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The Year in Labor

It’s a shame to have to admit that things have been so bad for organized labor for such a long time, that unless something truly horrendous or headline-grabbing happens during a particular year (e.g., an industry fails, a union membership is decimated), we tend not even to pay attention.

So tepid and uninspiring is the labor landscape, even the occasional strike or boycott is met with a collective “ho-hum.” Meanwhile, private sector membership continues to dwindle, workers’ power continues to be eroded, and corporations continue to find new ways of out-maneuvering the unions. 2014 was one of those “ho-hum” years.

There were exceptions: By engaging in a collective protest of their abysmally low wages, fast-food workers at national restaurant chains and were able to attract some prime-time media attention. Granted, their time in the limelight was short-lived and ephemeral, but these orchestrated protests were not only a step in the right direction, they were way overdue.

And Thomas Perez, who replaced Hilda Solis (and the interim Seth Harris), finished his first full year as Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration. Among the groups to endorse Perez’s nomination were the AFL-CIO, UFW (United Farm Workers) and NAACP, so at the very least, Perez looked good on paper.

The woman he’s replacing, Ms. Solis, did an adequate job as Labor Secretary (she resigned to run for Congress), particularly in regard to assisting low-level restaurant, hotel and carwash employees (“carwasheros”), most of whom are Latinos, and many of whom are systematically victimized by unscrupulous bosses. In fact, the Department of Labor was able to get criminal charges to stick against a couple of corrupt Southern California carwash owners, guilty of cheating workers out of their pay.

In the two years Perez has left on the job, he will have ample opportunity to show whether he’s the real deal—a labor reformer and crusader—or just another ambitious, over-achieving Ivy Leaguer (Brown, Harvard Law) looking to pad his resume while sucking on the government teat (a la former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, another Harvard Law School product).

The last really impressive Secretary of Labor we had—arguably, second only to the legendary FDR appointee, Frances Perkins, the first woman Labor Secretary in history—was Robert Reich, who served in Clinton’s first term before resigning in exasperation, and now teaches at UC Berkeley. Anyone interested in a fascinating insider’s look at the Department of Labor would be advised to read Reich’s memoir, “Locked in the Cabinet.”

There was also a changing of the guard at the UAW (United Auto Workers), with Dennis Williams replacing outgoing president Bob King. Given its illustrious history and immeasurable influence on the American labor movement, focusing on the UAW’s current state of affairs is almost too gruesome to contemplate.

Once boasting of 1.8 million members, the UAW is now down to a mere 390,000. By all accounts, Williams is a gamer, a fighter, ready to push for the reinstatement of boiler-plate contract language (including elimination of two-tier wages and benefits). The only question is: At this late stage, does he have the muscle to do it? He’ll need every resource he can scrounge up to pull it off.

The year 2014 was a terrible one for public school teachers, as the greedy proponents of for-profit education attempted to demonize and vilify them, pretending low test scores (themselves very misleading) were the direct result of substandard teachers—not only a specious argument but one calculated to destroy America’s teachers’ unions.

Arguably, the only union that continues to behave like the proud unions of the 1950s and 1960s is the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union), and that’s due solely to the fact that they have a firm grip on job security. As much as they would love to do so, the shipping companies can’t relocate the West Coast ports to a Third World country.

As a consequence, the shippers cannot stomach the fact that these longshoremen—unlike so many non-craft, blue-collar workers across the board—actually continue to earn a middle-class wage, something that was common in the 1950s, but is all too rare today.  Keep on truckin’, guys.  You’re an inspiration to union workers everywhere.

David Macaray, a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com   

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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

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