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Thowing Some Fodder Out for the Union Debate

There’s a minor dust-up going on in the comments section over the Employee Free Choice Act. I’m suitably impressed that Mike at the Big Stick returned to state his position clearly, give reasons for holding it, and furthered a conversation rather than merely spouting talking points and insults and then running away in a snit. Muchos gracias, Mike. That’s exactly the way I’d like to see it done.

Not that there’s been much of a conversation yet, and I’m too damned busy to hold up my end (not to mention, unions aren’t one of my hot buttons), but I figured I’d throw out a few bits here and let folks discuss if they like.

I myself am a happy member of a good union that keeps my company from playing silly buggers with me. Our union has prevented our jobs from being shipped overseas. Alas for another division of the company that decided they were too valuable to have to unionize, they received a choice: relocate to India or find employment elsewhere. Our union doesn’t run about pressuring folks about various and sundry, but our management made the wise decision to work with rather than against the union, so there’s not much need for campaigns. There is a vague possibility we might strike this year over health care, but the union’s working hard with arbitrators to try to avoid that while still ensuring we won’t see our healthcare benefits evaporate. Having worked for companies that aren’t unionized, I have to say it’s delightful knowing that the company can’t simply unilaterally decide to slash coverage while jacking up costs to us. And it’s been comforting to know that, should management try any funny business, I’ll have a union steward handy to help me navigate the byzantine corridors of policy and ensure that if I didn’t fuck up, I won’t get fucked over. For those reasons, I’m rather fond of unions myself.

I worked for a company that fought an effort to unionize tooth and nail. It was bitter, it was ugly, and it wasn’t honest. The Employee Free Choice Act would have kept them from plying their dirty tricks, while still enabling each side to advocate for its position.

Think Progress has been following the EFCA debate, and they’ve got a rather succinct description of what it does:

Despite conservatives’ claims to the contrary, the EFCA preserves the secret ballot election process established by the National Labor Relations Board. The law simply guarantees that workers also have the option to form a union through a “card-check” system in which a union would be recognized if a majority of workers signed a petition testifying to their desire to organize. Under current law, workers can only form a union via the card-check system if their employer agrees to allow it. Otherwise, the employer can insist on a union secret ballot election. Unfortunately, as Madland notes, “Employers legally can force workers to attend anti-union meetings, including ‘one-on-one conversations’ with supervisors” and “workers often are pressured by employers to reveal their private preferences for the union.” “This takes the ‘secret’ out of the ‘secret ballot,’” Madland writes. Even more disturbing is that in “25 percent of organizing campaigns, private-sector employers illegally fire workers because they want to form a union” and “even after workers successfully form a union, in one-third of the instances, employers do not negotiate a contract.” The EFCA would strengthen penalties for such labor law violations and prevent employers from delaying first-contract negotiations. While conservatives suggest that the EFCA card-check system is “anti-business,” “in a recent survey of employers who had used majority sign-up agreements, a majority reported that the agreements resulted in improved relations with the union, enabling management to achieve other bargaining or business goals.”

And they have a good capsule description of why unions can be a very good thing indeed:

The importance of unions to the American worker cannot be understated. Union workers earn 30 percent higher wages than nonunion workers. For women and people of color, union membership improves wages even more. As union membership has declined, so too have real wages. Meanwhile, top business executives earned “344 times the salary of the average American worker in 2007.” As Madland explained in the Washington Post, income inequality “is now at the level it was in the 1920s, when unionization rates were also below 10 percent.” Furthermore, when health care costs continue to rise, “workers in unions…are 63 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance” than nonunion workers. Union workers’ health insurance coverage is “far more comprehensive than that of nonunion workers” and “[u]nion workers pay 18 percent less in health care deductibles and a smaller share of costs for family coverage.” Finally, when union workers retire, they are more likely to have “a guaranteed, defined benefit pension.” 72 percent of union workers have such retirement benefits, “compared to only 15% of nonunion workers.” “Throughout our history, when unions are strong, wages go up, health care coverage improves and pensions are strengthened,” notes Change to Win.

Finally, it was brought home to me today why unions are so often necessary. The Screen Actor’s Guild could strike, and it’s because they’re not interested in getting raped up the arse by producers yet again (h/t):

Nearly half of our earnings as union performers come from residuals, but management wants us to allow them to make programs for the Internet and other new media non-union and with no residuals. This means that as audiences shift from watching us on their televisions to watching us on their computers and cell phones our ability to earn a living will go away and future generations of actors may never be able to earn a living through their craft. This change will happen faster than you think.

