Also in Orange.
Perhaps this post would be better for Labor Day than Columbus Day, but either way it’s something that I think is important. Labor unions often get painted with broad strokes as relics and dinosaurs just waiting for mammals to take over the world. Heck, I have some very progressive friends who have voiced that opinion. But that doesn’t make it right, or even defensible.
Last week I attended the SEIU-UHW Leadership Conference, and talked to a few people there about why unions, in general, and their union, in specific are important. I thought the responses were interesting in a number of ways. But I’ll frame this post using the words of Jorge Rodriguez, the executive vice president of SEIU-UHW, and the former president of SEIU Local 399, the LA area SEIU health union that merged to form UHW. I’ll just paraphrase those words: “The status of labor is directly correlated to the status of the middle class.”
That might seem to be something of a truism, but look back, and you’ll see it’s true. In countries where labor is strong, the middle class is strong. We can pour through the history books, union membership data and economic data to show that this is true. Growth of union membership is uniquely tied to growth of the middle class. When labor was at its height of membership (%-wise) during the middle of the 20th century, the middle class boomed and flourished. People were stable and confident in their futures within their workplace, and productivity reflected that worker content.
But we live in a different era now. And in this era, we compete globally, racing to the bottom at breakneck speeds. We can’t compete with the Indias, Chinas, and Mexicos of the world. It simply won’t happen on a cost basis, especially with the disaster that is our health care system. And so unions are an anachronism of a bygone era.
Or so the story goes. However, the story is very, very misleading. The story makes assumptions, faulty ones at that. Assumptions that by paying workers less, there is more. Assumptions that by squeaking every last penny out of the system, we can somehow improve America, or at least Gordon Gekko’s America. As if Wall Street will tussle the CEO’s hair and reward him with a few more stock options, and then the American Dream will be fulfilled.
But the American Dream? You know the one where you can pay your bills. The one where we can all sleep at night without the fear of a loathsome disease wiping out your financial future because you have no health insurance? The one where the next generation doesn’t backslide into poverty? That American Dream requires strong labor.
If you don’t mind let me give you a little anecdotal evidence of the power of unions, for those who say that labor has no relevance in this economy. I’ll even make it simple the first time around. Leave it to dollars and cents, to make things crystal clear. Take two, totally real and entirely unfictionalized, hospitals in the Southland, in areas of equally high living costs, we’ll call them Hospital X and Hospital Y. Hospital X is a union shop organized by the very same SEIU-UHW that I referenced earlier. At Hospital X, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) earn about $26 depending on experience. You won’t get rich off such a salary with housing costs as high as they are in Southern California, but it’s a wage that you can live on. At Hospital Y, a non-union shop, a Licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) with about twenty years of experience (!) earns only about $17/hour. So, despite the higher level of education and experience, the LVN at the non-union hospital was earning less than a CNA at a union hospital.
Now, try to tell me why unions are unnecessary.
Well, here’s another story in case you still don’t believe me. A nurse at another non-union hospital, let’s call her Emilia, was working in the oncology unit. Well, it turns out that the oncology unit wasn’t profitable enough for the corporate honchos, so they shut it down, thus downsizing Emilia. Well, never fear, because the hospital offered to take her back as a “temporary employee” aka, the same job for a lot less pay and no benefits in another unit. So, get it? Same job but different hospital floor=no benefits & lower pay.
Of course, the next question you might be asking is, isn’t there a nursing shortage, can’t she go somewhere else? Well, Emilia is in her late 50s, and though nobody will tell her this to her face, she’s just too expensive. You see, health insurance for a woman in her 50s is expensive, so why pay that when you can get a 25 year old nurse who doesn’t get sick for less money? Of course, problems like institutional memory, and experience aren’t factored into that equation, but who needs experience? Right? You want that fresh out of college kid tending to you in the hospital, right? Right?
But, anecdotes are anecdotes, and there are millions more of them. It can only take so long before we realize that there’s a pattern here. Corporations exist to serve their investors, not their employees. It’s just the way that it is, for better or for worse. But taking that as a given, we need to work within the confines of the system to get the best deal for the workers of the world. The vehicle for that?
Labor Unions. Strong, Organized Labor Unions. To Rebuild Labor Unions is to Rebuild the Middle Class.