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Why Unions Have Failed, and Obama Should Let Them

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will richard oconnor
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We're being told it's going to be a new and better day for union workers in America. The Republicans are out, and a union friendly Democratic administration is in. Union leadership is heard in the progressive media asserting that unions and union workers supported Barack Obama, that Obama would not have been elected to the presidency without their support, and that President Obama owes the unions. Progressive talk show hosts like Thom Hartmann and Ed Shultz, who I often agree with, sing the union praises on a daily and weekly basis. However, the truth is, for a great many American workers labor unions have either been irrelevant or a source of interference and oppression. In particular, for minorities, women, and disabled workers.

We're reminded that historically unions have done much good – the fight against child labor practices, the eight hour day and 40 hour work week, increased wages and benefits, improved safety, job security, and healthcare benefits. We're told that the demise of unions is a result of Reagan era union busting (exemplified by Reagan's hard line against PATCO), globalization, off-shoring, labor arbitrage – and the race to the bottom. This ignores the fact that when African-Americans have been represented fairly by unions it has been in unions founded by blacks and run by blacks, such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded in 1925 by black Pullman Porters, and The Boston Society of Vulcans.

My own personal experience with labor unions goes back to the early 1970's when I was an employee of The New England Telephone Company. I was a member of the Communications Workers of America Local 1302 in Lynn, Mass. where I served as President of the CWA trial board, and The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local in Boston. My father, an uncle, an aunt, and a cousin also were union telephone company workers; my wife is currently in a union, my brother-in-law is a union tradesman, and my brother is a union musician.

But, I hold a somewhat inglorious place in the history of New England Telephone's union workers. Of the 55,000 employees at New England Telephone in the early 1970's, I was apparently the first who is a physically handicapped person.

I was able to be the first handicapped person employed by the telephone company in a union job not because my union supported worker's rights, civil rights, or human rights. My union, and my fellow union workers, didn't want me there. I got a union job because the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (under Republican president Richard Nixon) forced the telephone company to hire blacks, women...and me. Once hired, the union and my union co-workers made the job as difficult as possible for me and for the black men I worked with. My supervisor and telephone company management, unlike my fellow "brothers" in the union, were very supportive and did everything they could do to help me succeed. I saw clearly that labor unions are not for workers; they're for certain workers...those workers who are white, male, and able bodied.

At the time I was in the union in Boston, and experienced the negative reactions of union workers to the integration of their workforce, I learned I wasn't the only one in that situation. In 1969, the Boston Fire Department had 2,100 firefighters, but only 17 who were black and one Hispanic. A separate firefighters union was formed to address this inequity, "The Boston Society of Vulcans."

I often read in the newspapers that white firefighters were harassing and attempting to intimidate the few black firemen because they didn't want blacks living in the fire house with them or working on the job with them. In the early 1970's when the EEOC was pursuing New England Telephone and getting me a job, the U.S. Dept of Justice began investigating discrimination in employment practices in police and fire departments around the country.


From the Vulcan's website:


"In 1972, Jim Whitted and twelve other black and Latino Vietnam vets from Boston, scored a perfect 100% on the firefighter entrance exam. Despite being at the top of the list, they were never considered... Whitted and the other vets filed a complaint with the justice department...It was discovered that: When applicants of color went to apply for exams (especially at fire stations), they were not given, or informed of study materials, applications were often not made available to them and if they were their applications would end up misfiled, or thrown in the trash... the exam and recruitment activities were not open to all candidates regardless of race."

This pattern of discrimination against blacks by the Boston Fire Dept. was eventually addressed through a lawsuit, and the resulting Beecher decision, brought against them by The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and NAACP lawyer Tom Mela, NOT through any effort of the white union in support of (black) worker's rights.

I don't need to spend a lifetime collecting data and statistics or show more examples of the lack of inclusion of minorities, women and the disabled in union jobs. All I have to do is hire a union plumber or carpenter to do some work on my house and listen to the racist homophobic junk that comes direct from right wing radio, through the empty canyons of their minds, and out of their mouths.

The ignorant attitudes and prejudices expressed by many union tradesmen, union organizers, union firefighters and blue collar workers where I live are proof enough to me that unions aren't about jobs for Americans. Unions are about preserving a way of life for some Americans who usually are white, male, able-bodied, and heterosexual. The Archie Bunker stereotype was successful on television because it resonated with our real life experience. We've all known men who are like that. We know the prejudices of some union workers because so many will say it to your face expecting you to agree and validate them – ignorant and proud of it.

When Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in western Pennsylvania last year he raised the subject of "God, guns and gays." These are the Republican wedge issues that divide Americans by class along ideological fault lines. The community organizer and "uniter" in Obama mistakenly assumed that working class Americans are conscious and know that Republicans, the wealthy elite, and big business use these issues as a wedge to divide us while they grab all the gold. Candidate Obama held out his hand offering solidarity but got his hat handed to him by the blue collar union workers of Pennsylvania.

In a level playing field, I would rather buy American and support American manufacturing. But as a disabled person, I have no stake in preserving jobs for able-bodied American workers who will not return the favor to people like me.The big box stores that sell Made in China goods will hire the disabled, and do hire minorities, and they always are accessible and have plenty of handicapped parking out front. I may not like their politics but I'm welcome there.

Unions served a noble purpose 100 years ago. Unions are now an antiquated vestige of that earlier time. Unionism's current re-incarnation is part and parcel of the view that white males have become an oppressed minority, the victims of affirmative action. The fact is, even in a multi-cultural Obama-America, blacks are still at the bottom of the income parity ladder and women heads of households still only earn 76 cents on the white male dollar. With an unemployment rate hovering around 75% for disabled Americans, they are not even in the union picture.

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Richard O'Connor is a classically trained artist/painter and a blues musician. He is a polio survivor,has been a disability rights advocate and social justice advocate for over 30 years, and lives in western Massachusetts.
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Why Unions Have Failed, and Obama Should Let Them

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