By John Hubbuch
I read that if the Village of Oak Park management and employees represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 couldn't reach an agreement on a new contract by this past Saturday, 76 workers would walk off the job. It was just going to be for Saturday and Monday for non-essential workers. So there would be no need to hire scabs or get the Pinkertons to break some heads. But vehicle stickers would have to wait until Tuesday.
The parties are agreed on a 1 percent raise and another 1 percent for merit, but the union wants to be able to grieve the merit because it fears hardly anyone will get a merit increase. The other big issue concerns a loss of overtime pay if holiday, vacation or sick days are used the same week.
It's all kind of sad — the poor union forced to fight for table scraps. With no public support even in union-friendly Oak Park and a high area unemployment rate, the union bargaining power is pretty weak. Hence a two-day strike threat — actually one and a half days since village offices close at noon on Saturday. These are tough times for the union movement. But it wasn't always that way.
I remember the good times for the union movement. My high school history text books heaped glowing praise on the heroic efforts of unions who fought child sweatshops, 16-hour days and horribly unsafe working conditions that killed and maimed American workers. In the titanic struggle between American labor and rapacious capitalists, how could you not support the workers? Big Bill Heywood and the Wobblies. Samuel Gompers organizing the cigar workers and the AFL. Eugene Debs going to jail for his role in the Pullman Strike. John L. Lewis and United Mine Workers — he of the bushy eyebrows. Walter Reuther and the UAW. Cesar Chavez. The Wagner Act. Taft Hartley Act. The labor movement was essential to the creation of the American middle class. The promise of the American Dream was realized in the movement.
But somewhere along the path of history, the promise faded and the tide of public support began to run against the unions. There was no single cause — globalization, computers, greater efficiency, the decline of smokestack industries, an economy switching over from goods to services, and many other reasons. Today only 7 percent of the private sector is unionized.
The movement is making its last stand in public sector unions like the SEIU. But even these unions' days are numbered. The union movement has lost control of its own narrative. Unions are pilloried for their sweet pensions, featherbedding, high salaries and perceived sanctuary for lazy, incompetent workers. The unions have tried to fight back through political action, but the failure to impeach Wisconsin's governor evidences limitations on that strategy.
Besides, the Koch Brothers can write a single check that exceeds a whole union's yearly political action fund. Like Robert E. Lee's army wandering in Virginia in the spring of 1865, it's only a matter of time.
So today I come not to praise, but to bury the union movement. Let us mourn this sad day.