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August 31, 2005

Labor of love

For some time now, life has not been a picnic for organized labor. Demonized by the political right, weakened by the legal system, frustrated by ultra-powerful corporations and beset with internal dissension, unions have seen their clout diminished, and their members have seen their standard of living stagnate.

Still, several thousand union members will enjoy a picnic at the Louisville Zoo next Monday — Labor Day — and hope for better times ahead.

One of the organizers of the Labor Day picnic is Chris Sanders, executive assistant to the president and general counsel of Local 227 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. A self-described evangelical Christian, Sanders is also an evangelist for workers. He has not lost the faith. In fact, he says, he and his members are mad as hell. “People are feeling like the American dream that has benefited the rich has left them in the dust,” he said. “Wages have actually dropped in real terms over the past 30 years, even though people are working harder and longer. Meanwhile, executive salaries have skyrocketed. It makes you angry and ready to move.”

Statistics bear him out. Disposable income for the average American actually declined last year by 1.5 percent. On the other hand, according to Forbes magazine, total compensation paid to the chief executives of the top 500 corporations rose by 54 percent. The economic recovery trumpeted by the Bush administration has not been lifting all boats.

“It’s like ENRON never happened,” Sanders said. “(The CEOs) treat their companies like their personal piggybanks. It is incredibly arrogant that they take so much, while they ignore those who work hard.” Referring to the huge executive salaries, Sanders said, “You can't earn that much money. The CEO can take it out of the corporation, since he signs the checks, but that’s just taking, not working and earning.”

Obviously, the past few years have been especially difficult for labor, and Sanders readily rattled off the indictment. “The Bush administration has gone after us in a way Nixon would have been ashamed of.

They have undermined worker safety, destroyed the NLRB, the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have left the P.B.G.C. (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) high and dry. The United Airlines case (where a court allowed the airline to default on pension benefit obligations) has thrown defined benefits into a tailspin. The administration wants to push everyone into 401(k)s, so when you leave your job you’re on your own.”

One might reasonably think that union members were losing hope. After all, globalization has made it more difficult for American workers to hold the line on wages, since companies can often outsource their jobs to lower-paid foreign labor. Threats of work stoppages are ineffective.

Sanders sees it differently. “You would often hear resignation (from union members),” he said, “but now your hear ‘payback.’” The tipping point has been the recent passage of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Sanders said that after the disastrous impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on American jobs, the willingness of politicians to compound the problems with a similar agreement has created “incredible anger” among union members. “How can you say that doing the same won’t exacerbate the problems?” Sanders asked.

With government a foe rather than an ally, globalization a constant and increasing impediment to their economic clout, and the wealth and influence of huge corporations a formidable opponent, how can unions be effective? “We have the power of the underdog,” Sanders said. “It’s a matter of being aware that when you target certain things and take a risk, you can win.”

The UFCW represents workers in a wide range of industries. They may be the clerks in your Kroger store, selling you the beer for your Labor Day picnic, or the people who raise and process the chicken you will be frying.

One place UFCW workers won’t be is at your local Wal-Mart store. Wal-Mart is downright pathological about unions, wielding all of its power to stymie unionization activities. That’s why the UFCW organized a boycott of Wal-Mart, asking people not to do their back-to-school shopping there. It is too early to judge whether the boycott had an impact on Wal-Mart, but the effort is indicative of a renewed spirit among union members.

Will spirit and energy be enough? Recently, the UFCW was one of several unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO, thinking it is critical to emphasize organizing over politics. “We thought labor laws were there to protect members, but they’re not,” Sanders said. “These days, trying to organize a union gets you fired, but breaking a union gets you a promotion.

The crisis is deep enough to take the chance. Union-busting is as immoral as discrimination. We are committed to gathering people into a union, where they will be better off. We have the power to create a powerful social movement.”