3/13/08

Retired pol still in labor's back-pocket

Labor turmoil, Let’s avert; No more treating, Folks like dirt. The handwriting on the wall remains a bit faint, but mean-spirited employers now have an ever-harder time ignoring it. These days disquieting news stories regularly report that the decades-long erosion of labor unions has finally stopped. They’re growing again. It’s enough to spur Xanax sales on Wall Street.

And even though the new administration won’t take office for a year yet, the National Labor Relations Board has already become a tad more even-handed. No, workers seeking to organize still aren’t getting a fair shake, but a few more cases have been going their way.

Immigration crackdowns have been helping workers, too. America’s highest profile dispute is surely the giant Smithfield meat-packing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., a hotbed of abuse for undocumented foreigners. Ever since the packers moved their plants out of Chicago and broke the unions, slaughterhouses have reverted to their medieval pay and conditions of a century ago. But the raids on Smithfield chased many of those abused immigrants away and forced the company to raise wages to attract local employees. Hallelujah! A union may be next!

But a packing plant at least falls within the American tradition of organized industrial work. A different battle rages on less traditional fronts. How about hospitals, nursing homes, cleaning crews, blackjack dealers, lettuce pickers, hotel maids and other parts of our new “service” economy? Many of its employers seem directly descended from Ebenezer Scrooge. Further, both the NLRB and state labor departments have long been happy to turn a blind eye.

Mostly they still are, but the permafrost is melting. Recently the dealers at Connecticut’s Foxwoods casino, largest in the nation, were granted the right to unionize. Again, card dealing ain’t meat-packing, but worthy precedents were established. The example of a very large union victory, even against the reasonably humane Indian bosses, set an important tone to begin undermining the clout of the packers, nursing home chains, agribusiness, and similar less responsible employers.

Part of our difficulty as a society in grasping the severity of this labor crisis is that we don’t much work in factories anymore. Long ago, when we joined most of our neighbors each morning going off to work with a lunch pail, it was easier to spot colleagues and to plan action. Now instead we tend to wear white or pink collars, live in scattered locations, and look upon ourselves as being above unions.

Worse, janitors, health aides, landscapers, and the like both live and work outside our normal view. They often suffer from limited English and/or education, and commonly aren’t white. Who cares about them? Well, some people do, especially unions, but it’s a hard population to organize. Most of us scarcely even notice the Fed Ex guy who comes to our door, the cleaning staff that shows up as we’re leaving for the day, or the workers at auntie’s nursing home.

And as free trade has pushed the United States to become less of a manufacturing bastion and more of a service sector economy, those workers have multiplied but come up grievously short in their pay envelopes. Income disparity between rich and poor is still growing and even the union movement has split apart over how to deal with it.

Not so the public. It hardly cares at all. Political campaigns no longer even mention workers’ rights. Polls don’t turn up much interest, and Congress seems disinclined to take on such sticky issues, save a long overdue increase in the minimum wage. Aside from some Internet campaigns, Americans nowadays seem a bit too absorbed in their own affairs to worry about what impact the shabby treatment of poor workers may be having on our own society. Ironically, the recession could help us figure all that out.

- William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut

(kccommunitynews.com)

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