To add insult to injury, management also insists that we eliminate force majeure protections from our contract. These protections have existed since the first SAG contract in 1937 and protect you when production stops as the result of an “act of God” like a natural disaster or a strike by another union, such as the WGA strike earlier this year. This is an enormous rollback that will leave actors without one of the most basic protections of a union contract.

[snip]

Management claims this bad deal is necessary because they need to “experiment” with new media and they claim they will renegotiate these terms with us in the future. We have already agreed to most of management’s new media terms, however, and have proposed, in the areas where we still disagree, extremely flexible terms for new media based on our successful low budget theatrical contracts and our nearly 800 made-for-new media contracts with independent producers. Our terms will allow management the latitude to experiment using union actors.

And how can we believe that management will ever improve these new media terms when they still won’t improve the home video residual formula after 22 years? Right now all the actors on a given cast share 1% of the revenue generated through DVD sales because of a formula we agreed to in 1986 when management needed to “experiment” with home video. In this negotiation, we have asked only that management at least make pension and health contributions on DVD residuals, rather than making us pay them ourselves out of our paltry 1%. They have refused even that!

The basic cable residual formula was also negotiated early in the history of that medium to reflect the then “experimental” status of basic cable programming and pays only a small fraction of network television residuals. It is now over 20 years later, 27% of all television ad dollars are now spent on basic cable, and the basic cable formula still pays only a small fraction of network television residuals. Management simply does not have a history of ever ending their “experiments” and paying us fairly.

Unions allow employees to stop begging, “Please, not in the face!” and assert the right not to be smacked around. I’d love it if we could trust business to keep their employees’ interests high on their list of priorities, but the sad truth is, most don’t. Making it easier to unionize is a good thing for workers, even if workers like Mike prefer not.

Believe it or not, I do have some sympathy with Mike’s position. I can understand the desire not to unionize. But having been on both sides, and having now seen the benefits a union can secure, I have to put myself heartily in the Union Yes! category, a 180-degree turn from a few years ago.

And that’s Dana’s dos pesos. I am now moving on to other things, and I shall leave all you all to debate to your hearts’ content if you like.

Comments

  1. says

    In case it got lost between the lines, my final conclusion (at this point) was: If what Mike says is true, then concerns about employees feeling pressured to join unions may be justified — but I need more data. (And I probably won’t have time to follow Mike’s suggestion and Google anytime soon; I’ll be lucky if I finish this comment before it’s time to go Do Stuff…)Note that some states have “right to work” laws which, as I understand it, effectively prevent unions. I presume that’s outside the sphere of what’s being discussed.The whole area of self-organizing groups such as unions is something I’m very interested in right now, as it’s exactly the sort of thing InstaGov should be good at… but I’ve babbled enough about that without producing a demo yet, so I need to get back to coding on my current project so I can get to a stopping place with it and then actually do something with InstaGov. (Anyone know where I can buy an unmolested week or two?)

  2. says

    While there is a lot of solid reasons in the post from Dana, I fear that the point I am trying to make is being lost. First, while I personally don’t want to work for a union, that’s primarily because I work in a field where my union choices would be pretty lousy. If I was a carpenter or an electrician or a welder, I would be more inclined to join a union. In my opinion the trade unions are run much better than the huge ‘big tent’ unions like the teamsters, UFCW, etc. As for the debate over the EFCA I would also like to re-emphasize that I do not consider this a debate over the merits of unions themselves. In my opinion the debate should focus on the process for forming these unions only. Center-leaning conservatives like myself oppose the EFCA because it would remove the democratic protections currently provided to workers. Dana points out that under the current system employers can subject employees to anti-union talks, etc. She is correct and I have been on the receiving end of those talks. I also have coworkers who have been subjected to similar talks from union reps. That’s sort of the way the game is played right now. But at the end of the day, when the vote goes down, neither the union or the employer know how specific employees voted. So there is no opportunity for retribution from either side. If you take away the secret ballot, everyone knows how you voted. If you voted in favor of the union and it passes, your employer could find ways to get even. If you voted against the union and it forms anyway, the union could be less-than-supportive. While I consider this legislation a real stinker, if it does pass, i hope that employees will at least get reciprocal chances to de-unionize in the same easy fashion.

