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Squeezing the Work Force

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Message Charles Sullivan
More than fifty years ago two of the most powerful labor unions""the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Workers""merged into one. Since that time union membership has steadily declined. In 1953, thirty-six percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions; today that percentage has dwindled to less than eight percent. Most American workers are now classified as 'at will' employees who have no protection against their employers. At will employees can be terminated at any time at the discretion of their employer, for no reason at all, with virtually no recourse to the legal system for redress of their grievances. This is an intolerable situation that exposes workers to widespread abuse by their employers.

Now view the situation against the larger economic back drop in which inflation has outpaced salaries for the first time in fourteen years. This in effect equates to lower wages for working people. The result is erosion in the living standard of working class people across the board. During this same period of time the economy has expanded at a four percent rate.

Meanwhile, corporate profits are soaring to record levels because management has squeezed significantly more production from the workers, without raising their wages. In addition, businesses""even the most profitable among them""are paying fewer benefits to their employees, thereby placing yet another financial hardship upon them. As evidence of this, pay rose only 2.4 percent in 2004, while benefit costs jumped seven percent. The result is less income in the pockets of the workers, and more money into the bank accounts of the employers.

It is clearly a big bonanza for business whenever workers increase productivity, without a corresponding increase in wages, with the result that wages are no longer keeping pace with inflation. Furthermore, this is occurring as CEO salaries rise astronomically and exponentially. Thus the fat cats on Wall Street are reaping enormous profits, as always, on the backs of the workers who produce the wealth. In effect, the work force is being raped by their employers, and only a small percentage of them have union representation.

The decline of labor unions is two fold. Business, with the aide of the commercial media, has been enormously successful in portraying unions as the culprit of the mass exodus of American jobs to other countries. The claim is that union wages increase the cost of products so much that American companies cannot compete in the global market. This is nothing more than propaganda. Corporate profits, especially CEO salaries, increase whenever cheaper sources of labor are found. Remember that corporate profits are soaring. The real culprit responsible for the exportation of jobs is corporate greed. The pervasive exportation of jobs adversely affects the work force globally by driving down wages, and creating the deplorable working conditions known as sweat shops.

At home, it results in widespread job loss, which impacts local economies as well as families. Abroad, it results in slave wages, deplorable working conditions, environmental degradation, and sweat shops. The effect is to drive down wages in the global economy, while simultaneously increasing corporate profits. Wal-Mart, the largest corporation on earth, is the most egregious example of how global economics hurts local economies and exploits cheap labor markets. It is NAFTA and GATT, not unions that are exporting jobs to countries like China, Sri Lanka and Thailand""to the detriment of workers everywhere.

The second prong of the problem stems from the unions themselves. Most unions have become bureaucracies that closely resemble the corporations they purport to oppose. When unions compromised and capitulated to corporate demands, in effect, they jumped into bed with management and abandoned the workers they are supposed to represent. Too many union reps are more concerned about their personal welfare than they are with the needs of the workers. The result is a precipitous decline in union membership, loss of trust from the rank and file, and feelings of betrayal. Corporate profits are shooting through the roof; worker productivity is increasing sharply, but real wages are on the decline. What is wrong with this picture?

If working class people are ever to receive their fair share of the wealth they produce for their employers, they must organize on a grand scale. They must form more powerful unions that represent the workers by electing workers, not bureaucrats, to union offices. Unions were at the height of their powers when they were most militant and strongly advocated on behalf of the workers; when they did not cut deals with the company. They had leverage when they called general strikes, when members of all unions walked off the job in support of their brethren in trades other than their own. The strike is labor's most powerful weapon. It has always been so. Yet strikes are infrequently utilized these days.

Labor needs a new breed of organizers who understand labor history, as well as the history of the corporate exploitation of workers. We need militant organizers who see employers as the enemy they are. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. New unions have to be built by the rank and file. They must adopt a tough, aggressive approach to representing the workers.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, had it right. Especially in this era of economic globalization, we need to organize the work force on a global scale. One Big Union. This affords the best opportunity to protect workers from the corporate predators they are forced to work for. It is also the best way to counter the injurious effects of globalization upon working people, and the planet. The IWW still exists as a mere ghost of its old self. We could revive it. It deserves our support.

Finally, we must make anti-union political candidates pay a great price for their betrayal of the working class. This means that none of us can afford to vote Republican. We must create a political atmosphere that is favorable to workers by developing a medium that values people above profits. United, the people truly cannot be defeated. There can be no justice anywhere until there is justice everywhere. Workers across the planet are connected by their common struggle for justice, a living wage, reasonable hours, and a decent work place.

If we do nothing, our employers will continue to exploit us. Real wages will continue to decline. Our employers will demand more from us while paying less. The corporate CEOs, the managers, and the corporate investors on Wall Street will continue to prey upon us. Workers must have more self respect than to allow this trend to continue. We have only our chains to lose.
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Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina.
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