State of the unions 2015

labor unionPresident Obama used his 2015 State of the Union address to describe how he hopes to help middle-class Americans struggling with low or stagnant wages, poor job opportunities, staggering college costs and unaffordable health care.

One of the answers to these problems lies in revitalized labor unions.

After decades of continual corporate assault on collective bargaining rights, union membership in the United States has fallen from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to less than 12 percent. The power of unions helped American workers – including those who didn’t belong to unions – gain their fair share of the country’s post-war prosperity, and it didn’t prevent American companies from growing into international behemoths.

They aren’t perfect. Like all large, powerful, wealthy organizations, successful unions have harbored the same kind of greedy, corrupt officials found in business, government and sports. Even so, unions propelled some of the biggest advances in working conditions involving safety, pay and fairness. Their members shed blood and died from attacks by police and troops during strikes to wrest improvements from employers.

Next time you’re told wage increases, full-time hours, regular schedules, paid vacation time, sick days, parental leave and affordable health insurance will make your employer’s business “less competitive,” take a few minutes to check out what advice or help a nearby union local might have. Here’s a place to start:

GE’s tax triumph

The howls of outrage about General Electric’s avoidance of U.S. corporate taxes are likely to die down soon to whimpers about how unfair it is and shoulder-shrugging from people thinking, What can I do about it, anyway?

 We can organize.

 Millions of us have the time, being unemployed, as well as highly educated, experienced and motivated.

 We know the American middle class has been under assault for decades, an attack propelled by lies about the “burdens” on corporations, obfuscations about competitiveness and empty promises about job creation.

 It’s time to stop listening to people whose private club bills amount to more than the average annual income when they insist that paying living wages and decent benefits will hurt us.

 We have only to look to China to see what Big Business means by “competitiveness.” It means slaving 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for pitiful wages in dangerous conditions, a metal cot in a room shared with many others and meals of rice and broth.

 The Chinese government works hand-in-hand with Big Business to ensure that its people have no options. This allows Big Business to profit and the government to rule unchallenged. Do you know how they do it?

By not allowing people to protest or organize. At the first hint of any such activity, Chinese citizens are punished with job loss, beatings, arrest, imprisonment, involuntary commitment to police-run mental “hospitals,” disappearance and murder.

Think that can’t happen here, that such a notion is far-fetched hysteria or exaggeration? Look at our labor history. With the willing aid of government, Big Business repeatedly crushed workers all across this country who protested. You don’t need to take my word for it, nor should you. Find out for yourselves.

As individuals, we are helpless, caught by forces we can’t control and circumstances we didn’t create. But in organized groups, we can apply enough pressure to pry capitulation from the powers that be. Big Business understands that. Why do you think it has made such a sustained assault on unions?

It’s no accident that our golden age of economic security, when a single wage earner could support an entire family, coincided with the union-driven expansion of the middle class and higher taxes on corporations and wealth. Notice also that those higher taxes did not prevent American corporations from innovating and growing.

But greed knows no limits. When violence failed, Big Business turned to the tried-and-true tactic of the Big Lie. Paying minimum wages will cost jobs. Paying taxes will cost jobs. Observing safety standards will cost jobs. Fairness in hiring will cost jobs.

In truth, paying exorbitant executive salaries, avoiding taxes and bowing to the dictates of Wall Street cost jobs.

After years of declining wages and unemployment, many of us are frightened and demoralized. It’s time to turn those feelings outward and use them as fuel for action against those who cause or abet these conditions. We could start by directing our outrage at two of the people who have responsibility for working conditions in our country: GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, recently appointed jobs-creation czar, and President Barack Obama, whose choice of Immelt for that position is perverse.

Flood their offices with messages of protest. Bombard their websites with mass complaints. Mail them copies of your mortgage foreclosures, layoff notices and unemployment applications. Arrange flash mobs to arrive wherever they go. Show up outside their homes, their offices, their country clubs, their business meetings, their vacation getaways, their appointments, appearances and speeches with protest signs, street theater, demands and heckling.

Our Declaration of Independence tells us we have not just a right to rebel against tyranny and injustice, we have a duty to do so.

If we allow ourselves to give up, tell ourselves we haven’t got the time, the money or the nerve to raise righteous hell, we’ll continue to be shafted. And we’ll deserve it.