Monday, September 6, 2010

There's a Reason We Celebrate Labor Day

My father's birthday was September 5th. Growing up, I assumed that the Labor Day picnic we attended annually (with all the free hotdogs and ice-cream one could eat!) was meant for him. Actually, it was, since he was a proud member of the International Longshore Workers' Union all of his adult life.

Daddy's been dead for more than 20 years but I think he'd be proud that his daughter grew up to president of her union, a white collar one at that.

This year has been tough for unions, who seem to be viewed either as an impediment to economic progress in a recession, or, at best, an anachronism--maybe necessary in the dim past but certainly not now.

How quickly we forget. And how easily we are co-opted.

My non-profit employer negotiated a three year contract last year, in the thick of the recession. Oddly enough, my employer has prospered during these hard times because we serve a very needy population that much of the stimulus package was geared toward.

Also, surprisingly to both sides of the bargaining teams, healthcare expenses rose barely 4 percent. My organization has always offered excellent health benefits and good vacation benefits as an offset to less than market wages.

So you'd think that healthcare wouldn't be on the table, wouldn't you?

Not so. Because other employers who were experiencing skyrocketing benefit costs were negotiating packages that included employee contributions to healthcare, my employer jumped on that bandwagon.

It took nearly three months of tedious negotiations to get modest wage increases (less than 1% for me though closer to 3% for those at the bottom of the scale) and fend off increased contributions for healthcare.

That's the union at work, folks!

My non-profit prides itself on good labor-management relations, but when push came to shove, they just couldn't help trying to take advantage of their employees, even when the need didn't exist and the money was there.

There have been times in the past when my union accepted frozen wages and even cutbacks in order to keep everyone employed. Now that times are better for this particular employer, the employer is loathe to share.

Enter the union and collective bargaining. The final result was not quite what either side wanted. But it was fair.

I love capitalism. I think strong unions are an important part of capitalism, notwithstanding the rightwing cries of "Socialism." I think the more accurate cry should be "Fair Treatment."


Anonymous said...

If your organization is a non-profit funded by the government, then we are all paying for your above market benefits. You claim below market wages, but what is the market wage for social work? Probably whatever the County is paying, as that is where the majority of social workers work.

I really don't see how you and those you represent are being taken advantage of. Since management knows you will come to the bargaining table with expensive proposals that will handcuff management more, they bring their own unreasonable proposals to the table. Both sides make "sacrifices" to achieve a contract. Megotiations are a silly, wasteful dance.

In many years working for local government agencies, I found the lower wage generic employees like clerks and janitors were paid as well or better than their private sector counterparts and got much better benefits. Managers and professionals such as accountants were paid less, but worked fewer hours and were at significantly less risk of losing their jobs. Not a bad deal for the employees if you ask me.

My experience with government unions was not good. They spent their time and money defending the actions of bad enployees that would have been fired anywhere else. In many cases, these employees were retained because it was just not worth the effort to fight the union. The taxpayers pay for that nonsense as well.

No support for white collar unions here, Grace.

Grace. said...

Anon--would you admit that there are employees who will pay as little as they can get away with--and that if there were not minimum wage laws, they would pay even less than that? Would you admit that many employers would avoid providing any kind of health benefit with an employer cost? If so, then I will admit that I don't think all unions or all union mandates are good ones. But it's the balance between the two that has brought stability to so many in the working class and middle class.

I have mixed feelings about employee retention since that's part of what I do as a union president. I have negotiated graceful exits for well meaning but incompetent employees. I have arranged for lateral job moves, some of which have proved extraordinarily beneficial not just to the employee but to the agency. (I'm thinking about a particularly cranky receptionist who was moved into data processing where she didn't interact with the public but showed real talent and speed with the computer entries.)

I do agree (though I don't work for the government--my agency gets a bout 50% of its funding from various government sources) that I have traded market wages (and I assure you that I do know what my compatriots are making in the private sector--a whole lot more than I am! BTW, I am in social services but I'm not a social worker.)for the ability to work a regular work week and get home to my kids by 6:00 p.m. Between that and my needing to love my job, it has been a fair trade. Which of course does not prevent the occasional whine.

Ken said...

People in the private sector have no idea how unions still affect their benefits. If an employer realizes that an employee can get a certain amount of sick days and vacation time per year working in unionized job then the private sector employer must follow suit. Rest assured that if a private sector employer could get away with giving their employees no benefits then they most definately would do it.

Anonymous said...

Unions.....the people that gave us weekends...enough said. Good commentary Grace.

MasterPo said...


MasterPo worked a government agency union job for 3 years.

The sheer waste, inefficiency, and outright fraud was amazing to saythe least! No wonder this agency is now $8 BILLION in the red!

MasterPo prefers to speak for himself. If MasterPo feels he deserves a raise or more bennies then the best person to represent MasterPo is MasterPo.

Similarly, how do you feel about the slugs of the organization getting the same pay and bennies as the producers?

No. Unions served a great purpose 100 years ago. Today they stand for obstruction, cost, and red tape.

Unions are like the IRS - No business is ever happy to hear "I'm from the union and we're here to help!"

Anonymous said...

My father was a union man, too, Grace. He worked a refinery job. Because he had an amazing work ethic and an education far above the typical worker there, he was often offered promotions. He turned them down every time because they would have meant leaving the union. Why? For him, union representation went further than a decent salary, health care and sick days, as important as those are. Refinery work is dangerous work. A neighbor was killed, burned horribly, in a refinery fire. When my husband was a teen, his whole neighborhood was evacuated and he came college barefooted when a refinery explosion occurred in the middle of the night. In various decades, my father and then eventually my brother and brother-in-law found themselves running for their lives due to fires, explosions or escapes of toxic gas. My father had worked at jobs in which groups of unrepresented workers who protested unsafe conditions were met with violence by company-paid men. To him, the union meant fewer workers lost their lives, and he was right.