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Union Life: What the Obama White House Fails to Understand about Worker Safety, Security

photo: David Clow-Maryland via Flickr

My husband is a union electrician in a very red state. My husband works on big industrial site where safety is a constant issue. He uses his body every day hauling heavy equipment up ladders and walking miles and miles each day to cross the construction site seeking this or that. He, like so many of these men is an artisan. He understands through years of experience how things work and are engineered from about every aspect of construction. His journey to be an electrician began like so many by trying out many different trades until he found the one that spoke to him the way electricity does. He has great pride in his work. It is fun to drive around town and have dad talk about the inside story of buildings that he knows intimately from the inside out, like the zoo, the Union Pacific building, hospitals and schools. My husband and his union have sacrificed life and limb to build our town.

Why does this matter? My husband worked non-union before he ever joined the union. We really thought hard and long about whether or not he would join because we knew that it mean making sacrifices in regard to employment and worries about being laid off. He joined the union in 1996 and was never laid off once until the Bush administration. But before he joined we knew that the risk of lay off was part of union life. At the time, I was pregnant with our first child together and we both felt like with a family coming he should have disability and retirement. This was not something offered in the non-union shops. Sure, we knew that if he stayed non-union he would probably always be able to find a job. But we worried about the dismal health care benefits and lack of disability insurance. So he joined.

What people don’t understand about physical labor is that these guys are literally sacrificing their bodies. They use their brains but every single day they are taking a risk to their bodies that the white collar guys aren’t taking. My dad was white collar and I appreciated unions and was raised a good Democrat, but I never really understood how safety, life and limb are such an important part of the mix in union life.

Right now, he’s working on a big project. There are 250 guys on the bench because there just isn’t enough work. My husband was laid off for most of 2004-2008. On and off, working short jobs and then back to the bench. He would call in every day, go down and stand with hundred of guys and hope they would call his number. We lived like this for a long time. Now he’s back at work but lives every day in fear of losing his job again.

With 250 guys on the bench safety becomes a HUGE issue. The contractors know that they have tons of people to choose from, so they push these men very hard. Two weeks ago, a guy was in a hurry and accidently cut off his foot. The guy needed a saw horse to cut a piece of wood but the job box and equipment was in the basement. In fears of getting the job done too slowly this guy cut a corner that cut off his foot. All my husband could say was “what do they expect when they are inspecting your work every hour to make sure you are getting enough done, with the threat that they will lay you off?” My husband said that the attitude is “hurry up, hurry up” and that this pressures causes errors in judgment and mistakes.  . . .

My husband cannot take any time off. The anti-union contractor says that it’s not worth paying the benefits of men who don’t work 40 hour work weeks. So, he has a system of keeping track of time off taken. You get a strike for every day you take off, and three strikes you’re out. Last year my husband did not miss a single day of work. Not one. This year, my husband needed a root canal. My husband called all around town looking for someone to do this work late in the afternoon so he would not miss work. But he could not find anywhere that would do this. He missed his first day of work in over a year. Then I got sick with an abdominal infection and was hospitalized. My husband could not take time off to be with me on the first day when my life was at risk. I am having surgery next week and my husband just told them, he won’t be at work the day of my surgery. He said “I told them I couldn’t live myself if something bad happened.” Strike two.

Life with my husband has taught me so much about unions that I just didn’t understand before. non-union shops scrimp on safety. They often had substandard equipment and ladders. They did not invest in the men who worked for them, the way the union does. While the union isn’t perfect, I can’t imagine what life for all of us, would be like without them. (well, yes I can, look at the migrant workers and that would be our lives). Corporate America will not invest in the workers, in skilled labor unless they have to. They would treat these guys like slaves and watch one after the other become injured or otherwise. As long as there is a pool of people to employ, who cares?

The unions help provide for safety, for disability, in case of injury and for fair wages. Yes, there are disadvantages. My husband has a love-hate relationship with the targeting funds that augment bids so that the union can compete with non-union shops in our town. My husband has a love-hate relationship with paying his dues even when he’s out of work or his non-compete clause. For me, witnessing the life of a skilled laborer has been an eye-opener. Now, more than ever I understand why we need unions. And I have to say that the Obama administration’s attitude about this makes me very angry. The union will support the people who support them. That’s the whole idea behind democracy. The people gather their support and their votes to make changes.

Union guys can feel the corporate hands on their necks. Their way of life has gotten harder, jobs are slim and they fear that they will lose the middle class life they have sacrificed so hard for. Sure they miss the days when they could enjoy their work. They miss the days when they didn’t have to work so fast and furiously with the threat of unemployment on their backs. If corporate America breaks the unions, it’s not just the labor jobs that will suffer. It sets the trend that workers are just bodies. Without unions to fight this battle for us, who will speak? It’s much harder to take back control then it is to keep it. Right now it’s imperative that the unions stand strong. Sure they need to make some changes, but don’t we all?

Support your unions and let Mr. Obama know what you think of his anti-union message.

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