Throwing Your Body on the Machine

by Storiteller

“You must throw your body o­n the gears and o­n the levers and o­n the machine itself, and make it stop.” – “Chief” Galen Tyrol from Battlestar Galactica, serving as a union organizer, inspired by Mario Savio’s 1964 speech in Berkley, California.

Unions in the United States get a bad rap these days – the Republicans demonize them, the Democrats virtually ignore them in their messaging. Union membership has been declining in the U.S. since 1954, with a national average of only 12.4%. (This is extremely small in comparison to Europe, where rates are as high as 70% in Sweden.) In polls, people associate unions with negative phrases more than positive phrases.  Much of this reputation is unjustified, as organized labor has enabled invaluable material progress throughout history.  Both my husband and I have personally benefitted from being part of unions.  But in many ways, they’re not helping their own cause; with some change in focus, unions could garner far more support among the general public and actually serve their members better than they do.

Organized labor has brought many advances that are quickly forgotten in modern society.  On the job site, we can thank unions for the 40 hour workweek, overtime if you’re in an hourly job, and safety standards.  In the broader society, organized labor helped push for free public education, universal suffrage, and abolishing debtors’ prisons.  Personally, I credit my union for the fact that I have an alternative work schedule that allows me to work 9.5 hour days in exchange for having every other Friday off.  Similarly, pressure from my union and others like it motivated the federal government to allow and encourage telework.  While my husband’s job is radically different – hourly in a service position – he too benefits from being part of a union. In particular, he has a higher pay rate than other people in similar positions because his employer is unionized.  We have both benefited heartily from organized labor, both historically and in our everyday lives.

However, this personal experience has made me more aware of organized labor’s issues.  Despite their huge advances, unions rarely remind people of their accomplishments.  Labor Day is just another day off, when unions need to seize this day – and many others – to highlight the changes that wouldn’t have happened without them.  As a result, we lose perspective on both labor’s historical and current importance. In many anti-union efforts like those in Wisconsin, organized labor loses the debate because people think that there are no more labor issues for us to deal with.  Some people even claim that capitalism fixed the problems that existed before! (Just like we need to get rid of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because our air and water is so much cleaner than it was in the 1970s.)

While they need to trumpet their accomplishments, unions also need to move beyond them or remain stuck in the past to their detriment.  So much of the language from and around organized labor conflicts with or ignores the needs of younger workers.  All of the local advertisements encouraging people to support the federal employees’ union emphasize that “Your retirement could be at risk!” Most of the mailings my husband receives from his union are about how they are preserving his pension.  I know this is essential for the federal workers near retirement age, but doesn’t resonate with me at all.  In fact, I’ve always assumed I wouldn’t have a pension.  This messaging is even less relevant for my husband, who is in a profession where being in a position for more than a year is a long time.

Compounding the problem is the general lack of attention unions give other issues of interest.  While my union has enabled me to have increased flexibility, it doesn’t seem to be making any progress on paid family leave.  The U.S. federal government gives the exact same amount of paid family leave as fast-food places – exactly zero.  The only specific family leave available is the unpaid leave legally required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires all employers offer 12 workweeks of leave for birth, adoption, or care of an immediate family member with a serious health condition.  (Notably, this does not include taking leave for care of a sick sibling, other relative, or friend, which discriminates against people without children.)  To get paid for this time off, you have to take a combination of sick and annual leave.  Because few people – especially those who have been at their job for a short period of time – have enough sick or annual leave built up when an emergency arrives, they become stuck in a horrible Catch-22.   My husband’s union, which is in a field with a lot of single males, is even worse.  When he asked his union representative about paternity leave, the representative answered, “Uh, three days?  You aren’t the one having the baby.”  The representative eventually gave him the information about the FLMA, but that initial reaction speaks volumes about the attention paid to this particular issue.  While frequently framed as a “women’s issue,” lack of paid family leave seriously restricts the opportunities available to everyone.  When men don’t have the opportunity to stay home, women frequently become default caregivers for children and/or elderly relatives, regardless of what either party wants or suits them best.

