Whether It’s Bagels or Bargaining Rights, Union-Busting Attempts Continue

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by Louis Bertini, MPSE

Louis Bertini.

When I was a teenager, I had a weekend job in a bagel bakery in Brooklyn.  I worked as a “kettle boy,” putting the raw bagels into boiling water for about a minute, and then passed them on to the baker.  Teenagers traditionally did this job because it was the simplest and lowest-paid part of the process.  But the bakers and bench men who formed the bagels were highly skilled craftsmen.  They were also union workers.

The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338, formed in 1915, was a strong, proud union.  It created and maintained the high standards of bagel production for which New York bakeries were known.  Those union members took pride in their work and the product they produced.  They guarded their recipes and their trade secrets.

During the 1970s, automated bagel-making machines came into being.  Bakery owners learned that they could produce their product with a fraction of the old labor force.  Workers were laid off or forced into retirement.  Ultimately, Local 338 was broken.

I clearly remember the tragic day I walked into the bakery and saw the bagels rolling out of a mechanical conveyor.  The union men, who made them by hand, were gone.  The old bagels were gone too.  New York may still have a reputation for good bagels––but anyone who remembers what they used to be will tell you that the modern-day version is a pale imitation.

Technology-change issues like these are something that Editors Guild members have to deal with constantly.  As soon as we learn a new workflow, it transforms into something else.  The only way for us to survive in our jobs is to stay ahead of the technology curve.

But employers are also looking for ways to stay ahead of the unions.  And this year, when newly elected federal and state legislators around the country took a big step to the right, the enemies of unions were handed a gift.  Conservative lawmakers may claim to support job creation for the middle class, but their legislative actions clearly show that their first allegiance is to corporate interests.  Destruction of labor unions is also one of their highest goals.

If unions really had the kind of political power The Wall Street Journal imagines, our influence would be growing––not diminishing, as it unfortunately has been.

The newly elected governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, wasted little time in proposing legislation to severely curtail the collective bargaining rights of teachers and civil servants.  We all know the story.  The Democrats held out as long as they could.  But the Republican majority ultimately won the battle.  (Although, at press time, the law was temporarily halted from implementation by an injunction issued by a circuit court judge.)
The day after this legislation passed, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times both published editorials––one in support and one in opposition (guess which was which).  In fairness, both contained elements of truth and exaggeration.

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The Times editorial lamented the restrictions on collective bargaining rights, which it described as a reversal of a half-century worth of middle-class progress.  In actuality, this type of legislation is not so unusual.  The federal government––plus five southern states–– specifically prohibit collective bargaining for their employees.  Wisconsin and Ohio are joining them.  Eleven other southern and western states permit collective bargaining in a watered-down fashion.  The remaining 34 states have mandatory laws supporting it.

But the Times went on to point out that the Wisconsin legislation was originally proposed by the Republicans as a budget-saving measure.  When the Democratic senators fled to Illinois, depriving the Senate of the supermajority quorum it needed to pass fiscal legislation, the Republicans took the anti-labor portion out of the budget bill and passed it separately.  “And in doing so, they reluctantly exposed the real truth behind the maneuver.  Stripping the unions of their rights was never about the budget…it was always about politics,” the editorial read.

The Journal’s piece offered congratulations to Governor Walker and the Republicans for “standing up for the rights of taxpayers, and winning the battle for fiscal sanity.”  It’s very true that taxpayers are in need of relief, and that Wisconsin’s budget had to be brought under control.  The unions had already agreed to major concessions toward that end, before having their bargaining rights taken away, and the Journal highlighted this fact.

The only way for us to survive in our jobs is to stay ahead of the technology curve… But employers are also looking for ways to stay ahead of the unions.

But it went on to suggest that the real goal of unions was to use these events as a rallying cry to pursue “what we’d call the Mayhem Strategy to mobilize their base and sour independents on the GOP.  Cry havoc, create enough tumult, and many voters may sue for labor peace.  This is exactly the strategy that government unions have used to block any welfare-state reforms in Europe.”  The editorial further suggests that union dues are collected and spent solely for the purpose of running a left-wing political-influence machine.

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Excuse me?  Will someone tell The Wall Street Journal that this is not Europe, and we don’t have a welfare state here?  If unions really had the kind of political power the Journal imagines, our influence would be growing––not diminishing, as it unfortunately has been.

In Ohio, the Republican-dominated legislature at press time ended collective bargaining rights for all state employees, including police officers and firefighters.  The state’s governor, John Kasich, was a US Congressman from 1983 to 2001.  In 2010, he was elected to the Ohio Statehouse on the Republican ticket.  In between, he worked as a managing director at Lehman Brothers.

From that position, he directed the investment of three Ohio pension funds––a large portion of which were tied to high-risk, mortgage-backed securities.  When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, those pension funds lost almost half a billion dollars.  Now, as governor, Kasich is requiring all state employees to begin making contributions to the pension funds to build them back to solvency––funds that he personally helped bring to the point of bankruptcy!

But all these actions from the right have had some unintended consequences.   They have energized unions and their political base, and created a backlash.  Pro-union rallies are being held all over the country.  And the outcry is starting to drown out the Tea Party rallies we have heard so much from over the last two years.

Conservative lawmakers may claim to support job creation for the middle class, but their legislative actions clearly show that their first allegiance is to corporate interests.

The labor movement, which suffered a bitter split in 2005 when the Teamsters and the SEIU left the AFL-CIO, is uniting again behind a common cause.  These groups are working together to fight against anti-labor legislation and to provide support to turn things around in next year’s elections.

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At a recent rally, Richard L. Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, stated, “Thank you, Scott Walker!  We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year Award!  Governor Walker’s overreaching has brought us to this moment!”

Another unintended consequence may be the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012.  The president clearly cannot win re-election without the support of labor unions, a major part of his base.  They were cool to him in the mid-term elections because of his lack of support for “card check” legislation and his pursuit of a more centrist agenda.  But now union members are fired up.  Next year, we will make our presence known!

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