I was talking to my wife of 37 years last night. We were commiserating how the workplace has changed over the years since we first were married in 1975. We both worked for large corporations back then that had at least 25,000 employees worldwide. Where my wife worked, there was a mixture of union and non-union employees; my wife was a salaried exempt employee. My company may have had union workers in the factory, but I was a technical field rep so I too was a salaried except employee. We both had full medical and dental benefits, education reimbursement, reasonably generous vacation plans and a pension for that long off prospect of retirement. I remember that when I went to our HR person, s/he talked about my retirement in 2016. Boy, I thought that was an eternity away. Back then, it was. Neither my wife nor I really thought about our employment package, because it was rather standard for professional jobs in the 70s. Our employers even tried to keep us at least at parity during the big inflation period of the 70s and 80s. We weren’t rich by any standard, but with two incomes and no children, we had enough to buy a house, buy cars, eat out frequently and extra time and money to work in the yard and enjoy life. Then we started having kids.
My wife decided after her maternity leave that having perpetual sick baby and sick mother because of germs spread at day care was not for us, so she quit her paying job and became a full-time mom. She had no regrets. It was entirely her decision and we did pretty well with just one salary. By that time, I was working for a successful Silicon Valley start-up. A few years later, we had a second child. Both girls.
I won’t talk about the time my kids were growing up, it was a great experience and we have two great daughters. What I will talk about is how the work environment changed during that time.
I was in senior management of a start-up. We went public, I sold some stock, but as things go with some rising hopes, the harsh reality sinks in as the stock price drops. My hopes of being a multi-millionaire were dashed in a short few days. Our company went into a tail spin and my department went from 100 engineers to 15 before I was asked to leave. Two weeks later, the company declared bankruptcy. Two people went to jail, but I was lucky, I just lost millions of dollars just like the investors and a cool job. I looked for work but it was not good. Engineering teams in Silicon Valley were being sent to India, lock-stock and barrel. I interviewed for a few positions that called on my traveling to China and India, but they never panned out. People began wanting younger employees and I wasn’t getting any younger. I hung up my shingle as a Consultant and found barely enough to keep me in Cheetos.
My wife was a little better off. She found a part time position as a librarian in the local elementary school. It was a fun place, she really likes kids, but it provided no benefits and paid a little over minimum wage. What an incredible let down from the world before NAFTA. My wife decided to go back to school to get a teaching credential. I found random professional jobs, some with benefits, some without. Start-ups of the new millennium were very different unless you worked for Google or Intel.
My daughters got older and got various minimum wage jobs as they went to college. We ran up an incredible student loan debt, but both my daughters finished college with Bachelor of Arts degrees. If I had my druthers, I would have had them get engineering degrees and work in the software business, but they had no interest. My first daughter found absolutely nothing in her field, teaching music in high schools. My second daughter is a little bit luckier, she is a teaching aide for San Francisco School District while she attends grad school. My oldest daughter went back to technical school to become a pharmacy technician. She did it all on her own nickel and interned at a major drug store for 2 months without any pay. She got a job at that drug store, but within a year, she was fired for mistakenly giving the wrong prescription to a non-English speaker who didn’t understand when asked to verify her address or identity. No doubt, it was my daughter’s fault, but they canned her on the spot. Boom, no severance pay, no nothing. Her husband came out no better for the same organization. He was fired for calling a customer on his cell phone because the store phone was busy. Both happened within 2 months. I believe the corporation was looking to downsize and looked for any excuse to can people on any cause they could. It wasn’t like that when I was young. People are expected to make a few mistakes. All this accomplishes is to instill fear in the co-workers left in the aftermath of the apocalypse.
So much for my family. But what my wife and I discussed last night was an eye opener. We talked about unions. Yes, she is a math teacher now and belongs to a union, but that wasn't the topic. The topic was how corporations are treating their employees and how we need to find a way to give workers more power in the work place again. Right now, corporations think they can do whatever they want because jobs are so scarce. I think that is exactly what corporations want. When there is a surplus of workers and jobs are scarce, they can dictate the terms of employment. This is a far cry different from the roaring 90s when employment was high and workers were scarce. Corporations were getting H1 visas for people from China, India and other first world nations to fill jobs that could not be filled. But the tech bubble popped. The single most important event for the success of corporations in my lifetime was probably the signing of the NAFTA treaty and their ilk; unlimited worldwide cheap worker resources with no tariff barriers to add cost. That was also the single most important event for the failure of the average American worker; millions of good manufacturing jobs were outsourced, millions of workers were unemployed or under-employed. Corporations now were in control. If workers didn’t give up significant concessions in benefits and wages, the corporations just moved the entire job to China or Mexico or India or any number of countries were the worker was eager to work for slave wages.
I think it is time for a new NAFTA, one that makes employment fair again, not free like corporations deem is their just desserts. But how can this happen? Unions are on the decline, have been for years. Corporations, states and many employees see unions as evil. I’m sure when unions were first formed back at the turn of the last century, corporations, states and some employees thought unions were evil then. But look at what the unions brought us in the first half of that century; 40 hour work week, overtime, vacations, sick leave, health insurance, safety, higher wages, prosperity. Corporations don’t understand that if the least of us is helped up, everyone gets to ride that wave. All boats rise with the tide.
