Unions get best work conditions

Such changes
as the
work day,
and child
labor laws
never would
have been
enacted if
they had
been up to
the discretion
of employers.
Monday, January 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:55 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

As I listened to a young woman complain about her job as she waited ahead of me in the check-out line at the grocery store, I was wondering how long it would be before the labor union movement would become popular again. I kept quiet while she went on and on about low wages and unsafe working conditions. I’ve learned over the past few years that bringing up suggestions about how things came to be the way they are is not a subject people particularly want to hear about. Folks don’t really want to hear about how we, as a society, sometimes threw the dishes out with the dishwater. A lot of them are convinced that everything is better than it has ever been, and they are not willing to compromise on the subject.

According to some, of course, the only labor union they ever heard about was the Teamsters Union and the antics of Jimmy Hoffa. And as far as many employers are concerned, the less people hear about organized labor, the better they like it. Who needs a pension, right, now that they can have a 401K and a profit-sharing plan? Actually, a lot of people do because it takes a lot of money to survive retirement. Workers usually find these things out the hard way.

Most improvements in the work place have come about because workers have joined together for the purpose of collective bargaining. Such changes as the eight-hour work day, industrial safety standards and child labor laws probably never would have been enacted if they had been up to the discretion of employers. And, historically, in more than one major labor dispute, the employers have profited from government assistance in keeping employees in line.

But time and again, workers brush aside collective bargaining for one reason or another and insist on negotiating the terms of their employment as individuals. Only last week someone was telling me that if they were to divulge their salary to another employee, they could be fired. Not to mention, of course, that they might learn that they were the lowest paid employee doing the same job in their department because everyone else may be a relative or family friend of the boss. And while today’s workers tend to be better educated and more professionally oriented, that’s certainly not to say they know a lot about the culture of the workplace.

For the well-placed and highly-paid employee, today’s work environment is a great place to be. But for the millions who are struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, there will always be a need to organize to negotiate the conditions of their employment. In a tight job market, it is in the employees’ best interest to hold onto their jobs.

As more and more jobs are being taken out of the country, American workers need to get serious in considering their options. I remember an old gentlemen who operated a service station in our community, who for many years waged a one-man war against consuming goods manufactured outside the United States. Well, of course, he lost his war. Most people considered him ‘weird’. His children and grandchildren will probably live to see his views vindicated. For some reason, we just don’t seem to be good at accepting predictable results. The prevailing attitude seems to be that for every manufacturer that moves out another will move in. Wanna bet?

For the most part, technology has made major advancements in improving the way we work. We work smarter than we ever have. The assembly line has reduced both the time and energy needed to manufacture products.

Advanced technology has improved nearly every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, there has been no scientific formula designed that transforms the nature of people into beings that love their neighbors as themselves. So, we still have some employers who abuse their employees, who work them long hours for inadequate wages, who insist of forcing one to do the work of two. We still have government officials who support employers by creating unfair rules that favor the ill-treatment of employees.

The workplace is undergoing radical changes, as we watch more and more jobs disappear across the sea. At the moment, this situation does not appear to have garnered the concern of government or workers in an effective way. But as our own population balloons, the job situation is going to become critical.

The optimist says maybe the problem will fix itself. Shall we wait and see?

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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