About 30 years ago, the middle class in the United States was the biggest it’s ever been. Today, the U.S. is looking more like a country in Europe in the 1600s: a king, a handful of rich people around him, and almost everyone else living in varying degrees of poverty. Why does that matter? Well, if you ask Derek Dobiecki, a worker at the Cingular Wireless store in the Holyoke Mall, the answer is, leanin.’
"They took away our chairs," he said the other day. "If it’s busy, with a lot of customers, you don’t really notice. But when it’s slow, you’re just leanin’ for like eight hours."
Money is power, and as wealth has flowed from the middle class to the rich, working people have lost power. Dobiecki and his co-workers are hoping the union they formed last year will help them get their chairs back. The union, Communications Workers of America Local 1298, has already helped the Holyoke workers get a raise and better benefits, he said.
This Labor Day, things are looking up for many workers in Western Massachusetts. Last month, the Legislature voted unanimously to reject Gov. Mitt Romney’s veto of an increase in the minimum wage. Some 315,000 workers will get a raise. The Bay State is now on track to have, if not the highest, one of the highest minimum wages in the nation. Despite surveys that show 86 percent of Americans want it raised, for a decade the national minimum wage has languished at $5.15 an hour.
But more important than anything politicians are doing or not doing are signs that workers seem to be taking a renewed interest in standing up for their own rights by forming unions. Union workers in the U.S. make more money than nonunion workers, 29 percent more. That’s $9,300 a year extra for the average worker who joins a union. For Latino workers, the union advantage is 50 percent; for black workers, 31 percent.
So it’s easy to see why some 50,000 workers in the four counties of Western Massachusetts belong to unions, despite employers’ frequent attempts to get them to abandon their unions. Unions aren’t just about money; having a union means companies must have "just cause" for firing a worker. Companies don’t have to give a reason for firing a nonunion worker.
All the workers interviewed for this article said having a union at their workplace translated to more respectful treatment from management—or at least a way to speak up about cruel or rude treatment, unsafe conditions, and other problems on the job.
Still, almost 90 percent of workers in Western Massachusetts—and a similar percentage nationally—do not belong to a union, and most companies do their best to keep it that way. While workers are discussing forming a union, a quarter of employers illegally fire union supporters; more than half threaten to shut down and lay off all their workers; and three-quarters hire anti-union law firms to fight their workers. That’s according to research by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.
In 2003, some 65 workers at the Springfield YWCA voted by a two-to-one margin to form a union. Ever since, management has refused to sign a contract with the workers. The employees, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2322, are hoping a recent legal ruling in their favor will finally bring them justice.
In light of that kind of story, it’s amazing workers ever do form unions. But Mike Lawless and some 300 of his coworkers did just that last November. They work at the Pittsfield, Greenfield, Springfield, Athol, Holyoke, and Chicopee offices of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC). In 2004, the workers —most of whom are women—voted by a four-to-one margin to join the Service Employees International Union Local 509.
They hadn’t received a raise in five years. It took until November, 2005 for them to persuade their bosses to sign a union contract. But the wait was worth it.
"We have better pay and benefits now, more of a sense of pride," Lawless said. "I think even management sees that we’re providing better services to the disadvantaged people we serve."
April Elias agrees. She’s worked at MSPCC in Holyoke for almost 15 years. "Before we had the union, the bosses were like, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ People got fired with no way to disagree with it—they were just gone," she said. "Now it’s definitely better. We have a voice. Because we’re not as cranky, our clients are happier."
Until now, no newspaper has covered the MSPCC workers’ victory, according to a union spokesman.
Not everything is peaches and cream in the world of organized labor. Much of labor-management life is governed by the National Labor Relations Board, whose members are appointed by President Bush. The board has done its utmost to kill the labor movement. In 2004, Bush’s board ruled that about 8 million workers—from newspaper delivery people to temporary workers to graduate teaching assistants at private universities—could not form unions. Now the board is widely expected to rule in a case known as "Kentucky River" that almost 9 million workers, including many registered nurses, newspaper reporters, police officers, college professors, and electricians, can’t organize.
Jon Weismann was a mailman in Springfield for 25 years before he was elected president of that city’s Letter Carriers’ union. In his spare time, he runs the Western Massachusetts chapter of Jobs With Justice (www.jwj.org). That’s a national group that helps nonunion workers organize, and rallies community support for union workers when they’re on strike or facing other challenges. "Over 600 people in the Valley have signed up for our email alerts," Weismann said.
Jobs with Justice helped organize a series of protests at Wal-Mart stores around the Valley this year. The group also put together a Workers’ Rights Board made up of local religious leaders, state legislators, retired professors and other public figures. The board held a hearing in June to take testimony about tax-exempt, non-profit organizations in the Valley that pay their executives lavish salaries while hiring law firms to fight their employees’ efforts to organize.
Union workers at InteliCoat, a manufacturing company in South Hadley, credit publicity generated by the Workers’ Rights Board with helping them win a first contract last year. The contract, which covers some 200 workers, raised wages by almost a third.
The labor movement’s critics say many union leaders are corrupt, and their members are selfish and greedy. But so are leaders of companies like Enron and Halliburton; at least union members can vote their leaders out of office. As for being greedy and selfish, unions have spent millions of dollars of their members’ money lobbying for increases in the minimum wage, which helps all workers, union and nonunion alike.
The argument about greed and selfishness cuts two ways. The richest 1 percent of Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent of us combined. Last year, almost 20 percent of Americans had a net worth of zero or less. (That’s not including mortgages—if you include mortgages, the percentage of Americans in debt is much higher.)
That’s about wealth. Here’s a stat for income. In 1980, more than 20 percent of the private sector workforce in the U.S. belonged to unions. At that time, the ratio of average large-company CEO pay to worker pay ("large company" refers to more than 300 of the country’s largest publicly traded corporations) was 42 to 1. By 2000, only 8 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, and the ratio of average large-company CEO pay to worker pay was 525 to 1. Last year, the average large-company CEO made $12 million. The average worker made $27,460.
In Europe, where a far higher percentage of workers belong to unions, the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 25 to 1 last year.
Meanwhile, back in the Valley the fight for justice continues. Hostile bosses are nothing new to organized labor. Ann LaFreniere has worked at Springfield Day Nursery for 15 years. In July, after three months of fruitless negotiations, LaFreniere and her coworkers voted unanimously to strike if the company didn’t agree to a fair contract. Within days the workers, members of UAW Local 2322, were celebrating the signing of a new three-year contract that included raises and better benefits. "This was one of the hardest contracts we ever negotiated, but it was one of the best," she said.