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Why Unions Aren’t Historical Artifacts, Part 2,345


I think I’m just going to spend this evening rambling through the newspapers and blowing off some random steam.  We’ll see if it all makes sense at the end.

First we have SHOCKING news from the New York Daily News that

The union powerhouse that represents some of the poorest workers in New York City shelled out more than $2 million on parties and out-of-town conferences last year, the Daily News has learned. Local 1199, whose members empty bedpans and scrub toilets in hospitals and nursing homes, spent $465,000 for a summer retreat to Lake Placid for 700 staffers.

Oh my! Damn those unions. But lets look a little closer at the allegations about one specific party. Does this make sense?

Nearly 4,000 rank-and-file delegates attended – hospital orderlies, cafeteria helpers, home care workers. But lack of space meant the people they represent, the average Local 1199 members, couldn’t go.

Let’s play that back. "Hospital orderlies, cafeteria helpers, home care workers" attended the party, but not "average Local 1199 members?" Sounds like they are the "average Local 1199 members," except they’re also the ones who spend their weekends and evenings working on union business after cleaning the bedpans, cooking the food, cleaning up the cafeteria and running around the city caring for sick patients.

Everyone’s outraged! Well, maybe not everyone, but one guy is certainly outraged:

"Partying at the Copa while your members clean bedpans and foot a bill they can’t afford is outrageous," said Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, a business-funded group that monitors labor spending.

Berman, Berman, where have we heard that name before? Oh yeah. He’s the professional union buster who’s making a fortune selling distorted commercials trashing labor’s efforts to pass legislation calling for card-check recognition instead of traditional “secret ballot” elections.

He’s also upset about "spending half a million dollars of members’ money to go to Lake Placid to have a conversation." That "conversation" is this trip, according to the paper:

Amid the splendor of the Adirondacks, nearly 700 of the local’s 758-member staff checked into two resort hotels with lake and mountain views for a four-day retreat in Lake Placid in July 2005. Meetings began at 8:30 a.m. Strategy sessions mapped the union’s expansion plans. They were intense and lasted for hours. Then came the fun part – team-building exercises. Staffers raced "war canoes," rode mountain bikes, tromped through the woods on group hikes, conducted a scavenger hunt to find items related to the Olympics – and celebrated with another blowout party.

(I’ve been to Lake Placid — for a union conference. It’s nice, "splendor" I wouldn’t call it) The total cost for a four day retreat for 700 reps? $465,000. Doing the math, that comes out to about $166 per day per person. Anyone out there able to find a hotel room with breakfast, lunch and dinner in New York City for $166 a person?

Of course, even the writer of the article is forced to admit that union work isn’t all fun and games. They work hard and get something done:

Clearly, something is working: Local 1199 members enjoy free health care benefits, fully funded pension plans, college scholarships, life insurance, job guarantees and child-care and home-loan programs. And the union has grown under Rivera’s stewardship – at a time most are shrinking. Thanks to 14 mergers in the past 17 years, membership rolls soared to 300,000 from 75,000 in 1989 and the budget grew to $135 million from $14 million.

Hmm, $2 million of party, meeting, food and retreat spending over a year comes to about $6 per member. Do hospital workers resent spending $6 a year for work retreats and an occasional nice party for the people who work their asses off getting them all those things? I doubt it.

But still, $2 million is a lot of money, isn’t it?

I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. For example,

Ex-WorldCom CEO to Start Prison Sentence Former CEO of WorldCom Set to Start 25-Year Prison Sentence

JACKSON, Miss. – Former WorldCom Corp. chief Bernard Ebbers starts a 25-year federal prison sentence on Tuesday for his role in the $11 billion accounting fraud that toppled a company he had built from a tiny telecommunications firm to an industry giant.

As I’m writing this, I note that Nathan Newman also has a post on the same story. And he makes this point:

So why didn’t the reporter just compare that data to similar party expenses by big corporations? Oh right, corporations don’t have to publish similar information. Corporations only have to publish general information about their spending, usually massaged by major auditing firms, and that only applies to publicly-traded companies. Many businesses are essentially black boxes with the public getting no information on how they spend their money. Which is the point.

The government audits unions down to practically what they spend on paperclips. Literally, if you know someone who works for a union, their exact salary is listed by the government on a website. That’s the level of disclosure imposed on unions. Which allows these kinds of stories maligning unions as "big spenders" while businesses waste money in ways orders of magnitude more extravagant, but they can’t be analyzed systematically because the data on business spending isn’t available easily.

