the bad old days, employers across the board were able to hire and
fire at will and the workers did not have a thing to say about it
and there was no recourse to the wielding of this supreme power
in the workplace.
most employers still have the right to fire for any reason or for
no reason, but the existence of a union contract has stopped that
“right” cold. Until very recently, the union contract was a buffer
between unionized workers and their bosses.
very important parts of a union contract are seniority and a grievance
procedure that ends with a decision made by a disinterested arbitrator.
Those two clauses in a union contract sharply curb the inclinations
of the boss to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
is, though, the policy of labor relations in the U.S.
to give the employer all of the power, whenever possible. To this
day, most workers go through the doors or gate to the office or
factory (those few that are left) and they check their democratic
rights at the door. Every one of them can be fired for any reason.
curb on that employer right came during the wave of union organizing
in the last century, when millions of workers joined unions and
their time in service, experience, skills, and loyalty came to mean
contracts saw to it that they were rewarded for all of the listed
characteristics, which provided the employer with profits and prestige.
The contracts had seniority clauses, which said that length of service
counted and would be used for a system of orderly promotions and
for many other things, including work assignments and even selection
of vacation time.
course, there could be deviations from the strict language of the
contract, but those changes had to be reached at the bargaining
table, between two sides which were relatively equal.
hard times such as today, the heart of union contracts is being
hunted down all across the country. We’ve seen it in the auto industry,
in particular, but it’s happening everywhere else as well, wherever
there is a contract.
not just money that the corporations are after. They want the heart
and the veins and arteries of the contracts. And they’re getting
those vital parts, because workers have no place to go when the
company says, “we’re going to shut down in 60 days if you don’t
give us the concessions we want.”
is on the block. If that goes, the company can lay off the most
senior and most experienced - and, in most cases, the best-paid
- workers, thus saving the company dollars that show up on the bottom
week, the New York Times Company, owner of the Boston Globe,
has threatened the unions at the Boston
paper that, if they don’t give the concessions that total millions
of dollars that they will do just that - shut down the paper for
of workers in several unions are willing to do whatever they can
to save “their” newspaper, many of them because it’s the only job
they’ve had as adults. No one came out and said openly that the
company wanted unions to give up seniority for the purpose of lay-offs,
but it was right there, near the surface.
the newspaper industry is not the best example of the demands of
corporations in this time of economic meltdown, because other factors
have come into play which are affecting their revenues. People who
used to be loyal newspaper readers are getting much of their news
from other sources. A new generation just doesn’t get its news from
newspapers and, possibly, don’t get much news at all, on a regular
these conditions, no matter what concessions the workers give, it
can’t be enough to save newspapers such as The Globe. Concessions
can stretch out the dying process and add, perhaps, a couple of
years to the life of a business like a newspaper.
the auto industry, the union, United Auto Workers, is fighting for
its life, as the domestic car industry goes the way of so many other
domestic industries, with its government bailouts, loans, restructuring,
mergers (or partial mergers and cooperative agreements), and bankruptcies.
UAW president told a reporter a few days ago that the union is in
“lock step” with the companies in trying to save the domestic industry
and hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs. The union also is
fighting for the welfare of its retired members - retirement income
and benefits, which are always threatened by the possibility that
an auto company will disappear.
around the country are going to their workers for relief from their
burden of pay and benefits. Non-union workers don’t have much of
choice, but unionized workers are cooperating in the hope that they
can save their jobs, their life’s work, their families’ well-being,
and their communities.
a degree of cynicism among employers, however, because they can
push a little harder in difficult times and possibly eliminate some
elements of unionization that stick in their craw, like seniority
and a grievance procedure that results in arbitration.
these cases, it’s not about money or saving the company. It’s about
diminishing the power of workers and their unions. It’s why there
is such a manic effort by capital to crush the Employee Free Choice
Act, because the act, if passed into law, would make it a little
easier to organize a union.
damage being done to all American workers by this economic downturn
or collapse (if you prefer) will last for a long time. Even with
passage of the EFCA, without another surge of union organizing like
the 1930s, in its wake, American workers will be left to compete
with workers in the developing world, and the bosses will have the
right to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner in all manner
will stand in the way of rampant capital will be a unified union
movement within a unified labor movement in America.
Union officialdom has its work cut out for it.
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.