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American Unions: The International Austerity Effect

By: Mac-Z Zurawski

The monetary policies of the world’s leading nations affect us all.  Many of us are too busy struggling as part of the dying middle class of America to notice the austerity domino effect. Austerity measures slowly creep into our lives from the Dow Jones to our own backyards.  Slowly, we see the neoliberal financial policies of austerity rear its serpentine head. As Americans I’m sure we are apathetic to the impoverishment of the Grecians.  We may say with a hegemonic tone, “They had more work breaks in a day then we get in a week”.  The housing bubble collapse in Spain isn’t anything new to us either.  We have been going through the same thing for a few years now.  What we don’t see are the breadlines in the headline news.  We don’t see one union job after another in the international community being delegated to private companies.  These same companies are paying our international neighbors less for more.   A new law in Germany really got my attention. Germany has historically been a good friend to unions and labor.  Even they are now taking a neoliberal stance.   Can this happen here?   

Germany: One Union to Rule Them All

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a big fan of Angela Merkel and Germany.  I’m currently, teaching myself German. So, don’t expect hate speech here, expect a policy analysis that may be coming to America.  Last week, Germans adopted a new rule that only one union can represent all workers at one company (DW, 12/11/2014).  The new law will affect hundreds of unions and their bargaining and representation power. 

Turn of the page

When several unions join together to create a pact for workers rights and benefits at a company there are two important factors.  First, each union represents a niche employment position that differentiates their members from another, specifically in wages. When a union must represent all, they lose the niche power of authenticity of labor skills.  A union will have to include all skills within one contract including differentiation of pay.  This is the tricky part.  When the company or government labor relations committee that confirms the deal reviews the contract they will see the differences more clearly.  When they can immediately reference a baggage handler’s salary to a crane operator by turning a page the comparison is stark.  This is the comparison that can hurt.  It will most likely hurt the crane operator making more money.  The numbers are all that the committee will focus upon.  They will begin to ask (not that they don’t normally but now there will be only one committee looking at the contract instead of different committees), “Why does this person make $8 more for less work?” Not realizing that the operator has to train and certify their position regularly.  The operator may also have more responsibility in their job as they have to watch out for power lines, gas lines, etc.  The higher paid and certified “skilled” labor will be a harder bargain.  The end result may be lower wages for workers creating a lower living standard. A quick look into any neoliberal countries dismissal of unions, Argentina and Chile are prime examples, and the future is bleak.

Disempowerment by Merger

Secondly, each different union has different connections to the community and political sphere. A union is connected to more than their members.  They have connections to community groups such as labor rights advocacy groups, “Living Wage” organizations, health and welfare groups and the list continues.  They have these connections to stay abreast of the current living situation of the communities citizens, namely how wages and benefits can prosper a community.  Each union will have different connections due to their member’s core strategies or home boundaries.  The City of Chicago union employees from a garbage woman to a cop must live within the city limits.  Our unions must stay informed on cost of living here when they negotiate our contract.  Cost of living is high here so negotiating higher wages can be easier with the community group’s informative support.  Collaboration of unions is not an easy task when staff will most likely be dismissed.  Any merger has historically created job loss within the confines of the union/company.  There are several losses within staff lose.  The union loses contacts to the outside groups that support unions.  The unions lose staff that have skills in creating contracts, protests, political policies and their personal connections to members.  The greatest loss is that of the connection to politicians and policy makers.  Unions are a political party and their work with politicians is grown from a seed.  That seed of trust grows over years in political parties, local and national political contacts and in policy.  That seed must be resown with a new staff member that may not know the ins and outs of the political/union process.  In conclusion, mergers can disempower a union.

The Austerity Domino Effect Continues…

We are not watching the roiling protests of austerity across Europe.  Belgium has a month long protest against austerity (DW, 12/15/2014).  They are fighting the ever increasing retirement age, the same we have seen here in America.  The longer doctors say we can live, the longer they want us to work.  Unions represent members-our bodies and health.  How many years can one person perform strenuous physical labor and be healthy?  When does a laborers body finally cave in?  Our union representation bargains for our bodies to get a break after 30 years (give or take a few years dependent on personal needs).  At 55 a person may still have 10+ years of happiness and physical activity.  Why should the government forgo our health for their profit?  Watch as austerity rolls into America.  What we see happening “across the pond” will be here soon.  Support your unions by staying informed.  Know what you want for your long-term employment.  It’s all we’ve got. 

Beyond age, support your local union.  Make sure to let politicians and community groups know that you want to be represented by your niche union.  One contract to rule them all is going to have bleak implications for thousands of people and union power. 

 Resources

“Merkel Cabinet Adopts Union Bargaining Law”. DW.com 12 December 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.dw.de/merkel-cabinet-adopts-union-bargaining-law/a-18123620.

“Nation-wide Strike Slows Belgium to a Crawl”. DW.com 15 December 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.dw.de/nation-wide-strike-slows-belgium-to-a-crawl/a-18133227.

 

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