Random Thoughts

On Unions and the Shift of Labor in the US

I was just thinking that if a candidate for office today swore to work hard for unions and unionized folks, he or she might meet a chilly reception. This would be for two reasons. One is the destruction of the concept of organized labor in general accomplished by Reagan's dishonest rhetoric. The other is due to the policies so unfavorable to unionization since that time that union members are now such a minority that most people might see them as a "special interest" - certainly far more than would see themselves as "one of them."

This led me to thinking about the general state of "labor" organization these days. To satrt with, I am going to call it "worker" or "employee" organization from now on, and let me explain why.

In the "glory days" of unions, roughly dating from their growth between the World Wars to their demise under the aforementioned administration, they tended to represent people who performed (however skilled) manual labor - from hod carriers and shovel wielders on construction sites to assemblers in factories. There was, even through the seventies, a fairly clear distinction between what was known then as blue collar and white collar work.

Blue collar meant "worker," it meant "labor," it meant high school diploma at best, and it usually meant joinging a union and getting a decent pay and benefits package in exchange for the hard work.

White collar meant management, at some level, meaning "boss," or engineering, or the "professional" classes. These implied, typically, a college education, and a certain "need" on the part of the companies that employed them that afforded them a reimbursment package on par with or better than the callused laborers.

There was a third class, which no longer exists whatsoever - and that was the single woman who lived with her parents and was simply waiting out the time until she could marry a good provider, and so did not need to be paid particularly well. This women's work typically fell into jobs like cashiers, bank tellers, nurses, and teachers. Even were this woman to remain single and live on her own, it was understood that she was not a provider, that she only had to support herself. Please note, in this paragraph I have left out all the italics, quote marks and parenthesized exclamation points that would indicate the sexism and stupidity of this arrangement. The only thing that remains of it is that people in these field to this day, and especially the female majority areas of them, are still paid less than counterparts in fields that require similar skills and qualifications.

The white and blue collar workers were men, and society implicitly accepted, along the way, that they were supporting several people - their wife, and their children. By extension, this also meant that they needed more housing space, and a better provision for the future - whether it be life insurance and survivor benefits to support their dependents if they could no longer work, or savings to send any capable kids to post-secondary education. There were also baseball gloves, dolls, and sleds to buy.

Today, the drop in blue collar employment in this country, partly due to automation, and partly due to offshoring, is part of the reason for the decline in union membership. At the same time, the ranks of the white collar worker has been swelled by cubicle drones. That is, people who needed a degree to get their job, and don't sweat or get calluses for a living - but have no real control over the nature of their employment. They are disposable, replaceable, and their work is also not the rewarding, stimulating work that the old white collar work was assumed to be.

Now, the typical "white collar" worker is just that - a worker. An employee. It's called the "service economy," and it doesn't really mean the old standbys of cashier or food service - those jobs always existed, and still do. It's the people who work for insurance companies doing paperwork, the bookkeepers, the code debuggers, the worker bees of the new economy.

There is no reason on earth why these people should not find common cause and form unions so they can negotiate for things they need from their job, whether it be higher pay, protection from arbitrary termination, better benefits, or even that old-fashioned labor gem, extra pay for work over forty hours a week. Except that the current state of law and "regulation" is heavily biased in favor of the employer. That, and, I suppose, these are not people who really ever thought of themselves as "union workers."


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© Huw Powell

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