Meanwhile, we have this:

Florida group successfully forms first pizza drivers union

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Domino’s Pizza delivery driver Jim Pohle could have quit when he saw a competitor offering an extra 25 cents an hour in wages and his bosses wouldn’t match it. But he decided instead to stand up and form the nation’s only pizza drivers union to successfully organize workers. Now he represents 11 drivers as president of the American Union of Pizza Delivery Drivers Inc. at the franchise where he has worked off and on for more than a dozen years. Experts say he has created a model for fast food workers wanting to organize in other locations. "When they declared us tipped employees and refused to pay us the Florida minimum wage of $6.40, I was kind of angry. I came home that night and I told my buddy, I said ‘We are forming a union,’" he said.

This might be a sign of good things to come:

The union could open doors for other fast food workers, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She pointed to recent organizing efforts by Starbucks employees in New York and Chicago. The Industrial Workers of the World has members at seven Starbucks Corp. stores.

The company, which has obviously studied the anti-union script, has hurt feelings. They had assumed they were one big happy family:

Tim McIntyre, a spokesman for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s Pizza Inc., said that while the Pensacola franchise was independently owned and operated, the company was disappointed by the union vote. "We do not believe it is necessary in our industry, and are surprised that the individual employees in that store voted to turn over their ability to represent themselves to their supervisor to someone else," he said in a statement.

Umm, no Tim. Unions are the workers representing themselves — together, instead of individually.

And anyway, unions can come in handy sometimes, for example if you’re an attendant at an understaffed hospital for the criminally insane where you’re constantly getting spat on, attacked and sometimes killed — and you’re afraid you’ll get fired if you complain. To top it off, you work in a state (Florida) where public employee have no OSHA protection, and you don’t get early retirement like workers in other dangerous professions — police, firefighters and corrections officers.

What these workers at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee do have is a union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — that’s willing to fight for them and protect them from retaliation.

Following the death of an attendant who had been helping a co-worker who was being attacked, AFSCME Florida organized a meeting with the workers, the Florida Department of Children and Families, and several state legislators to air their problems.  The result: the legislators and the state have assured the workers that they will ask the legislature for special risk" retirement benefits to the hospital attendants. Hopefully, the workers can stay alive and healthy to enjoy retirement.

Then we have this somewhat related good news/bad news story about some Illinois corrections officers and prison nurses who are making $100,000 a year and more — because the system is so understaffed that they’re frequently forced to work overtime. The situation is so bad that AFSCME, Illinois has not endorsed anyone for Governor because no one’s made any credible promise to fix the problem.

The money’s great, but not everyone is happy, according to Karen Beecher who earned more than $38,000 in overtime pay last year as a nurse at Pontiac Correctional Center.

"I would rather have more staffing than the money," Beecher said. "The money is nice, but I’d say 99 percent of the nurses would say they want more help here."


For Beecher, working overtime is often not a choice. Because of understaffing, her bosses often say she must stay at the prison when staffing shortfalls occur. "It’s a terrible safety issue. The bottom line is that they need to hire more people," Beecher said.

And the situation is getting worse:

According to AFSCME, the state prison system is operating with 1,800 fewer employees than it had in 2003 as part of an effort by Blagojevich to pare down the state payroll. But that reduction doesn’t mean there is less work.

According to the Department of Corrections, the state has paid out more than $47 million in overtime to prison workers over the past two fiscal years. Much of that overtime is mandatory for the workers, who would otherwise get reprimanded if they refuse to work. "They would rather pay exorbitant, obscene amounts of overtime than hire the staff to run safe and efficient facilities," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said.

Finally, I’ll end with a sanitation workers strike in Raleigh, NC. The workers are pissed off because

managers are requiring them to work shifts longer than 10 hours without paying them overtime. Instead, the workers said, managers offer compensatory time off, but refuse permission when the workers try to use it. The workers also said they are being overworked and are threatened with suspensions if they do not work late.

"We just feel like we are being cheated for the work we are doing," worker Edward Young said. "If we don’t get the time off, what good is comp time?" worker Lonnie Lucas said.


Workers said their problems escalated in July when the city cut jobs from its recycling crew after adding seven new items, including cardboard, to the list of what can be recycled. The workers also said they are threatened with punishment if they complain.

Anyone sensing a pattern here? Like a general lack of respect for workers, along with management’s efforts to  save money by forcing workers to work overtime, or in dangerously understaffed conditions so they don’t have to hire any more full-time employees with benefits, union representation, etc.

Note also that most of these stories are about public employees — workers who people like Richard Berman think lead plush, spoiled lives and really shouldn’t even have the right to organize unions.

These are just a few things I happened to run across in the paper over the last couple of days. How many thousands of times are these stories repeated every day for the more than 85 percent of American workers who don’t have any union representation, or any way to address their problems without fear of being fired?

And how many times have we heard our friends, relatives and neighbors say, "Yeah, unions had their place 100 years ago when everyone was slaving away in factories, but no one has it that hard anymore."

Just asking.

Instead of sleeping, Jordan Barab obsesses about workplace safety, labor and politics at Confined Space.

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab