Look for the Union Label

Hollywood is an odd place. Everyone knows that, but those of us who live here know just how odd this place is. Yeah, there are all the movie studios, which aren’t actually in Hollywood itself, but then there are all the folks filming movies and television shows in the streets all the time – which screws up traffic no end. There are tourists everywhere of course, buying maps to the stars homes, most of which are over in Beverly Hills, hidden behind high gates, or up on Mulholland Drive but down long drives and also hidden from sight. Still, the open-top tour busses run up and down Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip constantly – there’s the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi died of an overdose, folks, and over there on South Orange Drive are the two houses from the Halloween movies, and here’s the corner where Paris Hilton got arrested for drunk driving, and there’s where they hold the Oscars each year, and so on and so forth. All that is expected, and yes, those tourists do think they’ll see a movie star or two. They never do, save for special events – but that can be disillusioning too. The locals just shrug and hide. The Hollywood sign sits up there on Mount Lee – they just repainted it and it looks spiffy. The best view of that is from the Observatory from the old James Dean rebel movie – if you like that sort of thing.

It’s just that there are other things to consider, like the odd Hollywood Forever Cemetery down in in flats on Santa Monica Boulevard just behind the Paramount Studios back lot. There you’ll find the crypts of Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks Junior – and Cecil B. DeMille’s grave too. Mel Blanc and Don Adams and Peter Lorre are there too, or what’s left of them, and Rudolf Valentino too. There’s also the grave of Harrison Gray Otis, who founded the Los Angeles Times, next to the tomb of his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, who ran the paper until his death in 1944, and next that massive monument to the victims of “The Crime of the Century” – the twenty who died when the Times was bombed in October 1910. Otis hated unions and ran an “open shop” – HIS workers would never band together and pressure him for anything. Unions were evil. Otis made a lot of enemies scoffing at the “rights” of the working class. The price was the Times building leveled by a bomb and the twenty dead. You can read all about it here – even the best efforts of Clarence Darrow couldn’t save the bombers. They were thugs, as guilty as sin. Unions were effectively dead out here after that.

Labor unions did recover here in Hollywood eventually. Ronald Reagan started his anti-communist thing after World War II, and in 1947, the Screen Actors Guild, his union, was asked to mediate between a few other industry unions. Reagan stepped up and butted heads with Herb Sorrell, the head of the Conference of Studio Unions, a guy who made no bones about his views on workers’ rights, views that to some seemed communist, and probably were just that. Reagan didn’t like the guy and in 1947 the Screen Actors Guild elected Reagan their president, the first of his five consecutive terms. Reagan then testified as a friendly witness before Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, after which the Hollywood Ten were off to prison and quite a few other writers and directors were blacklisted, not to work in Hollywood for many decades.

It’s a sad story – but Harrison Gray Otis no doubt smiled from the great beyond. At least one union guy turned out okay, and he later decided he didn’t like unions much anyway. You remember what Reagan did to the Air Traffic Controllers union – in 1981 he broke it and put it out of business. In the early fifties, the then still quite conservative Los Angeles Times also pretty much created Richard Nixon’s political career out of thin air – another guy who wasn’t exactly a friend of the working man. There’s a lot of history out here, history of labor-rights battles. It’s the never-ending conflict between the folks who own everything, and want to keep all the goodies, and those who work for them, who are willing to organize to demand a fair share of those goodies for the work they do, and decent hours and a safe workplace too. Maybe they are communists, really, but maybe they’re just honest workers demanding the right thing. It’s all down there in the cemetery behind Paramount.

America has never figured all this out in any way. There’s the labor martyr Joe Hill – who got his start organizing the dock workers down the way out here in San Pedro and was later murdered for organizing mine workers in Colorado, or was a murderer himself, depending on who you believe. It’s just that those who have the courage to stand up to the big bosses, for their fellow workers, can end up doing thuggish things. Jimmy Hoffa comes to mind. He was no sweetheart – but then there’s a long history of big bosses hiring thugs to mow down striking laborers. They play hardball too, and people die.

