And so, the Bellevue nurses have unionized.
As the year 2014 opens, ordinary people are being squeezed. Of this fact there can be little doubt. The minimum wage is being held artificially low; tens of millions struggle to obtain affordable health care; the unemployment rate is 7 percent and the new budget agreement in Washington doesn’t provide for an extension of unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile, U.S. mega-corporations hold hundreds of billions in cash outside the United States, holding back money that could be used for investment. It is all-in-all a bad outlook for ordinary workers.
In the coming year, inequality of income is bound to emerge as the major social and economic issue. And in too many workplaces, too many ordinary workers are being treated as disposable. This is not the way to develop cooperative human communities based on values beyond mere economic convenience.
In such an economy, it is astonishing that the concept “labor union” continues to be so widely deprecated. It has been treated like a bad word, even among the very middle-class people who desperately need all the help they can get to cling to a middle-class existence. Meanwhile, the business elites are too busy churning money on spreadsheets to care much about the growing inequalities.
It has been quite the fashion to vilify unions. The mandarins of powerful pro-business interests have sought to underscore the excesses of the labor movement by deprecating its great successes. Yet, these pro-business interests actually represent only a very small minority of people.
American workers are on the ropes in many of the occupations that used to afford job, pension and health-care security. The abandonment of the Fort Edward plant by GE, that self-proclaimed community-oriented company, stands as a good example of disregard for ordinary people and communities.
Once upon a time, not long ago, corporations and big businesses supported their home communities. Now too often corporations and businesses expect to be supported by their home communities. Even so, many corporations will leave for Shangri-La for a big tax break and a wink promising lax oversight from local regulators.
GE’s decision to close the Fort Edward plant so that the company can “take advantage of efficiencies of scale” saves the company a few million per year in wages and benefits. This from a company that as of January 2013 has sequestered $108 billion in profits outside the United States in order to avoid U.S. taxes.
Workers in trouble
A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that in New York state alone, 39 percent of bank tellers are on some sort of public assistance. One thing is evident: this group is not represented by unions.
Neither were the nurses at Bellevue hospital, where some were being forced to manage 10 patients at once and where management was making unilateral changes to patient care with no input from the nursing staff. No wonder they voted to join a union.
If the beleaguered U.S. middle class ever needed the support of a healthy labor movement, it is in the here and now. The problem is not with U.S. workers. The main problem at so many corporations like is poor, short-term management decision-making. Or call it simply “spreadsheet blindness.”
In Schenectady the U.S. Census health insurance data suggest just how far behind the United States is in labor and social policies compared to Canada and Germany. As income inequality worsens in this era of union slamming, any kind of public support for the big business attack on labor unions makes little sense. Even among employed workers in Schenectady, 5,431 out of 28,416 have not been even provided some form of health insurance. The median income per worker in Schenectady is only $24,700.
It is very hard to maintain an argument that unions are not an important check and balance on the self-dealing of corporate executives and politicians when the U.S. minimum wage is still only $7.25 an hour. In comparison, the minimum wage is $10 per hour in Great Britain and Canada, nearly $13 an hour in France and $14.88 an hour in Australia.
Controlling the wealth
The Economist, a pro-business magazine, reports that in the United States the top 5 percent of earners control 72 percent of the nation’s wealth. That is a situation that does not bode well for future social stability.
Given the reality of life in the United States as we enter 2014, it is difficult to grasp the ease with which anti-union forces have been able to bamboozle so many working Americans into viewing labor unions as negative forces. I suggest a new twist on the old P.T. Barnum quip: “You can fool a lot of the people most of the time, but it is a dream for any self-dealing elite to think that you can fool most of the people forever.”
The people need healthy labor unions now more than ever. Perhaps the Bellevue nurses are showing the way.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam.