The union steward for The Newspaper Guild walked smugly to my desk on my first day at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With a condescending tone he told me how to cheat on my expense account, what to do to get overtime for not working, and that I dressed too well for the union guys.
I made a personal vow to do everything I could to change this company and for the next almost 18 years I did. I never gave in to union pressures to be a mediocre worker or to act against my values. I rose rapidly in the management ranks-9 promotions in 16 years-and battled the Newspaper Guild, Teamsters, and other unions every step of the way.
Trained as a Secret Service agent, I beat the unions at every turn. I successfully led many efforts to defeat attempts to organize workers in various part of the company. I was the lead manager in a decertification to get employees out of a union. I suspended and fired many union workers and never lost an arbitration hearing. I was a leader in many difficult negotiations, including strikes. I led performance improvements in unionized departments unprecedented in our company and industry. Later I was the first executive at the Star Tribune to try to partner with unions.
When I left the Star Tribune in 1994 to be a leadership consultant, Cowles Media CEO David Cox said my leadership had changed the company forever.
I am sure I disliked unions as much or more than Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
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Thirty five years of experiences with unions as a worker, executive, and consultant led me to one inescapable conclusion:
THE MIDDLE CLASS OF AMERICA NEEDS UNIONS NOW MORE THAN EVER BEFORE.
First, power unchecked is abused. Abuse may be physical, political, emotional, spiritual, or financial. Abuse may harm the health of workers; take their personal power from them; humiliate and demean them; rob them of their hopes, dreams, and spirits; and take money from their families.
In my years at the Star Tribune and 13 years consulting in organizations, I’ve seen abuse routinely and in all of its forms. Some people in organizations-from workers to CEOs–are willing to hurt people for control, sick fun, or personal gain. Seeing this misuse of power began to change my feelings about unions. A force is needed to stand against mistreatment.
Second, the rich get richer and the super-rich get really rich at the expense of the middle class. The 90 percent of Americans who are losing economic ground need collective power to stand up to excesses (abuse) on Wall Street, big banks, and the richest of the rich.
The following information is from: It’s the Inequality, Stupid: Eight charts that explain everything that’s wrong with America and from: Plutocracy Now: What Wisconsin is Really About by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones
1. The top one-hundredth of one percent makes an average of $27 million per year per household. The average annual income for the bottom 90 percent of us is $31,244.
2. The richest 10% controls 2/3 of Americans’ net worth.
3. The superrich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades’ gains.
4. Washington is closer to Wall Street than Main Street. The Median net worth of American families is $120,000. The median net worth for members of Congress is $912,000.
5. The 10 richest members of Congress all voted to extend the Bush tax cuts.
6. Gains and losses, 2007-2009: Wall Street profits: +720%; unemployment rate: +102 %; Americans’ home equity: -35%.
7. Those on Wall Street make record wages and benefits while the middle class loses.
8. Average CEO pay is 185 times bigger than the average worker.
9. The tax rate for a millionaire has gone from 66.4% in 1945 to 32.4% today. The pre-Bush tax cut rate for millionaires was 36.4%.
10. Income inequity has grown dramatically since the 1970’s-most due to skyrocketing incomes among the richest 1 percent and even more dramatically among the top 1/100 of 1 percent
With money goes political power.
How does this happen? One example: Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin fights for a bill to make the middle class more insecure while his legislature passes a bill that requires 2/3 majority to raise taxes, which makes the wealthy more secure.
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting habits of US senators in the early 90’s and found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of moderate income voters and neither do Democrats. (From: Plutocracy Now: What Wisconsin is Really About by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones)
Do we want America to become an oligarchy?
Since their peak in the late 70’s, union membership has declined from 35 percent of private sector workers to seven percent. In part because of globalization, over-reach by unions, the loss of manufacturing, and mostly from unremitting attacks by Republicans, and a loss of legislative support by Democrats. The Democratic Party largely abandoned the working class.
Public sector unions have 35 percent membership and remain large contributors to the Democratic Party. It is this collective that Republican governors are out to destroy-not for the budgets but for political power.
State financial issues are real, but the fault and solution are not collective bargaining: Public pensions are underfunded because of the Great Recession and mismanagement by politicians. Public employees in Wisconsin and nationally are not overpaid.
Republicans generalize a handful of excessive pension plans to all public employees. Those extremes should be changed but not used to demonize all public employees. As they attack the middle class, these governors give tax cuts to the rich. Will the wealthy ever share in the sacrifice conservative columnist David Brooks called for?
Robert Reich wrote: The truth is if the super-rich paid their fair share of taxes, government wouldn’t be broke. If Governor Scott Walker hadn’t handed out tax breaks to corporations and the well-off, Wisconsin wouldn’t be in a budget crisis. If Washington hadn’t extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, eviscerated the estate tax, and created loopholes for private-equity and hedge-fund managers, the federal budget wouldn’t look nearly as bad.
It is ironic that the recession was caused by the agents of the super-wealthy (Wall Street, big banks, and politicians) and the victims were the middle and working classes along with the poor. Now the recovery-including Republican budget proposals in Washington–is staged to benefit the super-wealthy at the further expense of the rest of America. And in the process negate public union’s power as one of the few remaining checks on the most powerful in America. What kind of people turn on their teachers, the elderly, and the neediest to enrich the top 1%? Doesn’t seem right does it?
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s political attack on the right of workers to collectively bargain for a better life has awakened the sleeping middle of America-the Americans who have been asleep as their financial security has transferred to people who don’t need the money. Walker wants more for the wealthiest; protesters want justice.
It unions are smart and can move fast enough, they can benefit from this middle class energy and have an opportunity to renew themselves. If Democratic politicians are courageous enough (like the 14 Democratic state senators in Wisconsin) to renew their commitment to the middle class, then the middle class may be on the way to a vibrant renewal-needed if America is to the country we say we want her to be.
We need the middle class to become a great movement to reduce inequity in America. The unions can connect the 90% of Americans with themselves and use the collective energy to give courage to the Democrats-the party that needs to get mad.
The purpose of the movement is not to fight unnecessarily but to try to partner with business and government and lead–not resist–needed union reforms for efficiency and innovation that will renew American competitiveness and prepare workers to compete in a global economy. That is a new message revived and transformed unions can send.
No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven’t made that clear, I don’t know what will. Kevin Drum in Why We Need Unions.
Unions, who cares? Ninety percent of Americans should care.
Stay awake Middle America.