Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On Workers' Rights

One thing I have never understood is the attitude among some working class people of vilifying organized labor. The arguments I keep hearing have to do with "unreasonable demands," "unfair union dues," "increased cost of goods and services," etc.

In reality though, throughout my lifetime, the power of labor unions has been severely undermined to the point that modern-day criticism of organized labor is severely misplaced. When the federal government has become so compromised by corporate interests that the federal minimum wage can't be reasonably called a living wage anymore then why shouldn't workers in any industry be given the tools to negotiate better wages, meaningful benefits and good working conditions, particularly workers in industries that can afford to treat their workers better without having an adverse effect on the costs of their products or services.

I know many small businesses owners who are uncomfortable with the idea of raising the federal minimum wage--especially in difficult economic times; but these business--many of them family operations with a small employment base with flexible working conditions--wouldn't need to concern themselves with legislation designed to work on behalf of employees for large corporations. The businesses that fight the hardest against unions and do everything they can to denigrate the proud tradition of organized labor in this country belong to the aforementioned industries that can afford to treat and pay their employees better but opt not to in the interest of padding already inflated profits--to say nothing of disproportionately large compensation packages for their executives.

Companies like Walmart, Home Depot, Loews, Office Depot, Starbucks, even Whole Foods--all Fortune 500 companies--are among the loudest detractors of organized labor and all can afford to pay and treat their employees better but choose not to.

My father was born in San Fernando, California in 1924 but only a few years later his family returned to Spain just in time for the civil war. At tender age of 11, after his father died, Dad had to quit going to school and start working to support his family. He experienced working conditions first-hand that weren't far removed from those of slave-labor as he grew up in Spain under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. It was only the knowledge that he was an American citizen that gave Dad the courage and motivation to overcome a great deal of personal, physical and economic adversity to join the U.S. Navy during World War II so that he could just have a chance to return home to the States and bring his family back with him.

Dad wasn't a man with a particularly sophisticated skill set like that of an electrician, auto worker or meat packer. Nor did he have the skills to work in management but with only a rudimentary education and a strong work ethic he became a simple grocer working in the produce sections of grocery stores in the Los Angeles area for 34 years.

Go to your local grocery store today and talk to an employee in their teens or twenties and ask them if they can imagine working in that particular job for the majority of their adult life. I've asked them and their response is usually to roll their eyes or laugh because they know that they can't raise a family or buy a house with the wages they earn in that job. When I tell them that my dad did the same job that they did for 34 years, their jaws drop and they ask, "How could he stand it?" My answer: He belonged to a union and that union looked out for him and his co-workers to make sure that they got a wage that they could live on. A wage that they could raise a family with. A wage that allowed them to become home owners. And there's no reason why people working those same jobs today shouldn't be given the same respect, benefits and living wages that men like my dad earned for his honest labor.

It's because of Dad's experience with his union, an organization that looked out for his best interests--and by extension those of his family--that I support workers rights in this country . One's level of education or limited skill set should not preclude one's ability to earn a living wage for honest work that will enable them to raise a family and own a home.

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