12.15.2006

Corporate promises and other empty words

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time (all two of you), you know how strongly I feel about labor issues and that my own personal experience with my family's four-year labor strike played a big role in shaping that belief.

The fact is, organized labor is a a crucial, necessary check against the power of business. And conversely, business interests provide a necessary check against the power of organized labor. These two entities should always been in tension, though that need not be confrontational nor detrimental to either one. When they're in balance, finding common ground and making fair sacrifices on both sides, everyone benefits.

But that hasn't been the trajectory of the last 20 to 30 years. Organized labor's power has been steadily eroded (and to be fair, they haven't always done themselves favors in their long-range thinking) while business -- especially big business -- has steadily amassed greater and greater power to the point that not even governments can control them much anymore. They've overpowered not just labor, but pretty much all other checks on their power, as well. There's lots to be read on this subject in the blogosphere, especially lately -- I recommend Daily Revolution's latest series of posts, which you can sample here and here -- and there are of course books and documentaries on this topic, as well.

But back to labor.

There was a time when organized labor wasn't treated like an enemy to be conquered and eradicated. When businesses viewed them as another interest that needed to be negotiated with as they would negotiate with vendors, suppliers, clients, and governments. Going back to the time that my family was on strike, I vividly remember when Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler, approached the workers with a request that they accept lowered wages and benefits while he attempted to save the company. His plea was couched in the terms that they were all in the boat together, that everyone's sacrifice would be for the greater good, that just as they benefitted when the company was doing well, they needed to sacrifice when it wasn't. If they would put their faith in him, he would get them through this difficult time and when they became the successful company he knew they could be, they would share in the windfall, returning to their regular wages and benefits. The union voted to go along with him and accept wage and benefit cuts. Pride in their company swelled, for they felt invested in something, that they were a team truly working together.

When the company began posting profits, he paid the shareholders and the lowered wages the union accepted to save the company became their regular wages. For this, Lee Iacocca became a legend of the corporate world and is credited with single-handedly saving Chrysler from bankruptcy. To this day, my family refuses to buy a Chrysler.

All this reminiscing was prompted by an email I received today from Working America, the AFL-CIO website/mailing list. It seems Lee Iacocca's betrayal of the workers has become de rigeur in the corporate world today:

Goodyear forced nearly 16,000 workers to strike on Oct. 5, by making it clear the company would not negotiate a fair and equitable contract with the USW members. These workers are sacrificing their livelihoods on behalf of all U.S. workers--including Goodyear's customers--to keep good jobs in America and preserve promised benefits.

USW members and retirees made great sacrifices in 2003 to keep Goodyear out of bankruptcy. Now the company's stock is worth nearly five times as much as it was in early 2003 and top executives have awarded themselves millions of dollars in bonuses--but Goodyear still wants more.

It is unreasonable and unjust to expect USW members to accept additional plant closures and more wage and benefit cuts while other stakeholders reap in the rewards of the company's turnaround. And it is unacceptable that Goodyear intends to walk away from its commitments to workers and retirees.

This strike is a fight for all of America's workers.
Follow the link, read the details, sign the petition. Corporate America needs to learn they have a responsibility to more than just the bottom line and their shareholders. They are responsible to their workers, their governments, their communities, their environment, and their consumers, as well. And these workers -- who're trying to make ends meet and get an honest days' wage for an honest days' work -- these people are trying to hold Corporate America responsible.

They're fighting for your rights.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You said it! I hope more and more see what has become of the system that worked. It will still be a long road back and a long time to get there.

Miss Bitty said...

Unfortunately yes, it will be a long time. But perhaps our generation, after having seen how spectacularly things aren't working, will be a catalyst for change and revolution.

My Marrakech said...

Highly informative. Thank you. I am off to read about your family's four year labor issue. The more I hear, the more I think I just want to meet you and your whole family.
PS Did I tell you that my Dad is a hippy? You see, I come by it honestly.

Miss Bitty said...

An honest-to-god hippie? That is so...AWESOME!

I would love to meet you...every time I read something more on your blog, I check to see what it would cost to fly there. We've even started our "Someday, Marrakesh!" fund. It's only got a few dollars in it right now -- we had to raid it to replace our water main last month -- but maybe in a couple of years...?

My Marrakech said...

I just read the story of your family's involvement in the strike. It is riveting. And it answers a number of questions that I had about you - i.e. just what is was that makes you so very special. I very much admire your family's personal sacrifices and integrity, especially at this time when integrity has become an endangered species. Thank you for sharing your story.

PS If you can come up with the airfare to come to Marrakesh, Chris and I will cover the rest of your expenses. I don't think we can wait a couple years to get you here;-)

jessibeaucoup said...

I finally signed up for a identity here so I don't have to post annon anymore:).

I'm so glad that you're posting on Rank again.

This issue kind of ties in with the last SS on corporate corruption. Not living up to promises made is reprehensible. Maybe this is a stupid question, but, was the agreement not put in writing? I would think that it would be and the union members would have legal recourse. If it wasn't in writing, I would think that the union could be liable for shirking their fiduciary duties to their members. Am I on the wrong track here???

Miss Bitty said...

I don't know the specifics of the case, but yes, it most likely was in writing. The Chrysler contract I mention was. But see, that's the beauty (not) of contract negotiations under a Republican president...they know that the governmental enforcement of labor relations is weak at best. So reneging on a contract? Very common. For all that it's down in writing, getting that writing enforced is a whole different ball game.

People think that unions use strikes as a club to beat down business but the fact is that they have very little recourse, especially when there's no one enforcing the contracts and agreements already in place. (Which isn't to say unions are always right or always the victims because they aren't.) I will say, though, that in the case of something like a wage decrease and getting that in writing...a union only has so much say in many cases and may not get to fully negotiate the terms of an arrangement like that. Basically, they might say, "Okay, we'll go along with this decrease in wages, but we'd like it in writing", to which the company can say, "sure, we'll write that up, no problem", but they don't actually haggle over it or anything and the union gets handed what it gets handed. Not because that's what the union wants -- they would demand to negotiate the terms -- but because there's no one forcing the company to sit down and negotiate it. And that goes even further in states with poor labor laws (right to work states), where unions have even less power and recourse than usual.

I'm glad you noticed the tie-in to last month's second saturday topic. I almost sent this around to the group. In fact, what I'm doing with the topics each month -- and it'll be less subtle starting this month -- is pulling in the things that we've already learned in previous 2nd Saturdays. So for instance last month when we talked about corps, we pulled in info from the previous month about Monsanto and how corps affect our food supply, as well as discussing how the Bush administration (our first topic) have aided and abetted corporate activities. It's all of a piece, and part of what I'm trying to get across is that what you believe affects every facet of your life, that it's a wholesale identity and a wholesale change, that if you believe one thing, it has tendrils affecting all of these other things and so on.