I’m sitting at my keyboard, wearing a pair of shorts from Eddie Bauer – Made in Indonesia. I’ve been chatting online with a fellow who says if it wasn’t for unions, my shorts would be Made in USA, and cost much less than I paid.
(Actually, one of the few times business will admit that costs are passed on to consumers is when they’re blaming unions or taxes for the increase.)
In 1776, a group of minor countries, each with its own community values and tax structures, decided to band together, “to form a more perfect union.”
On the other hand, early American coal companies built homes and created “company stores” so their employees could rent their abode and buy their groceries on credit provided by the company in lieu of real pay. Unions – often met with company paid mercenaries hired to beat and kill labor organizers – became the way to get family-sustaining wages and safer working conditions.
It was during a school budget-making process several years ago that I came to grips with the idea that when workers are required to contribute to previously provided health benefits, that’s a pay cut. It’s not too bad if you get a $2 payraise and give $1 back for health benefits contribution, but too often it works out the other way: a $1 payraise and $2 contribution is a net pay cut.
I have been on the receiving end of $1 raise and $2 cut, and it’s no fun.
Several years ago I covered a milk pricing fight in which dairy farmers banded together and poured milk on the ground rather than take what they said was less money than it took to produce the white liquid. They eventually won an additional $1 for each 100 pounds of milk they sold to their processors. That’s about eight cents a gallon. The week the price increase took effect, prices in the store went up as much as 14 cents.
Worthy of note is the price increase only applied to liquid milk, the kind kids drink with their morning breakfast. Milk in cheese and ice cream, for instance, was not affected. Yet when a network television station’s weekly market basket increased much more than could be blamed on a gallon of milk, that was exactly where the station’s reporter placed the blame.
We often hear from businesses, particularly in hospitality and convenience stores, that they pay their non-union employees “significantly more than minimum wage.” Minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour, with exemptions for jobs such as waitresses and some student positions. I talked with a woman this week who left an $8 an hour job with Walmart to earn $12 where I found her.
Eight dollars an hour is $16,640 a year. Walmart posted a 3.8 percent profit gain in the first quarter of this year. It holds the Number One spot for gross retail sales on the Fortune 500 list. And earlier this year it fended off a gender discrimination suit when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the class of some 1.5 million women who filed suit were individual cases that failed to prove a company-wide gender-biased system. You can bet that company does not want unions in the workplace.
In the local convenience store, a woman making a sandwich for a customer waiting to pay for gas is eligible to join the company 401k – right after she pays for gas to get to work, rent for her apartment, and dinner for her kid. If she needs to see a doctor, she is sent instead to the emergency room.
In 2008, Gettysburg Hospital, near where I live, racked up $3.9 million in unreimbursed Emergency Room charges. The facility has made money in spite of that, so a major ER expansion is under construction, in part to serve a growing regional population and in part to streamline services to patients such as that convenience store sandwich maker.
In March, we marked the 100th anniversary of a fire in a non-union sweatshop in New York where 146 young women died, in part because their employer chained the exit doors.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I am not opposed to profits, and we all have stuff that, without an entrepreneur out to make a buck, would not exist. We need business, and without profit, business goes out of business.
But when Big Business records big profits, and then complains that unions are forcing jobs out of the country – that is a bit difficult to swallow.
Photo by DonkeyHotey
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