Wednesday, September 21, 2011

There oughta be a law

There’s been talk lately about labor unions. In the last election cycle many of the newly elected were people who were and are solidly anti-union and who see it as their job to try to do away with collective bargaining, beginning at the state level. Ohio and our Governor Kasich not being an exception, we are now fighting a lovely little piece of legislation called SB 5.

Let me start by saying right up front, I used to be a labor organizer. I worked for a non union working women’s group and also for an actual labor union. My job was to try to shift the power balance between workers (especially women) and their employers. When I worked for the union I was also a member of a collective bargaining unit of employees of the union.

I am amazed by how many people naively think that there is somehow a vast umbrella of government protection for workers in this country. Sorry to tell you folks but it just ain't so. The fact of the matter is that in the U.S., there is very little in the way of legislation, regarding working conditions which can be imposed by an employer. There are some but not as many as most people think. Of course different jobs, industries and companies have different needs. What might work in the way of working conditions for teachers might not work for someone working in manufacturing or banking. On the other hand without some kind of intervening authority (a law or a labor union) there is really almost no limit to what an employer can do or not do. The few protections we do have – workplace safety, non discrimination, minimum wage - we only have because they were fought for by labor unions.

So, if you work in the state of Ohio, you can be hired and classified as a part time employee, in order for  your employer to save on benefits, but yet work 40 hours (or more) a week, every week. Part time employment is what your employer says it is. Of course you'll receive part time benefits and your hours can be cut with little or no warning. You can be let go with little or no notice for little or no reason. Paid holidays – there’s no law. Time and a half – only if you work more than 40 hours in a one week period. You do not have to be paid time and a half, double time, shift premiums etc. for working non traditional shifts or holidays. The only thing you have to be paid is minimum wage. Anything else is at your employers discretion. Regular pay increases – no law. Paid sick days – no law. Short term disability with pay – no law. Only four countries have no national law mandating paid time off for new parents: Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. (The law which applies in the U.S. – FMLA - guarantees your job for up to 12 weeks but not that you will be paid). Forced overtime – no law. You get a new job and give two weeks notice. You think you’re being professional and don’t want to leave your boss in the lurch. The next day they tell you you’re fired. Can they do that?! Yep – no law. (And guess what, they can put it on your record as you being fired rather than that you quit).

All of the above examples, and more, are things which have recently happened to me or to someone I know, and the usual response when someone hears about it is "isn't that against the law? or don't they have to do - whatever - ?" No it's not and no they don't. The only way you have any protection as a worker is if you belong to a collective bargaining unit. The purpose of a labor union is to give workers some say in their working conditions, pay and benefits. Without a union even if you work for a wonderful employer and have great pay and benefits things can change - overnight. Will you have any thing to say about it or any input in what changes may need to be made – probably not – no law.

Are there bad labor unions? Sure there are. Unions are just like any other institution involving people. They are as good or as bad as the people who belong to and participate in them. Quite frankly lazy union members sometimes make for bad unions. But here's the huge difference, if union members want, they have the ability to change their union, but without a union they don’t have any real ability to change their working conditions. I have worked with a union and without one and with is definitely better.

Yes there really should be more laws in our country, on the state and national level, protecting workers from unfair working conditions. Most of the industrialized nations in the world have legislation regarding pay, benefits and working conditions along with strong enforcement. Most of those countries also have strong labor unions. There really oughta be a law (or two or three), but until the U.S. catches up to the majority of the industrialized world, there oughta be a union.


  1. A real eye-opener. I didn't realize we were so vulnerable as employees. We really do depend on the kindness of strangers or at least our bosses to do the right thing by the people they employ. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great job of explaining how limited workers' rights are in the U.S. We have so much to thank unions for that most people do not realize.

  3. It is SO frustrating when people still don't get it. Or complain about abuse by union officials - a if there aren't abuses in any system - and ignore the positives.