Friday, May 8, 2015

The Threat of a Union

Why, we wonder, do people vote against their own interests?  Why are we so vulnerable to the attacks on unions by right-wing politicians?

One of the greatest fears we have in this country is loss of our livelihood.  There may have been a time in your life -- there have been a few in mine -- where I was looking at losing a job, or not being able to find a job, alongside a nearly empty bank account.  Terrifying.

Add to that financial disasters, like that of the mid-70's, with gas lines and prices doubling, tripling and quadrupling.  Employers squeezing unions, forcing them to choose between cuts in benefits and layoffs.  We hear about how Obamacare has forced employers to cut staff from full-time to part-time, but that has been going on (check with your elders) since the seventies.

All it takes is an economic pinch for corporations to take advantage of our fears.  And since the seventies, it has worked.

The other strategy that has worked quite well for corporations is painting the union itself as the bad guy.  Politicians and lobbyists have no problem twisting the truth to make it appear that unions will cause us to lose our job security.  That unions are corrupt, pocketing your dues to benefit themselves.

It is the same argument, ironically, that is used against taxation.  If not for taxation, we would have higher employment, better wages, more job security and -- my favorite -- better government services.

It's all nonsense.  But if you say it often enough to people in insecure times it is going to work.

In Little Accidents, a 2014 movie recently released on DVD, there are fierce pressures by members of a mining community on the only surviving witness to a deadly accident caused by negligence to cover up the company's responsibility.  The palpable fear is that the government will force the closure of the mine and loss of work.  People willing to risk their lives in order to earn a living.

Loss of work is the fear of any whistleblower.  Edward Snowden had to weigh the consequences of what he knew would be a major attack on the government's credibility, with major fallout.  But in smaller ways, most of us reach points in our lives when we could complain about something that is wrong, or close our eyes, even participate.  And most of us rationalize why we should just do as we're told.  Because otherwise we would lose our jobs, our homes, our friends, our families.  It is not so easy to take a stand.

And when Nikki Haley builds her right-wing creds by union bashing, she is touching that same nerve.  Fear that leads to isolation, that leads to rage, that turns the fear around from being afraid your employer will let you go to anger at the union rep that has shaken your faith in the security of your life and livelihood.

Haley has used the union issue to garner fame and a future from her corporate handlers.  She has done it by creating fear in people who just want to make a living.  She knows that if unions were to get a fair hearing, employees would listen, and just might consider letting them in.  And Boeing, despite their pretense of being open to unions, would lose the power to make the demands on its employees that it currently holds.

Good for Boeing to be able to sound reasonable and let people like Nikki Haley do their dirty work.  Which she does happily.

Meanwhile, though, we need to provide a platform for workers to tell their stories, to tell us what they would want from union membership.  We need to hear the things they are afraid to say in public while they are not protected by a union.  As long as South Carolina's workers live in an atmosphere of fear, the information vacuum will work both ways, and Nikki Haley will continue to thrive from the power she holds.  

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