Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Help For The Shrinking Middle Class

While passing out copies of our booklet to the crowd at the July 4th Demolition Derby in Ogden, one fellow, obviously a blue collar working guy, asked me if I was a Democrat. When I answered “yes”, he replied, “Then get the (expletive deleted) out of here! We’re Red State people in this crowd. Your kind ain’t welcome”.

I bring that experience up as a contrast to a meeting I had later that week with the men and women of Local 354 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). I picked a good evening to attend their meeting; they were passing out service awards. Amazingly, some of these awards were for sixty years of service!

The IBEW and other construction trade unions provide an invaluable service to our community. They facilitate the movement of workers from different jobs and employers to where they’re needed the most, while helping to guarantee a living wage and provide access to health care and other benefits to the workers and their families. After the meeting, I spent some time chatting with their friendly, soft-spoken business manager, Todd Miller. He told me about a program where the members donated time every year to do electrical repair and wiring in the homes of the poor and elderly. I broke bread with them after the meeting, and found them to be a lively, engaging group that cared deeply about their country and the problems we’re facing.

Is this the first time you’ve heard about donated work by the IBEW? For that matter, when was the last time you heard anything positive about labor unions in the media? Conservatives complain about media bias, but no group suffers more from media bias than unions. The only time we hear anything in the news about unions is when some official embezzles money or when there’s a threat of a strike.

The effect of this media bias over the last few decades is significant misunderstanding among our citizens about the labor movement. For example, a good friend of mine expressed the opinion that the union movement was fine in principle, but that they were all controlled by the mob. Another simply grimaced when I told him I was speaking to the state AFL/CIO convention, and said, “Well, I hope you can straighten them out”.

In the spirit of “straightening” things out, let me offer a few facts:

1. Unions are probably the most regulated of our private institutions. Documented cases of corruption are rare and mostly decades old.

2. Our local unions are models of democracy. I have been amazed at the level of transparency in reporting of finances in the meetings I’ve attended, in the professionalism of the elected leaders, and in the procedures that call for debate and sustaining votes from the members for even the most trivial items of business.

3. Unions tend to create longevity in a workforce, resulting in greater skill levels and better quality work.

It’s important to remember a little history. Most of us take benefits like safe workplace conditions, paid vacation and sick leave, health care, and retirement plans for granted. It would be foolish to think that employers started giving these benefits out of the goodness of their hearts. All of these employee benefits, and the middle class incomes that made the American economy the envy of the world, were largely the result of the sacrifices of previous generations of dedicated union members who were pioneers in the truest sense of the word.

There’s another bit of history that was not so good for America’s workers. Early in President Reagan’s first term, he was faced with the conflict between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the air traffic controller’s union (PATCO). Like most conflicts, there was plenty of blame to go around for why things reached an impasse. However, instead of working in a conciliatory way to resolve the crisis, the President fired the union members and enacted a lifetime ban on their re-employment.

The chilling effects of that one event, combined with subsequent weak enforcement of long-standing NLRB rules governing union elections, have resulted in a gradual decline in union membership. In 1953, about 32% of American workers were union members. Today, that number is around 13%, with less than 10% of private sector workers belonging to unions.

One of the main themes of my campaign for Congress has been the decline of America’s middle class. The gulf between the highest and lowest wage earners in our nation is larger than ever before in our lifetimes, and the purchasing power of the median American family is dropping every year. Meanwhile, pension benefits are being reduced or dropped altogether, health care costs for workers are exploding, and our government continues to enact policies that benefit big corporations over their workers.

There are several reasons for what’s happening to the middle class in America, but it’s clear that one correlating factor is the decline of the union movement. Although unions may not be for everyone, the existence of healthy labor unions benefits all workers.

For anyone doubting the powerful link between free labor unions and democracy, I’d offer one more piece of history. The fall of the Soviet empire did not begin when the Berlin Wall came down. That beginning was a decade earlier, when a Polish shipyard electrician (and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize winner) named Lech Walesa and his Solidarity trade union won their freedom to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

Working together (which is what unions do!) we need to rebuild this great American institution that has contributed so much to American society. Perhaps then we can convince the fellow at the demolition derby that continuing as a disciple of Sean Hannity and Backlash Republicanism is only going to result in a lower standard of living for his family.


At 9:45 AM, Blogger JM Bell said...

Steve, this, like your previous posts, is deeper-than-your-opponant look at a serious issue.

I can't wait for the debates.

Keep it up.

At 2:03 PM, Blogger John said...

Unions? LOL They may have started off right, but they have become a bastion for protecting bad employees. They would only rebuild America if we would guarantee them a huge hourly wage with all the benefits in the world.
Your true colors are coming out in each post. I see no difference in the Democrat or Republicans. The words may be different but the message is still the same. Government is the answer to all of your problems. What a load.


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