ORONO, Maine — When journalist Barbara Ehrenreich did the research for “Nickel and Dimed,” her scathing indictment of blue-collar work in America, she spent a month cleaning houses in southern Maine.
She thought that perhaps in one of America’s whitest states, people would treat each other better than in places with high immigration rates and more racial diversity. But, she said, she was wrong.
“Maine was very heartbreaking,” she said in a phone interview this weekend. “These were women who maybe in another generation would have worked for mills. And now they were in this disgusting, $6-an-hour cleaning job, being just ground down.”
Ehrenreich can’t forget them or others she worked with while researching just exactly how people make ends meet while doing minimum-wage work. And the journalist is convinced that these poverty-level workers would have a better chance to find their own American dream if it was easier to organize or join labor unions.
That’s why she came to the University of Maine’s Donald P. Corbett Business Center on Monday evening to speak to a receptive crowd in support of the controversial Employee Free Choice Act.
The purpose of the act, according to the document, is to “amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.”
If passed by Congress, the act would effectively make it easier to organize labor unions.
“I have talked to women workers who were carrying union sign-up cards in their bags,” she said. “The thing about unions is that there’s a kind of dignity. Each worker is really vulnerable individually. But in numbers, they have some voice, to speak out against unsafe practices.”
Ehrenreich said the bad economy means workers are even more vulnerable than they were about 10 years ago when she did the reporting for “Nickel and Dimed.” She argues that the current hard times mean unions are even more important to protect workers.
“People now are scared about their jobs — more so than ever,” she said. “But then I have to remind myself that one of the most active periods to organize was in the 1930s, when unions were scrappier and stronger.”
But Peter Daigle, the chief operating officer of Maine-based Lafayette Hotel chain, has a very different perspective. Daigle and many other business leaders in Maine oppose the bill.
“Right now, the economy is awful. We’re literally borrowing money to make payroll,” he said, emphasizing that passage of the Employee Free Choice Act would make things worse.
“We are concerned that we would lose a great deal of flexibility,” Daigle said. “It’s just that the timing is absolutely poor as far as the economy goes.”
Daigle said that while Ehrenreich is right in observing that these blue-collar jobs are very difficult, he doesn’t think her concerns are true for his employees.
“I think she tends to paint all employers with a very broad brush,” he said. “We feel that we treat our associates very well.”
Ehrenreich, however, points out that creating more unions should mean that workers don’t need to depend upon the good will of employers.
“I think we know it’s so obvious. People who work for unions have better wages and benefits,” she said. “Last summer during the presidential campaign, Sarah Palin talked about her husband having a good union job. It was just fascinating coming from a Republican.”