FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Recessions and Labor Unions

It was reported Wednesday that in an attempt to save the 137-year old newspaper—and their jobs along with it—the Guild representing employees of the Boston Globe had agreed to dramatic wage and benefit concessions.  The Guild members, including about 700 editorial, business and advertising employees, will begin voting on Thursday, May 7, and are expected to approve the contract.

Among the concessions are substantial cuts in base salaries, mandatory unpaid furloughs, discontinuation of company-matched pension funds, and the loss of job security clauses.  It’s been reported that the New York Times, owner of the Globe, needs to slash expenses by $20 million annually.  It’s also been rumored that the Times intends to sell the Globe and is requiring these cuts to entice a buyer.

With a world recession, the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble, and twenty-five years of unsound, unscrupulous and unregulated financial policy coming home to roost, organized labor leaders knew they were going to be in for a bumpy ride.  They weren’t wrong.  Not only are labor unions being punished by the recession, in many instances they are, predictably, being blamed for it.

Oddly, in a country that prides itself on fighting for what it believes in, people who don’t make a decent wage or have company-supplied medical insurance or a company-supplied pension are often critical of labor unions for striving to obtain those things.  It’s a confounding dynamic, one that can’t be explained away entirely as simple envy or resentment.

Rather than saying, “Gee, we should be like you guys, and fight to have a better standard of living,” they seem to think that because they never had those perks (or had them once, but saw them taken away), you shouldn’t have them either, and that your having them somehow causes an “imbalance.”

These people believe the propaganda that says society can’t afford a thriving middle-class, that we need a disproportionate number of victims at the bottom, people to prop up the rest of us, pyramid-style.  They’re the same ones who object to a journeyman plumber making $30 an hour, but don’t blink an eye at a hedge fund manager making $3 billion in a single year by manipulating money.

Given that every manner of investment portfolio has tanked—from massive institutional pension funds, to credit unions, to individual stocks and personal 401(k) accounts—and given that the systemic apparatus that set the whole banking debacle in motion is still as squirrelly as Hogan’s goat, it’s unlikely (despite Wall Street’s rah-rah cheerleading) that things will look up anytime soon.

It’s not only the financial giants, retailers, auto manufacturers and media that have been hit; the nation’s non-profit service sectors are also struggling, with state and municipal governments across the country scrambling to make their payrolls.  Teachers, police and firefighters are facing lay-offs.  Jobs that, typically, were considered “immune” to economic downturns are now in jeopardy.

Still, as bad as things are for union workers, they are substantially worse for non-union workers.  At least union folks have the cushion of falling back on better-than-average wages, benefits and severance packages, and having contract language in place that spells out exactly how lay-offs and recalls will be administered, which removes the fear of being booted out the door arbitrarily by panicky or unprofessional bosses.

Of course, recessions are also opportunities.  Just as businesses having little to do with the price of gasoline nonetheless raised their rates when gas hit four dollars a gallon, companies that are relatively unaffected by the recession are going to use the weak economy as an excuse to squeeze every dime out of their employees.  That’s the way it works.

When a union committee sits down with a management team during a recession or a downturn in the industry (or a devastating company slump, e.g., the Boston Globe), they fully expect to encounter World War III, and they’re rarely disappointed.  They get bombarded with charts and graphs and long rows of alarmingly dwindling numbers.

And it’s not only numbers.  Just as a ship will seek any port in a storm, management will use any argument or reference point that bolsters their position.  For example, at this very moment, the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) is battling with the teachers’ union over a proposed one-day strike, scheduled for Friday, May 15, to protest District cuts.

In a letter to the teachers, Superintendent Ramon Cortines used a three-pronged attack: he appealed to their sense of responsibility, reminding them that standardized testing was still going on (although students aren’t tested on Mondays or Fridays, which is why the union chose that day); he threatened the teachers with an injunction; and he made reference to the swine flu. Yes, the he actually resorted to the swine flu as part of his pitch.  Again, any port in a storm.

But what happens when the converse is true?  What happens at the bargaining table when the economy is flourishing, the industry is prospering, and the company with whom you’re negotiating is more or less raking in the money?  Answer:  Very little changes.

There’s a term used in labor relations called “whipsawing.”  This refers to the management practice of intentionally pitting one plant or sector against another, as a means of keeping wages down.

Pitting one group of workers against another makes sense in a grim, Machiavellian sort of way.  After all, a company whose exorbitant annual profits are boldly splashed across the front page of the Wall Street Journal can’t very well go to the bargaining table and, with a straight face, argue that they can’t “afford” to give the hourly workforce a decent raise.

Instead, what they do is divide and conquer.  They say that, while the corporation as a whole is doing quite well, the facility whose contract is being negotiated is not doing as well.  In fact, if the workers want to continue to have a place to work, they’re going to have to find ways of lowering costs in order to remain competitive.  And one of those ways—indeed, the only really surefire way—is to keep the hourly wages in check.

So they hammer you when there’s a national recession, even though your industry is doing well; they hammer you when your specific industry is struggling, even though the national economy is strong; and they hammer you when things are flush, when everything is good, by playing one facility against another, looking for an edge.

In truth, they’ll use anything—Hurricane Katrina, the swine flu, the price of oil, the GNP of Venezuela, anything!—to avoid parting with their money.  The only statement you’ll never hear uttered at a contract bargain is, “You’re in luck, boys!  Because we’re rolling in dough, we’ve decided to give you that big raise you deserve.”  America will colonize Mars before that’s ever said.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail