There is an old joke that can be filled in with a myriad of different characters. Today’s characters are: a corporate CEO, one of their employees and a union representative are all sitting at a table. In front of them is a plate with 12 cookies. The CEO gets up, picks up 11 of the cookies and is about to leave the room, but before they go, they tell their employee, “You better watch out for that union rep, they’re going to try to take half of your cookie.” The joke being that while the CEO absconds with the loot, the employee is left to fight over the crumbs. In this case, corporate America sets up the unions to be the bad guys. And American employees take the bait. They fight off the union and completely ignore the fact that they are fighting for crumbs. Meanwhile, unions scratch and scrounge just to be able to speak to the employees in the first place.
Because the unrealistic thing about using this particular cast of characters is that in real life, no decent, self-respecting corporate CEO would ever leave an employee alone with a union rep. In fact, in real life, the union rep doesn’t even get to come into the room. Or the building, for that matter. In real life, the CEO first isolates the at-will, non-union managers by paying them to sit in a conference room during working hours and listen to a bunch of lawyers; they are a captive audience that hears only bad things and lies about unions. Afterward, managers are given veiled or direct threats of jobs being lost if union activities are detected in their departments.
Fearing for their jobs, the managers set out to send the message. They go about disseminating these lies and threats in the form of “lunchtime employee meetings” when the company pays for lunch in exchange for the employees sitting and listening to the managers warn of the evils of unions.
And if the union is lucky enough to covertly speak about their benefits to workers, a typical scenario ensues. Usually, an employee who talks to other workers about the union is identified by the company as the “troublemaker” and subsequently fired. Even though it’s illegal to fire an employee for union organizing activities, corporate America scoffs at these laws. Why? Because they know they can get away with it for a nominal penalty.
In the aforementioned scenario, after purposeful legal delays on the part of the company, the verdict is as follows: The company “loses” and is ordered to pay a small fine they can easily afford; the employee, while offered their job back, doesn’t take it because they had to get another job during the three or four years the case was delayed in court — in order to feed their family and stuff like that. But still, per the law, the company is required to pay back pay, which only seems fair since the firing was illegal in the first place.
But here’s some interesting info about back pay in this situation: The company indeed must pay it, but they can subtract all the money the worker made at their other job while the case languished in court. What a victory, eh? It’s definitely not much of one, and it scares other employees, who might be interested in at least listening to what the union has to say. They steer clear out of fear of losing their job. Corporate America wins by spewing fear in whatever way they can get away with.
This same scenario takes place in workplaces all over the U.S. I was not surprised that Amazon workers initially voted down the union at their facility in Alabama. I knew the company did something untoward that would scare the employees into voting against the union. I was very surprised, however, that the National Labor Relations Board actually ruled against Amazon, saying the company had “flagrant disregard” of federal union election rules and that management engaged in unlawful monitoring of the workers’ voting intentions, among other things. These are the dirty tricks of corporate America that have served to keep union membership down.
Union membership has decreased over the past 40-plus years, and it is no coincidence that the average wage of the American worker has increased only 14% during those same 40-plus years. Read that again. It took more than 40 years for us to get a whopping 14% increase in our wages. And how much did CEO wages increase from 1978 to 2020? According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO wages increased by 1,322%. I am appalled by this, and you should be, too.
Not all corporations are bad. I know this. But a huge part of corporate America has been serving the Kool-Aid that workers willingly drink to feel smart and superior for rejecting unions. Unfortunately, what workers are actually doing is accepting the crumbs left behind by the CEO. And remember, in real life, the union rep wasn’t even in the room. If they had been, they would have forced the CEO to bring the cookies back to the table.
Jackie Endsley is a retired member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 1547. She lives in Eagle River.
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