Workers Unite

About 30 years ago, the middle class in the United States was the biggest it’s ever been. Today, the U.S. is looking more like a country in Europe in the 1600s: thousands of rich people, and almost everyone else living in varying degrees of poverty. Why does that matter? Well, if you ask Derek Dobiecki, a worker at the Cingular Wireless store in the Holyoke Mall, the answer is "leanin'." "They took away our chairs," he told me in a 2006 interview. "If it's busy, with a lot of customers, you don’t really notice. But when it's slow, you're just leanin' for like eight hours."

Money is power, and as wealth has flowed from the middle class to the rich, working people have lost power. The Communications Workers of America Local 1298 helped the Holyoke workers get a raise and better benefits, Dobiecki said. He said he hoped they would soon win chairs too.

Despite surveys showing that 86 percent of Americans want it raised, the national minimum wage is still just $6.55 an hour. Union workers in the U.S. make more money than nonunion workers, 29 percent more. That’s $9,300 a year extra for the average worker who joins a union. For Latino workers, the union advantage is 50 percent; for black workers, 31 percent.

So it’s easy to see why some 50,000 workers in the four counties of Western Massachusetts belong to unions, despite employers’ frequent attempts to get them to abandon their unions. Unions aren’t just about money: having a union means a company must have "just cause" for firing a worker; it doesn’t have to give a reason for firing a nonunion worker.

All the workers interviewed for this article said having a union at their workplace translated to more respectful treatment from management—or at least a way to speak up about cruel or rude treatment, unsafe conditions and other problems on the job.

Still, almost 90 percent of workers in Western Massachusetts—and a similar percentage nationally—do not belong to a union, and most companies do their best to keep it that way. While workers are discussing forming unions, a quarter of employers illegally fire union supporters; more than half threaten to shut down and lay off all their workers; and three-quarters hire anti-union law firms to fight their workers. That’s according to research by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.

In 2003, some 65 workers at the Springfield YWCA voted by a two-to-one margin to form a union. Ever since, management has refused to sign a contract with the workers. The employees, members of United Auto Workers Local 2322, are hoping a recent legal ruling in their favor will finally bring them justice.

In light of that kind of story, it’s amazing workers ever do form unions. But Mike Lawless and some 300 of his coworkers did just that. They work at the Pittsfield, Greenfield, Springfield, Athol, Holyoke and Chicopee offices of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 2004, the workers—most of whom are women—voted by a four-to-one margin to join the Service Employees International Union Local 509.

They hadn’t received a raise in five years. It took until November 2005 for them to persuade their bosses to sign a union contract. But the wait was worth it. "We have better pay and benefits now, more of a sense of pride," Lawless said. "I think even management sees that we’re providing better services to the disadvantaged people we serve."

April Elias agrees. She’s worked at MSPCC in Holyoke for almost 15 years. "Before we had the union, the bosses were like, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ People got fired with no way to disagree with it—they were just gone," she said. "Now it’s definitely better. We have a voice. Because we’re not as cranky, our clients are happier."

Not everything is peaches and cream in the world of organized labor. Much of labor-management life is governed by the National Labor Relations Board, whose members are appointed by the president. The Bush board did its utmost to kill the labor movement. In 2004, Bush’s board ruled that about 8 million workers—from newspaper delivery people to temporary workers to graduate teaching assistants at private universities—could not form unions.

Jon Weismann was a mailman in Springfield for 25 years before being elected president of that city’s letter carriers’ union. Now he runs the Western Massachusetts chapter of Jobs with Justice (http://www.jwj.org/). That’s a national group that helps nonunion workers organize and rallies community support for union workers when they’re on strike or facing other challenges. "Over 600 people in the Valley have signed up for our e-mail alerts," Weismann said.

Jobs with Justice helped organize a series of protests at Wal-Mart stores around the Valley. The group also put together a Workers’ Rights Board made up of local religious leaders, state legislators, retired professors and other public figures. The board held a hearing to take testimony about tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations in the Valley that pay their executives lavish salaries while hiring law firms to fight their employees’ efforts to organize.

Union workers at InteliCoat, a manufacturing company in South Hadley, credit publicity generated by the Workers’ Rights Board with helping them win a first contract in 2005. The contract, which covers some 200 workers, raised wages by almost a third.

The labor movement’s critics say that many union leaders are corrupt and their members are selfish and greedy. But so are leaders of companies like Enron and Halliburton; at least union members can vote their leaders out of office. As for being greedy and selfish, unions have spent millions of dollars of their members’ money lobbying for increases in the minimum wage, which helps all workers, union and nonunion alike.

The argument about greed and selfishness cuts two ways. The richest 1 percent of Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent of us combined. Almost 20 percent of Americans have a net worth of zero or less. (That’s not including mortgages—if you include mortgages, the percentage of Americans in debt is much higher.) That’s about wealth. Here’s a stat for income. In 1980, more than 20 percent of the private sector workforce in the U.S. belonged to unions. At that time, the ratio of average large-company CEO pay to worker pay was 42 to 1. By 2000, only 8 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, and the ratio of average large-company CEO pay to worker pay was 525 to 1.

In 2005, the typical large-company CEO made $12 million. The typical worker made $27,460. In Europe, where a far higher percentage of workers belong to unions, the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 25 to 1 in 2005.

Meanwhile, back in the Valley, the fight for justice continues. Hostile bosses are nothing new to organized labor. Ann LaFreniere has worked at Springfield Day Nursery for 15 years. In July 2006, after three months of fruitless negotiations, LaFreniere and her coworkers voted unanimously to strike if the company didn’t agree to a fair contract. Within days the workers, members of UAW Local 2322, were celebrating the signing of a new three-year contract that included raises and better benefits. "This was one of the hardest contracts we’re ever negotiated, but it was one of the best," she said.

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