What is needed is a new type of union. One that doesn’t negotiate directly with employers because they will still fight tooth and nail to prevent “union shops” in their work force. We need to have a different type of union, one that matches consumers with workers. We need to help corporations understand that workers are people with lives to live and mouths to feed. We can’t just sit by and watch the 2% gain all the benefits and let the 98% go down the tubes. We need to bring together a force that will equal and maybe exceed the power of the corporations. A union that represents individuals as a whole rather than workers as a whole. The creation of the Union of Progressive Consumers and Workers (UPCW). The initials are no cool thing. I thought a catchy acronym would be cool and help to create attention, but alas, I’m not that creative. The goal of the union is to be a watchdog for worker exploitation by corporations that refuse to allow union representation in their work force. We need to wake these fat cats up to the reality of the market, consumers are in control. We just need to direct that control in favor of the middle class, not the upper class like is happening now.
Take this coming Black Friday. There are many that are looking at the workers at Walmart to go on strike. But nobody that I know works for Walmart and I personally don’t shop at Walmart. What can we do? With a new union of consumers and workers, we can organize to apply big pressure on Walmart stores in any area. Organize the consumers to picket the stores, preventing workers from being exposed to possible work sanctions. Have consumers boycott the store, not just a few, but hundreds, thousands. Get the corporation’s attention. Make noise. Legal civil disturbances. Get arrested. Get attention. Encourage new consumers to join the union and fight for fair labor rights, not corporation rights. If the designated store doesn’t change its employment policy, then work on organizing a general strike against that store or chain of stores. This Black Friday would be a perfect day to nail Walmart, but I fear the effort is not organized enough to make an impact. If workers and consumers unite to hit the store or chain in its most vulnerable areas, they will have no choice than change policy. Once we have one success under our belt, we move on to the next prime offender. Consumer pickets, organizing followed by a general strike. Pretty soon, companies will change policy with just the threat of a consumer boycott and picket. Workers can mostly be protected but the goal is to raise up the middle class by forcing corporations to cough up some of these huge profits that workers are making for them and spread the wealth. We need to end the new gilded age before it becomes too bad. When a member feels s/he has been treated unfairly, they should be able to talk to a team of labor lawyers that can begin to push back on some of these unfair practices corporations have been using to control workers. We also need to have people who can sift through the new ACA laws and help employees fight for their benefits, even if they don't belong to a traditional union. If gentile persuasion doesn't work, a general strike will get some attention.
This new union also needs to work on government. We can lobby Congress as well and maybe better than corporations. We need to get Congress to enact Workers Right to Work laws rather than Corporations Right to Rip-off Workers laws like exist in many states. We need to make sure that Congressmen and Senators know that they can be primaried if they do not listen to the people. We need to end the NAFTA and CAFTA and you name it AFTA era and make countries behave in a fair way when they import goods from America just as we let them import goods into America. If they don’t play fair, there is a tariff put on all goods from that country. We need to put force behind this and the force is money. Consumer buying power. If a company exports jobs and imports goods, we need to convince that company to reverse that trend. If they don’t, we enforce that trend ourselves by an organized boycott of that company. Money speaks, but not the way Karl Rove thinks. We can make our money speak by not spending it. Keep our money from the corporations that are the biggest offenders. If we do this in an organized way and target the worst offenders, we can focus all our attention in a way that will get attention.
We have already seen this happen. Glenn Beck was forced off Faux Noise because consumers spoke with their pocket books.. We told companies that advertised on his show that their product or service would be avoided by large number of people. Progressive people. Glenn is now on the back waters of the internet, pouting. The Flush Rush campaign has not only affected Rush’s program but also many of the big conglomerate distributors of his show. Advertising is down significantly not only during Rush’s show but many right wing talk show channels.
Consumers speak with power when they are organized and focused. But we need to bring workers into this picture. Workers are not only providing the muscle to make corporations profitable, but they also are the consumers of many of the products that workers either once made or are lucky to still be making. This makes them both powerful and vulnerable. Powerful because they can unite and speak with one voice, even if they aren’t part of a traditional union. We will see if Walmart employees make a statement this weekend. But workers are vulnerable to the whim of corporate greed and perceived power. It is easy to hold the power of employment over a workers head. They can tell him/her in so many ways, “You screw up and you’re out of here”. How many stories have we heard about workers just arbitrarily being fired for little or no reason. My oldest daughter is just one sample of the millions of stories out there. We need to have happy stories. Stories of how people are able to make a decent living by working hard for a company that is reasonable about wages and benefits. We aren’t looking to collapse the economy, that wouldn’t help anyone, we just need to make this economy work for everyone, not just the greedy capitalists and their minions.
The right to assemble is in the constitution, but those rights have been usurped by corporations through state and federal government police militarization. The Occupy Movement was a great effort that is simmering in the undercurrent of society now. Mostly because the local, state and federal governments broke up the organizations. We need to change that. We have the right to peacefully assemble. It can be in front of stores, government buildings, warehouses, the possibilities are endless, but we can’t let the police have complete reign over the population. That is a police state and as far as I know, we don’t live there yet. But sometimes I wonder.
We need to get tough. We need to put force behind these efforts, and that force requires money. This new Union must collect dues from its members in order to accomplish all that is necessary to do. We need to hire lawyers, lobbyists, benefits experts and good organizers. We really don’t need physical Union halls like were necessary in the past century. We have a virtual Union hall in the internet. Much more power can be gotten by harnessing that power for workers’ rights and the general good of the country. By bringing consumers and workers together, we can stand up to corporations in a way that neither could effectively do in today’s climate. We need to stand up and take our workers’ rights back from these corporations that sole them from us. Unionize to unite workers and consumers. Take back control from the plutocracy.[/rant]