Posts Tagged ‘unions’

Clara & Mitt: Two Views of Unions

Monday, September 10th, 2012

By Jeffrey Page

It is 2012. We’re supposed to have advanced over the last 100 years. We’re supposed to be smarter, maybe even more compassionate. Workers are supposed to be better off. Management is supposed to be more enlightened. But I’m sitting here looking at The Times’s account of two clothing factory fires in Pakistan and the deaths of 300 workers, young people for the most part between 18 and 25.

I read, and reread, a line in the Times story – “Officials said panicked workers [of a garment factory] were trapped inside the multistory building, which had just one exit” – and something sounds familiar. The calamitous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 in downtown Manhattan was in a multistory building with one fire escape, two stairwells and lots of locked doors. The loss in the Triangle fire was 146, mostly young women who had immigrated from Italy and Eastern Europe to find a better life.

I keep reading and learn that that the garment factory in Karachi had 1,500 workers and one exit. Additionally, management had installed grills to stop employees from leaving through windows. The bosses didn’t approve of people going home before the end of their shifts.

And I think about the fearless Clara Lemlich and the feckless Mitt Romney.

Lemlich was a garment worker and union organizer who led a strike in New York in 1909 over working conditions and who declared at a meeting of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, “I have listened to all the speakers. I have no further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go on a general strike.”

For her courage and for the fact that the bosses’ hatred of her was matched by the adoration of thousands of clothing workers, Lemlich was attacked by thugs hired by management. Later she was blacklisted from work in the industry. Despite serious physical injury – she was just 5 feet tall but the lead attacker made sure to bring some help – and the difficulty in finding work, Lemlich never quit. She lived to the age of 97 and, as reported by the great Jim Dwyer of the Times, in her final years helped organized the workers in her nursing home.

And then there is Romney and another nice bowl of Pablum he serves up for anyone who will listen. Recently he uttered the standard right wing line about labor unions: “Over the years, unions have made extraordinarily important contributions to American society.” Which of course is not the whole story.

Labor didn’t make those contributions. Rather, Labor won those contributions, sometimes through calm, peaceful negotiations and at other times through the use of Labor’s only real weapon: the strike. As a result, in some cases, windows were unlocked, doors were allowed to swing open and shut. Workers could get out. Salaries went up. Medical insurance was offered.

“But today, the effects of unionization have changed in ways that need to be recognized,” Romney says at a campaign website. “Too often, unions drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation.” And he goes on to make the lame argument that union officials don’t care about anything except staying in business. As if to say that workers are the stooges of their union leaders.

What Mitt Romney, and others like him who had to struggle along on an income of $22 million last year, refuse to accept is that every time a union has won a concession for its members, there were two parties at the bargaining table. This is not complicated unless you don’t wish to understand.

If Romney can cite an example of Labor’s holding a gun to the poor oppressed skull of management, I will retract the following observation: Mitt Romney knows as much about the work life of ordinary people as another famous millionaire, Scrooge McDuck.


The Right Takes a Hit in Ohio

Monday, November 7th, 2011

By Jeffrey Page
For reasons other than the obvious, I wish Al Page were alive today, sitting at his table, sipping his coffee, and reading the story in the Times about what the great people of Ohio have done.

They basically told the governor, John Kasich, and his Tea Party pals around the country that you don’t ask the voters to go along with you as you try to bust a union representing people who work for the public good. People such as cops and teachers. People such as firefighters and highway workers.

By a resounding vote, Ohioans took a state law that severely restricted public workers’ rights to bargain collectively, and tossed it right where it belongs, in with the soiled diapers, sour milk, rotten cheese and the rest of the trash that other public service workers – sanitation men – haul away.

Al Page was a furrier a long time ago when wearing fur was more acceptable than it is now. He took mink skins and turned them into coats. He was good at it, so good that he was assigned by his bosses on 57th Street to make a mink coat for the wife of King Farouk of Egypt.

Al was a member of a not especially strong furriers union, which, when it seemed like it was going out of business, affiliated with a butchers union. He often complained about working for one of the foremost fur salons in the world – one that made huge amounts of money – and then, around Christmas every year, being rewarded with a bottle of Scotch. What he needed was higher pay, but the boss didn’t listen. Still, Al understood that a weak union was better than no union.

Having survived the Great Depression he was a union man through and through, whose advice as far back as I can remember was that there was strength in organizing.

In the Sixties, when the New York Post called to say the job I had applied for, as a copyboy, was available, I grabbed it. It would pay $48 a week. Only later did I understand the drudgery of my hours: 1 in the morning to 8 in the morning. For working that shift, I got an additional $1 a night.

I started complaining almost immediately.

Al urged forbearance and said I should guess what my pay would be if the Newspaper Guild had never organized the Post. He said I should guess how much night differential would be, or if would be any at all. And anyway, the lousy pay wouldn’t last forever.

I think Al Page would have savored the story in the Times about the Radical Right’s historic train wreck in Ohio, where voters informed Kasich and his friends that public workers are not to be toyed with, that they deserve respect and that they are not the cause of the miserable economy.

I’m sure he would have delighted in the numbers. Sixty-two percent voted to kill that stinking law.