Union Life: Sitting the bench.
I have written several diaries on union life. One in the dead of the winter when my husband was working long days in sub zero temps and afraid to complain of the cold. The other was written last summer, when he was working during a hot streak, when the foremen forgot to get water up to his floor for an entire day. Both times, my husband did not want to complain because he was afraid they might can him. As deplorable as these situations were, he was willing to suffer to keep his job.
In fact, my husband had broken his ankle years ago, a bad break where they had added screws to fix it. This last job required so much walking that one of the screws that was fixed in his bone and meant to be left there for life, worked its way out of his bone and was floating in his ankle. My husband of course, ignored this pain because he could not take a day off for fear that they would lay him off. Once his lay off had begun, he saw the doctor who told him he had never seen anything like it. My husband had been walking 9 to 10 miles a day. (there are lots of reasons for this and most had to do with the poorly organized working conditions). Now, we have fitness friends who run marathons and scoff at 9 to 10 miles a day. But, let me tell you, there is a big difference between walking 9 to 10 miles a day because you MUST, (not, oh it’s rainy today I’ll just train in the gym or walk less) consistently put in those miles every single day, five days a week, month after month, rain or shine, freezing temps or heat…and training for a few months to get ready for an event. This was his life every single day. And he barely ever complained about his ankle, he complained about frozen hands, and not enough water, but never mentioned the pain in his ankle.
For the entire time that my husband worked this job, they kept the rumor mill going about lay offs. Many people today, know this stress well, but the stress of the constant threat takes a tremendous toll on the spirit. Lay off threat is good for production, and keeps them quiet. It’s not like getting laid off from a non union job. Many people do not understand, the whole process of being laid off, when you work in a union. The risk, the cost and the need for it to be this way.
So, once the spring rains stopped, and the flooding began, my husband was officially laid off from his job. What this means is that they had too many men on the job as it was finishing and they would have to let them go. On the day he lost his job 54 men and women walked out together, heads hanging low, fear in the pit of their stomachs. They had been told they were the best and the brightest, that none of them deserved to leave, that the fat had been trimmed long ago, and that all of them leaving today had made the final cut. My husband had been going into work every morning, dreading this day. He had been dreading this day almost since the day this job started. He was working on a ballfield, and no job is forever. Lay offs are part of union life. They let go of the guys last hired…and once you have been laid off, it’s hard to get off that “just hired circuit”.
While my husband worked on building this fancy ballfield where wealthy folks would be plunking down hundreds of dollars a game in ticket prices and concessions for each trip they made to the stadium, he was facing the reality that soon he would be losing his job. The irony of working to install the electricity for sky boxes for millionaires, was not lost on him. It made him angry that he would never set eyes on the work he had done…not ever again. Those rooms would soon be locked to likes of him. He took pictures though, and he told me all about what they looked like and the goodies in each.
Now he certainly has left his work behind locked doors before. However, this time, the only reason he wouldn’t see it again, was not because he wasn’t a doctor, or a teacher, or because he wasn’t a diving specialist at the zoo, or because he wasn’t a railroad engineer…this time, the only reason he would never see his work again, was because he knew when he lost his job, all forward motion gained by his two years of steady employment would be dashed and any hope of getting into a sky box or even a game, would be lost. It takes a long time to get “caught up” once you find work again. And this is a process that he goes through over and over again. Savings, yes. The best we can, but if you go through this over and over again, there are always more expenses that you can’t take care of when you are laid off. You put off what you can, because you never know how long your “bench” will last.
You might think, “not so bad” you can find work again and save up to get a seat in one of those fancy boxes. But when you get laid off in the union, it doesn’t work this way. Especially if there are over a hundred guys already on the bench, as was the case for him. Every day, he calls in to see if there is work for him, and it’s so sad to see him shake his head. “No job calls today”.
So…”just find another job”, “Why doesn’t he go to work at McDonalds?” , “Why doesn’t he just find another non union job”? These are the questions. Each of them come with their own judgment about him…as a man. And this also hurts. Deeply. If you know my husband, you know he can’t sit still. That from the moment that his unemployment began he started working full days on his mothers house, painting, installing windows…all kinds of work to help them out. He’s not lazy. And it’s not that he won’t work for free. And it’s not that he thinks he too good to flip burgers.
Before my husband joined the union, he worked non union. His pay was about 13 to 14, up to 21 dollars an hour if you can get on as a foremen. In the union, he makes 29 to 32 an hour. (when he can work).When you are non union, and you lose your job, you just go get another one, if you can…today, the non union guys have some work. The union guys are sitting the bench.
The environment in my city is anti union. They want badly to bust the unions because, of course, a union job has higher overhead due to salaries. When the corporates have the power, they want to smash the unions because the unions take money from the contractors profits. But here’s what most folks don’t know. My husband’s health care comes out of his pay check, pre tax, as does his disability and his retirement. He pays completely for his own. They are not subsidized by the union as many white collar jobs are, where the company pays a portion of the health care or matches 401 funds. This of course, means that his take home pay is reduced by these expenses. The union gets deals because of the size, the number of people participating, the amount of guaranteed business. This gives them some power, and access to cheaper and better quality health care, disability insurance and retirement funds. Because they bargain collectively for health care and disability costs. See, collective bargaining works in lots of different ways.
