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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 06:15 am

Bringing fairness to the workplace

Electrician Gerry Cassani of Michigan is among some 1,200 laid-off members of the International Brotherhod of Electrical Workers, Local 58 in Detroit.

Unions. Who needs ’em? They’re so 1930s.

This is the frantic argument being pushed by corporate lobbyists who’re worried by the recent resurgence in union organizing, political punch and public support. Sure, say these corporatists, unions were needed back in the bad ol’ Depression days, when executives treated workers with all the respect that a Kleenex gets — use ’em up, toss ’em out.

But, hey, Bucko, that was last century! We’re all in the modern global economy today, where cooperation — not confrontation — is the key. Workers are now called “associates,” and we deal with each of them as individuals in a flexible workforce willing to help top executives cut labor costs. Unions just get in the way of this.

This line of “thinking” was expressed a couple of weeks ago by John Engler, the former Michigan politician who’s now chief lobbyist and noted labor theorist for the National Association of Manufacturers: “In the sophisticated workplaces of the 21st century, management and labor often work closely together to beat the competition. When they’re doing that, the need for unions is obviated. When management and unions are not working together, unions are not likely to succeed and not likely to survive.”

The need for unions is hardly obviated when worker productivity keeps rising, only to be rewarded by declining wages, elimination of health care benefits and cancellation of pensions. Meanwhile, downsizings and offshorings of American jobs are rampant, and part-time work is the new norm.

Yet, as CEOs energetically apply the ax to workers, they have lavished pay on themselves. It’s a scream to hear corporate chieftains bemoan union wages while unabashedly paying themselves $10,000 an hour, plus getting luxury-level bennies. Top execs are getting so rich they could afford to air-condition hell — and some ought to be setting some money aside for that project.

Not only are unions needed, there is a widespread yearning for them today. A 2006 poll of the general public found that 68 percent of us believe that labor unions are necessary to protect working families. In that same year, a survey of workers by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that 60 million Americans would join a union tomorrow if they could. So, why don’t they?

Because the rules have been deliberately rigged during the past 30 years by corporate lobbyists to make union organizing next to impossible. Want to organize your workplace? Of those who try, 20 percent get fired. If an organizing campaign is launched, union representatives are not allowed inside the business to talk to employees, but every employee can be forced to attend intimidating, one-on-one meetings with corporate supervisors who at least imply that supporting the union would be bad for their future at the company. And, even against these odds, if a majority of employees say “yes” to a union, the executives can simply ignore them, refusing to negotiate a contract.

Corporate interests are fond of saying that unions are dying, as though it’s the passing of some old loved one whose time has simply come. Hogwash and horsehockey.

But their rigged game could be up. The Employee Free Choice Act would make union organizing campaigns more fair. If a majority of workers in an office, factory or other place sign cards to form a union, the corporation would have to recognize this reality and negotiate in good faith.

Corporate lobbyists, congressional Republicans and a handful of corporate Democrats are desperate to block this effort to provide a touch of economic democracy in our country. Incoming-President Barack Obama backed the Free Choice Act in his campaign — but will he now have the stuff to stand forcefully against the recalcitrant corporate powers and actually push for its enactment? This will be an early measure of how much of his “change agenda” is real.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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