  3. says

    This is utterly delightful. We’re holding an actual civilized conversation. Awesome!I might destroy my “angry fountain of liberal rage” credentials here, but I have to say that some of your criticisms of card check seem pretty good. Only thing is, I went through a rather bitter fight between our attempted union and the management that card check would’ve shut right down, so I do tend to lean that way. Our management used every trick in the book to ensure that employees were completely misinformed about unions, packed full of lies, and sent to the ballot box believing that the entire world would end if we voted “yes.” We ended up with no union, management proceeded to use the results as a mandate to rape us up the arse, and then sold out to an even worse company that proceeded to put everyone through over a year of unmitigated hell before shutting the place down. That’s rather biased me in favor of making unionizing easier for employees and demonizing of same more difficult for employers.I haven’t looked into the Employee Free Choice Act enough to know what improvements could be made, but I have no doubt improvements there must be. The way the game is played right now, reasoned debate gets lost in the hysteria from both sides, which isn’t good for business or labor.I agree that some fields offer lousy union choices. And I’m not at all sure about those big-tent unions – it seems like unions are a lot more useful when they’re tailored for the needs of a particular field, and not getting lost trying to be everything to everyone.It’s good to have you here and talking, Mike. Gives me hope that you and I can debate the meaning of “progressive” and actually come up with a whole banquet’s worth of fruit, rather than letting our emotions get in the way. You don’t know how glad I’d be if you could convince me that actual progressive conservatives exist, and could kick the more outrageous elements of the conservative movement to the curb.We’ll probably never quite agree on the term “progressive,” but elbow room’s definitely possible. Should be fun as long as you and I don’t get into a bitter shouting match again. ;-) I’ll be posting on it sometime next week, after I’ve cleaned up the damage from NaNo. I promise I haven’t been ignoring you, just trying to ensure I have this damned book in good enough shape to be kicked around by my Wise Readers.Woozle, you’re awesome as always. Just had to mention that. I always look forward to your input, and your advice during this book has been of immense assistance.Thanks again, both of you. You’ve got me to thinking about things I haven’t been but, being a union member, probably should…

  4. says

    Dana, you are corect that the scenario you point out could have been prevented by check cards…but on the flip side, how does having a union rep in your living room giving you the same dirty sales pitch sound? And then if you sign the card to get him to leave, you just cast your ‘vote’ in favor of unionizing. We trust the American people to see through the BS of political campaigns every November and cast a smart vote. I assume you would say that Americans saw through McCain’s ‘dirty campaigning’ when they elected Obama. So why not give potential union workers the same trust and let them vote in private where it’s just them and their concience?And I’m not at all sure about those big-tent unions – it seems like unions are a lot more useful when they’re tailored for the needs of a particular field, and not getting lost trying to be everything to everyone.I concur. Check the entry for ‘craft unionism’ in Wikipedia sometime. I suspect it will only make your feeling on that issue more solid. big, industrial unions were a real mistake in my opinion. Looking forward to our ‘progressive’ debate.

  5. says

    Mike, if employers would truly allow it to just be employees and their conscience, I’d be in total agreement. I guess the experience I had with our failed attempt at union organizing left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t sign the card for the union because I trusted my company. It wasn’t until after they’d busted the organizing effort that I learned about the lies and dirty tricks they’d employed to keep us from organizing. They didn’t even let it come to a secret ballot. We never got the chance to allow our consciences to guide us.EFCA may need some modification to ensure that employees truly do get to make the choice that’s best for them, but I’m convinced it’s a necessary thing. My own personal feeling here is that the whole thing’s rather sad. I’d rather see employers truly value their employees, without being forced to do it through unions. A lot of companies do respect and value their employees, but a great many merely pay lip-service to the idea while merrily fucking everyone over. That’s always seemed horribly short-sighted to me – it seems your business would be a lot more successful if you treated your workers well. But then, I’m making 344 times less than the CEOs, so what the fuck do I know? ;-)All right, I have to let this one go. Unless the three of us want to get together over drinks sometime and draft better legislation (which might be an excellent idea), I’ve got other things that desperately need doing, or we’ll never get to that progressive debate we’re both looking forward to.Hasta, amigos.

  6. says

    Gaza.Not to mention the fact that you’ve done nothing but spout debunked conservative talking points around here, and so I fail to see the point in wasting my time with you.