Similarly, unions don’t seem to be putting a lot of political capital towards pushing for equality on other gender-disparity issues, like equal pay for equal work.  Even though women are 47% of the workforce, women’s and civil rights groups like the ACLU seem much more invested in improving conditions for women than unions seem to be.  (This is based on a fairly fast Google search, but on the other hand, it’s never an issue brought up in communications from either of our unions.)

Now, much of this sounds like complaining that unions aren’t serving relatively privileged people, whether white or blue collar.  But I would also like to see unions go beyond the needs of their members.  From my experience, they often ignore the larger context of non-unionized workers or those outside of their area of interest.  While some overarching groups like the AFL-CIO address immigration issues and there are unions specific to particularly exploitative areas like farm work, I never hear these issues raised within my union or my husband’s.  It’s telling that Occupy, the biggest, most prominent income inequality movement in years, largely ignored and was ignored by unions.  While I understand that they want to serve their current members, it would be refreshing to see unions connect their members’ issues to the larger fight for social justice.  If unions hadn’t banded together in the 1800s, we’d still have the trade guild system and lack the sweeping changes that the labor movement as a whole was able to accomplish.

Unions seem to be a dying breed in the U.S., but it doesn’t need to be that way.  Regaining our sense of solidarity is essential to solving a lot of America’s major issues, from the power corporations hold over government and their workers, to closing the expanding economic gap.  We need organized labor.  Because when workers come together and stop the machine damaging society from the inside-out, we all benefit.

3 thoughts on “Throwing Your Body on the Machine

  1. Firedrake June 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    In the UK, for the last forty years, unions have primarily been associated with trying to get all possible perks for their members and to hell with everyone else. Postman caught stealing, completely red-handed? Postal workers go on strike. Train driver didn’t bother to turn up for work for an entire month, then got sacked? Train drivers go on strike. There is in theory a union branch at my workplace; last time there was a strike ballot, the union rep didn’t bother to tell any of the members (or anyone else) that it was happening, or what the result had been, and then got very irked that they dared to cross the picket line (consisting only of her).

    What that union tells me about when trying to induce me to join is not working conditions or pay, but its counselling services.

    And then there’s the way the bosses of the large unions exert blatant influence over one of the political parties (which is always wielded in the direction of enriching the unions)…

    That’s what people expect of unions here: that they’re an expensive nuisance for dying trades. They’ve done the things that needed to be done about working conditions, well before most people now working were alive, and some time around the 1950s they simply stopped doing them or even talking about them.

  2. storiteller June 4, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    I’m sorry to hear the labor movement is such a mess in the U.K. as well. I lived there for a bit, but only noticed it once when the Tube was closed because of a transit strike. The unfortunate thing is that at least in the U.S., they haven’t done the things that need to be done about working conditions – undocumented immigrants often work in slavery-like conditions, women make a fraction of the pay of men, and family leave is non-existent.

    That suspicion of corruption was one thing I didn’t bring up because I don’t think it contributes much to the opinions in the U.S. outside of some of the most conservative wings. In addition, I don’t have any actual proof. But it is still an issue – my husband has had suspicions about dodgy behavior at his union. Similarly, police unions are particularly notorious for protecting their members against accusations of abuse, which are frequently against people who are vulnerable in society in general. It’s ironic and frustrating that the unions that are the most powerful are the ones that are the most screwed up.

  3. Firedrake June 5, 2013 at 4:28 am

    I don’t claim to have any easy solutions, but I do think that part of the problem is that British unions (certainly in public perception, and to at least some extent in reality) have become entirely about making their own members’ lives better (especially their bosses’), and don’t try to reach out to do anything for workers in general. In the UK they burned off pretty much all their accumulated goodwill in the strikes of the 1970s and 1980s, I think because the actions made life less pleasant for everyone but the demands were clearly only to the benefit of the unions (and would have been distinctly costly to everyone else, though that probably wasn’t part of the thinking because plenty of people even now don’t make a connection between “the government should pay for X” and “I don’t want to pay higher taxes”).

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