The Vermont Cynic

Much ado about the union

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A cloudy March day coaxed me downtown for provisions and pleasantries. A small crowd huddled around an unassuming wooden podium on the corner of Church and Cherry streets. Chittenden County Transit Authority bus driver and Local No. 597 union member Rob Slingerland stood at the helm – papers in hand, beanie on head.

CCTA drivers were prepared to strike.

I rallied behind the drivers the same way I do the underdog in a kitschy children’s sports film.

I was convinced that the company drivers would be forced into a milk and water resolution. But in classic “Mighty Ducks” fashion, the drivers scored a goal just when the going got tough.

What does the success of this strike say about the future of unions in America?

Ten percent of the entire American workforce withheld their labor in 1946. There were about 5,000 separate work stoppages involving about 4.6 million workers – equivalent to 14 million today.

General Motors and Ford together had 160 auto plants in 1940, each averaging 2,500 workers. Shutting down a single plant had tremendous impact, as shown by striking auto workers  in 1937 Flint, Mich.

Mobilizing labor in a factory was easier than in a retail setting. Wal-Mart stores, for example, average 300 workers. Shutting down a single store could only do so much.

Were I, a cynic (forgive the pun) I could resign organized labor to a bygone era of drive-in cinemas and sock hops.

Republicans and Southern democrats catalyzed organized labor’s demise with 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act. Globalization and the downfall of manufacturing have since throttled it.

Harvard labor economist Richard Freeman noted that effective labor movements are “bottom-up.” The union can remain relevant, but it must re-evaluate its tactics.

Unions can stoke worker discontent, but they cannot provide the kindling.

 Organized labor must remember the ladies.

The story of unions in America began in New England textile mills, when the young women who worked the looms reached their wits’ end. Soon miners and factory workers became the face of the archetypal worker. The union aesthetic has been male ever since.

But one out of every seven tip earners in America is a woman with a median wage of less than $9 an hour, including tips. Federal minimum wage for waiters, busboys and bartenders is a scant $2.13 per hour. Tips are counted as income. She is three times as likely to be in poverty as the rest of the US workforce.

She is financially and sexually vulnerable.

While seven percent of American women work in restaurants, 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry.

All workers are entitled to feeling secure in their persons on the job.

These disenfranchised laborers need union support, and can offer momentum to a new generation of American labor consciousness.


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The University of Vermont's Independent Voice Since 1883
Much ado about the union