve had since before Labor Day was invented — and the economy is suffering as a result.”

Reagan v. PATCO

Many trace the current war on organized labor to 1981, when President Ronald Reagan threatened to fire nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off an illegal strike. Labor historians are in broad agreement that more than any other labor dispute of the past three decades, Reagan’s confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) undermined the bargaining power of American workers and their labor unions.

Joseph A. McCartin, associate professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of the upcoming “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America” was clear about the impact of that action in a recent column for the New York Times.

“(The PATCO firings) also polarized our politics in ways that prevent us from addressing the root of our economic troubles: the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits and worker productivity,” he wrote.

McCartin noted that by firing those who refused to heed his warning and breaking their union, Reagan took a considerable risk – and the results are still being felt.

“Yet three decades later, with the economy shrinking or stagnant for nearly four years now and Reagan’s party moving even further to the right than where he stood, the long-term costs of his destruction of the union loom ever larger. It is clear now that the fallout from the strike has hurt workers and distorted our politics in ways Reagan himself did not advocate,” declared McCartin.

Although Reagan had been a liberal Democrat when elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947, he underwent a political transformation and became a rock-ribbed conservative, touring the country giving speeches for General Electric and campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964.

The former union president seemed to be of two minds on the subject when he made it to the White House in 1981, supporting Lech Walesa’s anti-communist Solidarity union movement in Poland while crushing the air traffic controllers’ union at home.

McCartin noted that while Reagan believed he was justified in destroying PATCO because federal workers were not allowed under the law to strike, in doing so he helped undermine the private-sector rights he once defended.

“Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise. Phelps Dodge and International Paper were among the companies that imitated Reagan by replacing strikers rather than negotiating with them. Many other employers followed suit,” he said.

Ironically, Reagan supported government workers’ efforts to unionize and bargain collectively as governor of California, then sought and received PATCO’s endorsement in his 1980 campaign. But he said he felt their illegal strike forced his hand.

The law of unintended consequences has greatly magnified Reagan’s 1981 action in the ensuing decades.

“The impact of the PATCO strike on Reagan’s fellow Republicans has long since overshadowed his own professed beliefs regarding public sector unions. Over time the rightward-shifting Republican Party has come to view Reagan’s mass firings not as a focused effort to stop one union from breaking the law — as Reagan portrayed it — but rather as a blow against public sector unionism itself,” insisted McCartin.

War on public employees

When newly elected Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin earlier this year declared war on public employees in that state, he cited Reagan’s actions in the PATCO strike. Walker pushed a bill stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights through a new Republican majority in the legislature in a party-line vote.

“I’m not negotiating,” said Walker, staking his political future on a hard-line, anti-union stance.

McCartin reminded that unlike Walker, “Reagan had not challenged public employees’ right to bargain — only their right to strike” and observed that with Walker’s “militant anti-union views now ascendant within the party of a onetime union leader, with workers less able to defend their interests in the workplace than at any time since the Depression, the long-term consequences continue to unfold in ways Reagan himself could not have predicted — producing outcomes for which he never advocated.”

This unrelenting hostility toward public employees and organized labor in general has been exacerbated by the tough economy over the last three-plus years. In 2009, support for unions in the Gallup poll dipped below 50 percent for the first time ever. It got worse in 2010, when a Pew Research poll recorded only 41 percent of those surveyed saying they had a favorable view of unions, lowest in the history of that poll.

It’s not just bad publicity, as there is a demonstrated historical correlation between the unemployment rate and the popularity of unions. It is considered an article of faith among many political strategists that the American people are against a raise in pay for anyone except themselves and their family members. This feeling is driven – with some justification – by the belief that any raise for workers will inevitably be passed on to consumers.

One notable exception in recent years was the UPS strike in 1997, when the Teamsters Union took their 185,000 UPS workers out on strike. A central issue was the fact fully 57 percent of the UPS workers were part-time, working 20-28 hours a week.

The demands of the strikers primarily centered on creating full-time jobs for part timers – a not unreasonable request and one that was not financially ruinous to the rapidly growing company. After 15 days on the picket line, the company settled. The final agreement pledged to create 10,000 new full-time jobs over five years. The company also agreed that five out of every six full-time openings would be filled by part-time UPS workers, instead of the previous contract’s ratio of four out of five.

Analysts said the Teamsters prevailed over UPS because it was a struggle in which the union was prepared, fought over issues that it defined, and one which relied overwhelmingly on the efforts of the members themselves.

But one intangible factor driving UPS to settle the strike was an unusual level of public support for the striking workers. Rather than a faceless group from some factory or production line, the UPS workers were somebody people encountered on a daily basis that friendly man or woman in the brown shorts who arrived at many workplaces bearing packages. You knew how hard these folks worked, and if they said they needed a better deal, they probably did.But even these occasional success stories occur in a context where full-scale assaults on union employees have become the unfortunate norm.

Motivational ‘termites’

Consider one Nathan Jamail, who parlayed success with Sprint for nine years as director of sales in Tennessee, Texas and California into a new career as the author of “The Sales Leaders Playbook” and motivational speaker on the same topic, attempting to follow in the footsteps of Zig Ziglar and the late Earl Nightingale.

Not only does Jamail tout his abilities as a sales guru and operator of three dry-cleaners he owns in the Fort Worth area, but he is also willing to engage in enthusiastic union-bashing should you hire him to speak at your corporate meeting.

Disturbed about foreign products supplanting American-made goods? Jamail knows where to place the blame.

