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Political Animal

More Labor Pains

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/21/2004

Just under a century ago, if you were an American wage laborer, it sucked to be you. Over the next 50 years, the work landscape changed: Child labor laws were passed, the 40-hour work week became standard, a minimum wage was established, and employees got such previously unheard of things as pension plans, health care, and paid vacation time. Because of this, the United States' standard of living surpassed the rest of the planet's. The concept of "leisure time," before these labor innovations, was almost nonexistent for the working class.

What was the driving force behind this revolution? The U.S. labor movement.

Nowadays, unions spend every hour waging a battle akin to that of Helms Deep. The grocery strike in California is past its 100th day, and two of the stores involved, Albertsons and Vons, have lost a projected $1 billion. One of the points of contention: employee health care.

In July of 2003, the Bush administration repealed a Clinton-era rule that mandated employers track, document, and report repetitive stress injuries. The Bush Labor Department said at the time that the data collected would be useless in identifying the causes and preventing the injuries. Yet one more step backward for the worker.

For every retreat the labor movement is forced to make, the top echelon of management seems to take four steps forward. In this space in 1995, I pointed out that in 1960 the average senior executive of a Fortune 500 company made 12 times more than the average nonsupervisory worker or line employee. In 1975, it was 35 times more. And in 1994, the big shots made as much as 135 times more than the grunts.

What has changed? Pretty damn little. An April 2001 New York Times article pointed out that by the end of the 1990s the average head of a big company took home more than $10 million before taxes. When sales slowed in 2000 and '01, those same chief executives did . . . better. When the recession caused investors to lose 12 percent of their portfolios in '00, CEOs got an average 22 percent raise in salary and bonuses--not even counting stock options, the free candy for the rich in the new millennium. That year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical hourly worker got a 3 percent raise, with 4 percent raises for salaried employees.

More? You want more? Sure! The year following Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the worst financially for airlines. For their troubles, the airlines received two federal bailouts totaling about $18 billion dollars, but all five of the top airlines that reported losses in '01--United, Delta, Northwest, Continental, and US Airways--upped the salaries and benefits of their CEOs, according to The Washington Post. As the Post put it, "While executives were earning more, they were slashing jobs, salaries and pensions. . . . US Airways, for instance, shut down its pilots pension plan and replaced it with one that provided benefits at about half the original level. United has laid off 9,000 workers."

Pension plans have been raided, employees are increasingly seen as "costs," and unions are being assaulted by both corporate management and an administration that loads its Department of Labor with people hostile to the very tenets the agency was founded to protect and nurture. You, the little guy and gal, are getting screwed.

And still, the conservatives repeat the mantra that unions don't benefit anyone--another lie that has become standardized in public discourse dominated by the right.

A study recently published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute shows that unionizing raises the wages of workers by nearly 20 percent, and total compensation--pay and benefits--by about 28 percent. Strong unions even help nonunion workers. If you're a high-school graduate who works in an industry that's 25 percent unionized, even if you're not in a union yourself, you're getting paid on average 5 percent more than similar workers in less unionized industries.

One of the saddest trends of the '90s was unions giving back, giving up, and giving in. Which is why, more than any other organized group in the United States, 2004 has to be seen as a critical battleground. If you want a pension, if you want decent health care, if you want a future greater than simply standing and reciting 27,649 times a day, "Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart," you can see that the movement that made life better for the American worker in the last century is the last, best chance at making a change for the better in this one.

The American dream was the idea that life for each successive generation could be easier, freer, and better than the previous one. In three short years, this administration has bankrupted that dream. As Vice President Dick Cheney told former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." Whose side are you on?

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