When my husband worked non union, his health care options did not always exist. Some jobs didn’t offer health care at all. Most did not offer disability. The non union shops are smaller and have a harder time getting a good deal. So they tend not to offer things like pensions, and retirement, disability insurance, and health insurance. Some have it, but most of the programs, if offered, are inferior to the benefits offered in the unions. High deductibles, and lots of arguing about who is willing to pay what, when.
Furthermore, non union shops don’t spend on safety, because they aren’t paying for disability insurance. An injury means workmen’s comp, but non union shops find ways out of those expenses. In my experience, this is just my experience, I have only known one person out of 6 cases, where someone made a workmen’s comp claim, here in my state, and was not laid off or fired sometime in the next year. My state is a “right to fire” (my spin) state. That is, that they can fire for any reason, any time. No, they are not supposed to fire you for filing workmen’s comp, but you would have to sue, and you would have to prove that they didn’t have any other valid reason to let you go. This is more difficult in a right to fire state. Non union shops do not worry quite as much about safety as the union shops do. In a union shop, if you are injured or disabled, the whole community is going to help you out. They all make sacrifices for each other. And they are willing to pay for good disability programs when a fellow union member is injured or disabled. Injuries cost the whole union, so union shops have incentive for safety.
So with the lower wages, the non union shops out bid the union shops. One of the ways that the union fought against this, was what they called a “targeting fund”. This is fund, taken out of each person’s check, that goes toward targeting jobs so that they can underbid the non union shops. This is very controversial. Alot of the union guys did not understand what this fund actually does, and sometimes they worried about abuses. At any rate, the purpose is to help them compete with the non union guys. Recently, the guys voted to get rid of targeting funds. They felt that they were entitled to their money and that it wasn’t fair to give it up, when the jobs weren’t coming any way. What we saw was that the non union shops were getting all the bids despite the targeting funds. It’s not legal to pick non union over union in the bidding process…in fact they are not supposed to know who has what bid. But we know that there has at least in the past been all kinds of politics involved in the bidding process. I supposed if the target fund were getting the guys jobs, they wouldn’t mind so much. But that is not the case right now. Many facing looming lay offs would rather have the cash.
So, in our state my husband cannot do electrical work for profit, as long as he hopes to get his retirement funds and come back to union work. He can work outside of his field but when you are an electrician this is a difficult distinction sometimes. If you get caught you lose your pension. This attitude is strongest when the state is trying to break up the union. The corporate powers that be would like to starve you out of your power. They want to decrease the collective bargaining power, the sheer numbers behind the union, they would like to see all the guys cross over. And they will go back and forth over the years luring them with higher pay and benefits…that will then decrease or become stagnant once the union is less powerful. What happens after you leave the union, is that it’s hard to get back in. Blue collar guys sometimes get all mad about immigrants taking their jobs…well it’s the same feeling when non union guys are willing to look the other way for safety violations, look the other way when they lose their benefits, look the other way when their health care is inferior. However, truth is that this is understandable, my husband did it when they didn’t bring water in the heat, and when his hands were frostbitten over the winter. That’s why the unions exist. That’s why there is a structure. That’s why they, the unions, collect power.
When greed takes hold, when the corporate makes all the rules, sets the salaries, sets the safety standards and handles all the investigations there has to be a counter balance. Certainly there have been times, when the counter balance swung too far too the union side…but usually those are only moments in time. You can bet however, that the corporate fat cats will never let you forget those shifts. They will never let you forget the greed or the mistakes, when the power has swung too far. They want to make sure that they muddy the name of the unions. They want you to feel that it’s better to go without the counter balance. Of course they do! Without collective bargaining, without the union to take a stand for higher pay, safety standards and a quality of life for all workers, there is nothing to stop the greed on the other side. Nothing. And does any one in their right mind, believe, that the corporate elite would one day decide to build a higher quality life for blue collar workers? Why would they? When they have an endless sea of bodies to exploit? There is no profit in building blue collar folks a better life. We could argue that the United States of America is stronger when we do this, that happy Americans are more invested in building a great America, when they have a good life to come home to, after working all day. But that good quality life and investment in America makes no difference to those lining their pockets and locking themselves up in gated communities. They will not share our fire departments or police departments. They will not have to cope with the life that all that money and power will leave behind. They will privatize themselves out of our world completely. And we will work for them. They will be untouchable.
My husband and I went for a drive, last week. On a weekday, special for us, because he’s unemployed we CAN spend fun time together, if I don’t have any clients. I could be sad, anxious or upset OR, he and I can have some fun. So we did. We drove through small town america. We enjoyed beautiful blue skies and perfect weather, holding hands and singing songs. Top down on the 1998, mustang. We came home and had great sex before the kids got home. He is still sober, and I am still in love with him, after all these years. My family doesn’t really understand, and neither did I, until I lived it with him. Today, I get it. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that we just sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We are limping along, financially, but money isn’t everything. I do know that he and I are rich beyond our dreams. But today, I understand why he sits the bench. Why our sacrifice is not just for him, it’s for a principle that affects us all. Not one person, has a salary that is not impacted by the fact that unions exist.
So, “sitting the bench” is a hard part of union life. It’s not peaches and cream for my husband who cannot sit still. It’s a hard bench, but somebody has to sit on it, if we are going to maintain any quality of life for any worker in America…union or non union. Union people know, that this is a fight for everyone…every where. The only way to balance the power globally is to organize globally. Union or non union, this bench is for YOU!