Blanche Lincoln Sez: Union (Probably) No!

So I get an email today advising that the arbitrator our union and the company hired to hash out an argument over health benefits has decided we peons are going to take on a greater share of costs. I won’t divulge the details – I try to keep work out of this blog for obvious reasons – but the arbitrator came to some conclusions to support the decision that I found interesting.

He apparently did some comparison between us and non-union call center workers, and discovered that we make a much better wage and pay far less for better health care than our non-union peers.

That made me sit and stare for a moment. I hadn’t known the percentages before. They were, shall we say, considerable. And even after the rise in costs negotiated with the arbitrator, the difference will still be considerable.

And should folks start screaming that unions destroy business and union workers are overpaid and all the rest of the anti-union tropes, I’d like to just point out one thing: my company is actually growing during this economic fuckfest.

Unions help ensure that employees get to share in the bounty they create. And employees who earn more get to spend more, which keeps the economy rolling along – fuckery with deregulation and financial shell games had a lot to do with the current mess, but there’s also the sad fact that a consumer economy depends on consumers who have the cash to consume, and with wages flat over the past several years, that ain’t a happenin’ thing.

Cons, of course, can’t comprehend simple truths such as this. It seems there’s at least one Dem having trouble with the concept as well:

While giving herself “room to support the measure if it’s brought up later,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) said yesterday that “she doesn’t think federal legislation that would allow labor organizations to unionize workplaces without secret-ballot elections is necessary.” The legislation in question is the Employee Free Choice Act, which allow workers to form a union if a majority sign cards of consent, instead of having to undergo a full and very often unfair “election” process.

[snip]

In 2007, just 8.8 percent of Arkansas workers were members of unions. That same year, an Arkansas worker’s average weekly wage was $712, which was 44th in the nation.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research has found that “unionization raises the wages of the typical low-wage worker (one in the 10th percentile) by 20.6 percent.” Furthermore, were the Free Choice Act to pass, it is estimated that an additional 14,157 workers in Arkansas would receive health insurance, while 11,164 would receive pension benefits.

But heaven forfend that companies may have to slightly reduce gargantuan executive salaries to pay for such things. Gods forbid that employees who want to unionize should find it easy to do so. And as long as Sen. Lincoln gets those big cash infusions from the fat cats at Wal-Mart HQ, I guess she doesn’t need the little people to contribute to her campaign.

She does, however, need them to vote. And I think that’s something we peons need to point out more often.

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.