served a purpose, but they don’t anymore.”
the past 30 years, that assessment of the union movement in America
has been heard repeatedly, mostly from people who work in the so-called
technological, information, or other “industries,” where workers
don’t sweat much (at least, from the skin) and who believe that
they are in control of their own destinies.
mergers, downsizing, and consolidation of those “industries” since
the 1980s have drastically changed the minds of millions of those
workers, when they were put to the curb with nothing but their thin
this includes engineers and many others in the professional class.
of them now know that, if they had had a contract when the crisis
arose, they might have had a right to severance pay, possibly a
pension when they were older, job retraining, and health insurance
for some period of their unemployment. That is, if they were among
the lucky few to have any benefits at all.
have a contract that would have provided what other developed countries
consider normal benefits, those white collar workers would have
to have had a union. Without a union, there is little hope for any
rights on the job, including the right to speak out about working
conditions or anything else.
workers in these “non-sweat” industries feel that the America of computers and information technology
has outgrown the need for unions, without even a thought that the
air conditioning in the workplace is not for their benefit, but
for the computers and equipment, the stuff that really matters in
a company’s bottom line.
the U.S. economy in turmoil, these workers are most
vulnerable, since, even those with unions and contracts are facing
an uncertain future.
there are workers - and lots of them - who are virtually never given
a thought. They’re here in the U.S. and they’re
around the world, making the things that Americans buy at their
local big box discount store and on Fifth
5,000 miles separate them, there are two workplaces that provide
some insight into the problem of workers without a union, without
a contract, without much hope for a better life, unless they can
organize themselves into a union.
is in the Hudson Valley of New York and one is in Turkey. In Newburgh, N.Y., workers who are mostly
Spanish-speaking and women, bottle nail polish and handle other
household chemicals, while hundreds of Turkish workers produce leather
products for the likes of Prada,
Mulberry, Louis Vuitton, Samsonite, Aspinal of London, Nicole Farhi
and Luella, all high-priced goods that are sold in the trendiest
of specialty stores and retail outlets.
do they want? They simply want a wage they can live on and they
don’t want to die from what they are exposed to at work. In Newburgh, some of the workers have been with the company for 12-20
years and they’ve always worked for the minimum wage. At the current
New York rate of $7.15
an hour, that isn’t much living. In Turkey, the workers are seeking much the same
things, decent wages and a safe workplace.
American employer has fired - laid-off - 30 of the 40 workers, not
in order of seniority or last-in, first-out, as is common. But the
ones who were fired were those who most strongly supported the union,
a Teamsters local.
complained of a lack of ventilation and the resulting sickness,
unclean working conditions, one toilet for all of the workers, and
dead rodents in the cafeteria.
the Newburgh workers are constantly exposed
to are phthalates, toluene, formaldehyde, and, possibly, acetone,
a common ingredient in nail polish. The Los Angeles Department of
Public Workers considers nail polish to be a hazardous waste and
the European Union has banned toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl
phthalate as dangerous to nail salon workers and to all women.
at the three Turkish factories are appalling, according to LabourStart.org:
Workers earn poverty wages, work long hours, and suffer from a variety
of health complaints linked to poor health and safety conditions.
They complain that there are not enough toilets for all the workers
and those that exist are filthy. The only drinking water is from
a hose on the toilet floor.
are attempting to organize with Deri Is, the Turkish leather workers
union, but the hostility toward the union is as strong as it is
in the New York plant. Why is there such hostility in
both countries? Because changing the workplace to provide a healthier
and safer environment for workers costs money.
globalization of the world’s economies has made employers everywhere
reluctant to change. The bottom line around the world is based on
the lowest cost for labor and transnational corporations are demanding
the lowest price for every consumer product. It’s what the remaining
giant retailers in America are demanding
of this demand and the downward pressure on labor, American companies
- like the small factory in Newburgh
- are directly affected by the low wages in the rest of the world.
workers are exposed to chemicals and toxins every bit as dangerous
as the sickly sweet smell of nail polish, probably more so, but
providing a safe and healthy working environment will add costs
to the bottom line and that’s not going to happen. This is why Turkish
leather workers want a union. It’s why the nail polish workers in
Newburgh want a union.
they are allowed to exercise their legal right to bargain wages,
benefits, and working conditions, they know they will be able to
head off the disease that comes in old age after long exposure to
toxins. For some, old age has come early.
worldwide leather industry has a lot of children working in it,
in numerous countries, on most continents. Children
are about 20 percent of the workforce and they work in the same
conditions as their adult counterparts. For them, childhood is something
they never heard of and their young lives likely will be cut short
by the chemicals and the hard work.
a time when workers in every part of the world are competing with
each other for work in nearly every industry, the lowest-labor-cost
firms in the lowest-labor-cost countries are going to be the “winners,”
if you can call workers in such appalling conditions winners.
of the solution is unionization of workers everywhere. It’s their
only defense against gross exploitation and wage slavery. It’s also
why it’s so dangerous to try to organize a union in most of the
outlive their usefulness? American unions never have realized their
full potential and they’re needed now more than ever.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union
organizer. His union work started when he became a local president
of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for
14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers
as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from
factory food producers and land developers. Click here
to contact Mr. Funiciello.