Friday, January 25, 2013

As union density shrinks giant inflatable "Scabby the Rat" may be retired

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the percentage of US workers who are members of unions was just 11.3% in 2012, down from 11.8% in 2011.
The full set of statistics is available here. As has been the case for some time, the public sector is the most unionized section of the work force but even there, less than half the work force is unionized and the percentage is dropping as well, down from 37% IN 2011 to 35.9% in 2012.
As many traditional blue collar industries move overseas, younger workers are less likely to belong to a union. Union membership is highest among workers aged 55 to 64 at 14.9% while the lowest percentage of union membership is among ages 16 to 24 at just 4.2%
Union membership provides extra benefits for workers. In wages alone, organized workers earn on average 21% more than those not in companies with unions. Of course in some states now, workers in union-organized plants are able to benefit from the union activity and contract without belonging to the union or participating in the costs involved.
At present the percentage of private sector workers who are unionized is at a record low. In 1929, the year when statistics were first available, 12.4% of private workers were unionized. A mere 6.6% of private sector workers were organized in 2012, down from 6.9% in 2011.
Rather than using tradition as inspiration and attempting to instill some sense of solidarity with those who in the past helped many US workers to gain some measure of security and a reasonable standard of living, some in the AFL-CIO leadership want to break with the past.
Sean McGarvey head of the group's building trades department suggests that construction unions abandon their practice of exhibiting a huge inflatable rat at strikes and other events.
McGarvey tweeted this recommendation:
"Meeting with our Presidents and state councils. Issued a call to retire the inflatable rat. It does not reflect our new value proposition."
In spite of the fact that "scab" is a derogatory term for temporary workers hired during a strike to help break the strike, "Scabby the Rat" has become a symbol of union pride at demonstrations. According to Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights, who is the exclusive maker of the balloons, they were originally made for Chicago unions but have spread throughout the nation.
After McGarvey's tweet there were immediately hostile responses. Carpenters Union Local 157 member, Gregory Butler wrote on Facebook
:“As usual, nobody bothered to ask the membership what we think about that! I've been a shop steward for 15 years and I just found out about this decision from you! Sorry, but that's that bullshit.”
Big Sky's website boasts:
“Our rats have been seen from the front page of the Wall Street Journal to the New Yorker.They have been in hundreds of newspaper articles and even appeared on several T.V. shows such as the Sopranos.”
In 2011 the National Labor Relations Board had to issue a ruling as to whether the giant rats were picket signs, since picket signs are prohibited at certain work-sites. The NLRB ruled that the rat balloons were exempt from the law since they "constituted symbolic speech".
The giant rats are not that cheap. They range in price from $2,000 to $8,000; Union groups who have bought them will not want to retire them until they get a good return on their investment. Cindy Harrity, a union organizer for CWA Local 1298 in Hamden Connecticut said her union saved for years to buy their rat:
“I worked really hard to get that rat. We love our ratI. It gets workers really enthusiastic at rallies.”
Harrity tweeted back at McGarvey as to why Scabby should be put out to pasture.
MacGarvey replied:
“The rat symbolizes intimidation tactics of 30 years ago. We want to engage owners re: our value proposition not threaten them.”
McGarvey and many other construction union leaders want to take a business-friendly approach rather than an adversarial approach to their relationship with management.
The construction unions' council website says:
“We will prove to contractors and owners that a partnership with North America’s Building Trades Unions is the best investment they will ever make.”
Union leaders point out that union projects are more likely than non-union contracts to be finished on time and without cost overruns according to union leaders.
Notice that those who are opposed to unions do not take this positive position but are working hard and quite effectively at limiting union and working-class power in every way possible They try to use negative propaganda about unions at every turn.
The rank and file of unions may not put up with this new "be nice" campaign. Construction worker Gregory Butler said:
“I've been in this union for 20 years.I got in when ’the men with the broken noses‘ ran it, so I know a little bit about intimidation. The rat was a symbol of the end of the era of the wiseguys and their-side deals with rat contractors. As for that ‘engage owners re: our value proposition’ Mark Breslin bullshit, I'm sorry, but the owners know they can get people to do our $ 46/hr jobs for $7. All the ’value proposition’ in the world isn't going to change that fact.”
The US union movement chose the route of Gompers' that led to "business unionism", rather than confrontation with capital. .Labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky writes:
"By 1896 Gompers and the AFL were moving to make their peace with Capitalism and the American system. Although the AFL had once preached the inevitability of class conflict and the need to abolish 'wage slavery', it slowly and almost imperceptibly began to proclaim the virtues of class harmony and the possibilities of a more benevolent Capitalism."[
When US capitalism was thriving in the Golden Age, after the second World War, union membership grew and peaked but ever since it has been in decline as globalization weakens the power of unions to bargain for better wages or working conditions. Now advanced capitalist countries are imposing austerity measures that will not only make unions weaker but also cut the safety net and savage any entitlements that workers in general were able to gain through the power of democracy.
Democracy itself is now a system run to a considerable degree by money much of it in the interests of capital. Any union movement which thinks that it can win concessions out of such a system by being nice is bound to decline in power even further and lose even more members. US unions are adopting the same viewpoint of many other businesses. Their problems will be solved by rebranding.!

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