Saturday, September 5, 2015

We Will Have to Fight for It

I have a confession to make.

Shortly after I started at The Mercury in 1997, we were purchased by a corporation that no longer exists -- The Journal Register Company.

And when it came time to vote on a new labor contract, I cast my vote for the new contract, because as a new employee who could not afford to go without pay, I just wanted to make sure I still had a job.

I had never worked at a union paper before, and was unsure what it meant.

I knew I was a hard worker and wasn't sure why I needed a union to make sure the company knew that.

I was young(er).

And I was stupid.

Because in voting for that contract we accepted the seeds of our own destruction.

And we were too greedy and too selfish to see it, or, at the very least, to acknowledge it.

I apologize to all of the people who work at The Mercury who were hired after me, because as things stand now, they will never be paid as much as I am.

You see that contract created something called the two-tier pay scale.

People who worked at The Mercury at the time the contract was approved would continue to enjoy their relatively high pay and benefits.

But everyone who came after?

They would be paid on a lower pay scale and have been ever since.

I have spent the last 12 years at the negotiating table to trying to undo the damage I did with that vote. I have yet to succeed.

At the time, the newspaper business was not in the kind of dire straits that it now finds itself, although you would not have known it from what the company lawyer was saying.

Returns for the stockholders had dropped below double digits!

The horror.

Of course that was just the beginning of the fall for the newspaper business and those of us who are members of The Newspaper Guild have engaged in a fighting retreat ever since, struggling to eke out some kind of raise at contract time, a raise inevitably consumed in its entirety by another hike in health care premiums.

We are fighting to tread water, not to gain ground, but not to lose too much of it.

And sad to say we counted ourselves lucky; lucky to extend existing contracts with no raise while other guild units suffered severe pay cuts, lay-offs and buy outs.

We've since had our share here too.

These are phrases familiar to the people of Pottstown.

Once a booming industrial town that made the steel for the Golden Gate, George Washington and Bear Mountain bridges, Pottstown enjoyed prosperity because the people who worked in its plants made a decent wage.

A decent wage that was spent in local stores; paid for a modest home and the occasional vacation.

A living wage that allowed for savings, a pension and, sometimes, a college education for their children.

They had unions to thank for that.

We owe a lot to the labor movement.


The eight-hour work day.

Paid vacations, although Americans take (or have) fewer than the rest of the west.

Sadly, it is also how our health care is delivered.

Interesting note, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was mulling over how to enact Social Security, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins urged the government to provide universal health care as well.

But because the factories were having trouble holding on to the workers building the "Arsenal of Democracy" he acquiesced to their desire to offer health care through work as an added benefit.

(Yes, back then, industry was clamoring to offer health care.)

But the chance for a health care system that works as well as Social Security seems lost forever, and we are forced to be thankful for Obamacare, a warmed over Republican plan that Republicans turned against once a Democrat proposed it.

None of these things in our work place we now take for granted came easily.

Unions had to fight and, in many cases, die for them.

Those who did, like so many of the veterans who died in wars that made corporations richer, deserve our thanks and our respect.

But really, who am I kidding?

You've read all these platitudes before at this time of year, about everything we owe the labor movement, that its more than just a barbecue, blah, blah blah.

And tomorrow is the day we all pretend to agree with its goals.

But the truth is, we have abandoned the labor movement.

Fully half the states in the U.S. are "right to work" states, meaning that you cannot be compelled to join a union and, most importantly, pay dues to a union as a condition of employment.

That sounds pretty good when you put it that way.

But missing from most of those laws is the provision that if you want to be free to skip union dues, you should also work outside the union contract that those dues paying members, through their joint action, negotiated to build a better lives for themselves and their families.

After all, the contract is with the UNION, not the people who work there and are not part of the union.

But that's not how it works. It works exactly the opposite. Workers in right to work states get all the salary and benefits and, if they are abused by their employer, see if you can guess who MUST take their case -- the very same people they refused to pay.

The elected officials bought by campaign contributions and cushy consulting jobs after they retire, made sure of that, more as a way to undermine unions than to protect workers rights to a free ride.

And we let it happen

Because we have allowed unions and "big labor" to be vilified as if it is the same thing as "big pharma" or "big oil."

Truth be told, some unions, like the corporations that faced them across the table, fell victim to the same thing that happens to any organization that tastes power. It abused it.

Not all of them certainly, but there were enough high-profile falls from grace to allow those who opposed them to exploit their excesses and build a narrative of corruption and greed.

Greed is the expertise of corporations and Wall Street, and anyone who thinks unions can compete in that arena is a fool.

What is not foolish is the primary goal of most union members.

What most of those of us who still belong to unions want is what every American who isn't already rich wants.

We want a living wage, one that allows you to raise a family, buy a house and send your children to college without taking on a crushing burden of debt.

We want some semblance of retirement security that is not dependent on the vagaries of a consequence-free stock market still drunk on derivatives and credit default swaps.

We want to take vacations with our families and to know that if we get sick, and we ALL get sick, that the decisions about our health care will not be based on how many co-pays we can afford that week.

If you wonder why Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls look no further than those simple wants and the slowly dawning recognition that none of the dozens of other presidential candidates in the field have any interest in fighting for those things regular Americans want.

It doesn't seem like much to ask for, but if you think the corporations that own and run this country are going to give it to us because we ask nicely, than you haven't been paying attention.

The only way we will get it, is the only way we ever have.

We will have to fight for it.

And if you have a better way of fighting multi-millionaires and their insatiable greed than with multi-millions of workers standing together, I'd like to hear it.

In the meantime, I have to get ready for the next negotiation with the hedge fund that owns The Mercury and try once again to undo the damage I did with a vote rooted in fear.


  1. Great piece Evan. i do think there are ways to change it, and it starts with getting more people involved with politics. And it means we don't allow the unions to be demonized, not private and certainly not public.

    The last pot of public money is our school and local taxes, privatization and outsourcing are going after that money.

    We need to support teachers and question the constant rhetoric being spewed. Teacher pensions are NOT the problem, imbalanced budgets are. Giving tax cuts to real estate developers and billionaires is the problem.

    We need good investigative journalism exposing how are tax dollars are spent, especially at the local level. People need better information.

    And we need to support unions, not demonize them.

  2. Lisa,
    Thanks for your comments.

    "Good investigative journalism" is expensive and requires a news source that is financially solid.

    Too bad about that.

  3. Exceptionally well said, Evan. I will retire in less than a month after more than 30 years as a soldier in the Labor Movement. Thanks to my union, I will have a decent pension and health insurance. We hear a lot this time of year about how these are tough times for union members. True enough. But they are a whole lot tougher for those folks who have no union. We cringe at having to negotiate concessions. But our nonunion counterparts have everything taken from them that the boss wants to take because, without a union, there is no negotiation. Somehow, we need to find a better way to tell our story, to reach out to the unorganized and pull them in with us. Then, and only then, will this Movement that we love start moving again. Happy Labor Day!

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