“‘Made in China.’ The next time you see this on a product you buy, don’t blame the manufacturer, store, or even your government. You need to blame the unions,” declares the self-proclaimed motivator.

“When unions infiltrate a company, it is kind of like termites invading a home. They destroy the structure, increase costs and manipulate employees to do nothing but take from hard working Americans and great American businesses,” he intones.

There is a certain mean-spiritedness about Jamail’s screed that makes him seem almost like a Republican presidential candidate sharpening his rhetorical sword for the South Carolina primary.

“Unions promote substandard performance. Period,” he insists, offering nothing to back his contention other than his vast experience with dry cleaners and a cell phone company – where he apparently encountered a lot of slackers.

“A hard working employee cannot be paid more based on their performance and if they could the company cannot afford it because they are being forced to keep the slacker employees on payroll,” whines Jamail. “We all know there are slacker employees. The difference is that unions protect them and they will never grow, learn or improve.”

The point is not that a mediocrity like Nathan Jamail thinks he can boost his speaking fees by engaging in silly talk about termites and slackers, but that there is a veritable army of bloggers, phony think-tank scholars and talking heads on Fox News beating this drum every day, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.While the attacks on labor, organized and otherwise, have become a staple in the Republican playbook, Democrats are not immune from criticism.In a widely quoted speech to the National Press Club earlier this year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka denounced Republican attacks on unions and warned the Democratic Party that labor would be more politically independent in the future.

“Our role is not to build the power of a political party or candidate,” he said in what was considered a warning to Democrats who fail to support union workers. “It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.”

Cut the meat

Sam Walton built Walmart with two overriding principles: Offer products made in America and prevent workers from joining a union. The result is the largest company in the United States today with annual revenues in excess of $421 billion.

By the time Walton died in 1992, the “Buy American” idea had been consigned to the dustbin of history, with Walmart shelves mostly stocked with merchandise made in China, Indonesia and other far-flung outposts.

“I have always believed that we don’t need unions at Wal-Mart,” Walton once wrote – and tough anti-unionism has remained a core Walmart principle.When workers in the meat department of a Walmart supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7 to 3 in 2000 to join Local 540 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), they were the first U.S. workers to vote in a union at Walmart.

It was a pyrrhic victory because within a matter of weeks, Walmart announced it was closing down its meat-cutting operations in 180 stores across six states, and switching to “prepackaged” meat.

The UFCW petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an injunction to prevent Wal-Mart from cutting the meat cutters.

“Changing the way all of its store sells meat shows the extent to which Wal-Mart will go to keep the union out of its stores,” the UFCW told reporters. “Any time management concocts a scheme to ratchet down people’s livelihoods, it says a lot about the real nature of the company.”

The company and UFCW engaged in a battle that spanned eight years before the National Labor Relations Board and various federal district and appellate courts that failed to resolve the issue. During the interim, Walmart informally settled with at least four of the fired meat cutters, giving them back pay.

By that time, the central processing of meat destined for Walmart grocery departments was a done deal. The company’s solution to blocking unionized meat cutters is to have no meat cutters. Those folks in white coats you see in the meat department at your local Walmart are essentially stockers placing pre-packaged meat in the display case.

This so-called “case-ready” meat eliminates the need for in-store processing. Meat is packaged in rigid foam or plastic box-shaped containers at a packing plant or processor. The retail product is sealed in a highly oxygenated mix of gases injected into the container. Before the package is placed in the sales case, the outer, non-permeable layer of film is removed, leaving a gas-permeable layer of film beneath, allowing the meat to “breathe” and “bloom” and assume the colors associated with fresh meat.

In a way, Walmart’s aversion to union meatcutters has transformed much of the industry with other large grocery chains adopting similar methods. This eliminated other grocery chains use of union meatcutters, although it turns out at least some of the central processing plants have union hands on meat destined for Walmart shelves.

As for the UFCW, its lack of success in organizing Walmart employees into union locals has not halted its efforts.

A new group, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart for short, has signed up thousands of members in 2011 with a lot of help from UFCW, who contributed what the New York Times called “a sizable sum” to help the finance the group.

The company struck back, seizing the incipient group’s Web site,, which infringed upon Walmart’s registered trademark.Visitors to that site are informed, “ is no longer in service. The union-backed organization which sponsored this domain is not affiliated with Walmart or Sam’s Club and does not represent the company nor its associates.”

More recently, however, there seems to be a thawing of relations between Walmart and OUR Walmart, which after all is made up of its employees.The non-union union was flying under the radar at first before making a public declaration in June when a large group met with company officials at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

When the OUR Walmart group, more than 100 strong, showed up at the company gate, Karen Casey, senior vice president, Global Labor Relations at Walmart, came out to meet them. A video recording of that encounter shows Casey clearly extending an olive branch to the group and pledged there would be no retaliation against employees working for change.

In a statement, Our Walmart declred, “Working with Walmart, we can make this company even better – but first, we had to ask the Walmart executives to honor our hard work and humanity by living up to Mr. Sam’s promise of ‘respect for the individual.’”

As Labor Day approaches, these developments must be seen as a hopeful sign.

In the end, where labor goes from its current position at the crossroads will depend less on propagandists like Jamail or political diatribes from right-wing Republicans but on the resolve of workers being devastated by policies that ship jobs overseas while diminishing wages, benefits and working conditions at home.

On this Labor Day, the words of Robert Reich sound in ringing affirmation that an injury to one is an affront to all – and that it’s only a matter of time before a full-throated contingent of American workers “bag the picnics and parades and march in protest.”