Veterans, unions and freedom

Posted March 17, 2009, at 7:50 p.m.

If you love your freedom, thank a veteran. Sure, some folks could split hairs and say that while we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to our veterans, not all of our wars were about liberty. Take Vietnam: It’s pretty universally accepted that the Vietnam War was a waste of our soldiers’ lives and not a freedom fight.

But, we finally learned to separate our political ideology from our love for our veterans and we now honor their willingness to sacrifice.

Still, even the mistakes made by our political leadership — the folly of wars waged in vain — won’t make us abolish the military. Even though one way to stop unjust wars simply would be to eliminate the organization that wages them.

That sort of extreme reaction would only leave us vulnerable to attack by other countries with lesser ideals.

Instead we forgive ourselves for mistakes we’ve made, absolve ourselves for the millions we’ve killed and love our veterans for their courage.

So, if you love your 40-hour workweek, thank organized labor.

Before you start chanting some propaganda you heard on Fox News this weekend about how we don’t need unions anymore, remember that we just established that we can’t drop our protections simply because you don’t think the organization is perfect.

We don’t throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to killing, so there will be no nonsense about throwing away a decent living wage, health benefits and overtime pay because some folks think that union workers make too much money or are too powerful.

Personally, I’ll never understand that “ordinary workers make too much money” argument in a world where the talking heads that are against organized labor — such as Rush Limbaugh — make $50 million a year.

Here are the facts. According to an International Labor Organization report published by the BBC, “Workers in the U.S. are still more productive per person than any others in the world.” Nice for our employers but too bad for us. See, our wages are falling. And not just since the giant sucker punch we all took from Wall Street this year. According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics “real wages” are falling and have been for decades.

So when you’re wondering how those CEOs got those big fat salaries and bonuses and corporate jets — that’s where the increased benefit from our increased productivity went. It didn’t go into your pocket; it went straight to the top.

In fact, we have the largest income disparity between the rich and the poor that we ever have had since the Great Depression. And it’s no coincidence that the graph of our income decline looks a lot like the graph of union decline. In 1983, 20 percent of U.S. workers were organized; in 2006 the number was 12 percent. You can look this all up for yourself at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Are unions the answer to all work-related problems? No, they are just the answer when a business employs workers to exploit them. Then we need laws to make worker organizing safe and uncorrupted. The Employee Free Choice Act before Congress right now tightens workers’ rights to organize.

The way employment law stands now workers can decide that they want union representation in negotiations with their employers. When 50 percent plus one sign up to unionize for better wages or benefits or workplace standards, their employer can postpone the process by deciding to hold an additional election among the same workers who just asked for collective bargaining in the first place.

Some employers then use the extra time to intimidate the workers who supported the union or worse until they fire them.

That’s against the law and that’s the other part of the Employee Free Choice Act; it stiffens the enforcement regulations for employers who punish workers for organizing.

I know a construction company that is employee-owned and has profit sharing, health insurance and great wages.

Those employees aren’t likely to bother with a union. I also know a power retailer that exploits workers and even hired illegal aliens to avoid payroll taxes: those workers need Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@

hotmail.com.

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