One clue that this recession is going to be long and brutal is the fact that vocational guidance counselors are now suggesting to college graduates that they consider careers as open sea pirates. Okay, that’s not true. But still, one can imagine how daunting and demoralizing things must be for college grads entering the job market at this precarious time—and not just for those who were hoping to break into investment banking, real estate or the stock market. Across the board, things are bleak.
And the situation is even worse for blue-collar workers, those entering the national job pool without benefit of a college degree. With most of the attractive manufacturing jobs having been dramatically downsized or exported, unless you can luck into a tech industry or land an apprenticeship in an established tradecraft, your choices are going to be fairly limited.
That’s why, if you intend to be a blue-collar worker rather than a white-collar careerist, it’s a smart move to consider becoming a union member. Here are seven practical reasons why.
1. Money. Let’s deal with this one straightaway, and let’s be sure to get it right. Generally speaking, union jobs pay significantly more than non-union jobs. From top to bottom, industry to industry, region to region, union wages are roughly 15 per cent higher than non-union wages. It’s as simple as that. If wages matter to you, then you’ll want to join a union, because you’ll make more as a union member. That’s part of the reason companies resist having a union workforce. They don’t want to part with that money.
Of course, you’ll hear propaganda from anti-labor people about how that additional pay is going to be eaten up by monthly union dues, but that’s a pathetic lie. Depending on the industry and geographical region, union dues run about $50-$60 a month, which is $600-$720 a year. And $720 isn’t 15 per cent of any union worker’s income . . . unless he’s earning $4,800 a year, which happens to be less than half the federal minimum wage, which means that whole “dues will neutralize any gains” argument is absurd.
2. Benefits. Pensions, medical insurance, paid vacation, holidays, personal holidays, sick pay, overtime premium pay, penalty pay and shift differential are generally not only better in a union shop, often the only way to obtain them is through a union contract. In truth, many of these benefits and perks don’t exist without a union providing them. That’s another reason why companies don’t want to go union. Under a union contract they have to share those goodies.
3. Safety. This is a stark and sobering reality. The safety record of union facilities is demonstrably superior to that of non-union facilities. Anti-unionists can talk all they like about OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) being the “great equalizer,” but it simply isn’t true—no way, no how. Besides being understaffed and over-extended, OSHA has been effectively gelded by eight years of Bush administration anti-worker neglect and mockery.
A union contract gives employees the immediate right to insist on a safe work environment. Rather than having to petition a remote government agency in the hope that they come to your aid, as a union worker you can instantly grieve an unsafe condition. The safety provisions of a union contract guarantee immediate, hands-on control. It’s no contest. Union facilities have an infinitely better safety record.
4. Dignity. As a union worker you don’t have to put up with flaky bosses, arbitrary decisions, or co-worker harassment. You can still be fired for substandard work performance, but you don’t have to tip-toe around in fear or be at the mercy of weird or grossly incompetent managers. Because administering the provisions of a union contract requires a certain level of expertise, you tend to get better, more efficient bosses. Instead of flitting about making arbitrary, off-the-cuff decisions, they’re forced to behave like “professionals.”
5. Security. The boss can’t walk up and fire you because he wants to give your job to his wife’s nephew, who’s looking for a summer job before returning to school. Management can’t lay you off out of sequence. They can’t demote you arbitrarily. Nor can they prevent you, without sufficient cause, from promoting to the next higher job when it’s your turn. African Americans and women didn’t get their fair shot at higher-rung manufacturing jobs until labor unions gave it to them, a fact that doesn’t receive enough recognition.
6. Competence. Surprise! Union workers tend to be better workers than non-union workers. Just think about it: Which job in the community is going to attract a higher caliber performer—the one with the good wages, benefits and working conditions, or the crap job with low pay, lousy benefits and no air-conditioning? Not only will better workers apply to a union facility, but management will have a significantly greater number to choose from, allowing them to hire the very best.
7. Activism. You have the opportunity—the privilege—of one day becoming a shop steward, of representing your fellow workers, if they feel justified in giving you that responsibility. Shop steward is no glorified popularity contest, like being elected class president in high school. It’s an important job. People on the floor are going to select the person they deem best qualified to represent their interests. As a union official, whose authority is recognized by federal labor law, you will forever be a footnote in the history of the American labor movement. Very cool.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org