On the other hand everyone says they like the American worker, and do say that we all should Buy American – to keep the country prosperous. Don’t buy crap made in Bangladeshi sweatshops. In fact there was that Look for the Union Label ad campaign from 1975 by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) telling us all to purchase union-made clothing, and the 1981 song with those words from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union too. That aired the same year Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers union.

No doubt everyone was confused. Should we support those who demand fair pay for their work and decent hours and a safe workplace, or are they troublemakers screwing up the system and making everything more expensive? Shouldn’t they ask, nicely, and not demand things and then just walk out if they don’t get what they want? The big bosses, the corporations, will surely do the right thing – except they don’t, and the eight-hour workday, and safety rules, and anything approaching fair pay, was won for workers by unions, sometimes acting thuggishly, in the face of massive hoggishness from the folks who own everything and want to keep all the goodies. People have died in these conflicts. We love and admire the hyper-aggressive businessmen who built this country, and also we love and respect the American worker. They just don’t like each other much.

It gets confusing. You remember Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, saying that teachers unions were exactly like al-Qaeda, or worse, as they were out the destroy America – they were no more than terrorists of course. Chris Christie has called firefighters and cops and public school teachers our new welfare queens – discussed in detail here – mainly because of their unions. Unions, you see, are the thuggish but lazy militant takers, taking things from the honest hardworking makers – and from taxpayers too, which is where it gets complicated. Public employee unions don’t face off against some Montgomery Burns greedy bastard running a big company, for what’s fair and right and what they were promised. They have to face off against the local or state or federal government, which is really the rest of us, and as they provide vital services, maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to strike, or even organize. That was the thought in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker led the charge to strip all public employee unions of those rights, except it was clear that Scott Walker simply wanted to save a bunch of money by stiffing the unions, in order to give big tax breaks to already rich business interests, his buddies. His effort was funded by his rich buddies, notably the Koch brothers, and people saw through it. Besides, they knew a lot of firefighters and cops and public school teachers personally, and liked them and knew they were already underpaid already. Walker faced a recall and barely survived that. In Ohio, the Republicans passed a similar law but weren’t so lucky – Ohio voters passed a referendum repealing the whole thing. Every Republican in office wants to be Ronald Reagan in 1981, but it’s not that easy.

And now it’s Michigan:

Last week, the GOP-controlled state Senate and House each passed right-to-work measures over the opposition of Democrats in both chambers, enraging union activists and leaders, and sparking heated protests in the state Capitol. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has said he will sign a right-to-work measure if it comes to his desk. Snyder’s stance marks an about face; he had previously said that right-to-work was not on his agenda.

So he lied, or he had an attack of Reagan-Wannabe Fever, but it all comes down to the right-to-work thing:

The term refers to a law that would prohibit requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Republicans favor the law because they say it will attract businesses and provide workers with more choice. Union leaders and Democrats see it as a move to curb the power of labor and reduce its influence. Currently, 23 other states have signed such measures into law… One more important thing to note: Police and firefighters could be exempt from the new law. …

For labor, if the right-to-work law is signed, it would mean another setback and a new fight for unions. And there is an added symbolic element, as Michigan is the birthplace of the United Autoworkers union.

The major newspapers have excoriated Rick Snyder for this move, which he never mentioned in his campaign and seems both merely symbolic and dangerous too, and now Obama has weighed in:

One day before Michigan’s Legislature reconvenes for what could be the final votes on “right-to-work” legislation President Obama criticized the effort to bar unions from requiring nonunion workers to pay fees, saying it would hurt employees’ ability to bargain for better wages. …

The president, who won a second term in part because of unions’ organizational might, told workers: “We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families. What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions.”

“What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.” Right-to-work laws have nothing to do with economics and “everything to do with politics,” Obama said.

Harrison Gray Otis no doubt frowned from the great beyond about that, but Rich Yeselson at American Prospect tries to straighten things out:

Let’s clear one thing up. “Right to work” laws, which permit employees working at a unionized workplace to refuse to join the union or to pay the union the cost of representing the worker, are designed to weaken the economic and political power of organized labor and, by extension, wage workers. Full stop. They allow workers to “free ride” all the benefits of a collective-bargaining agreement (increased wages, benefits, rights to adjudicate a dispute with a supervisor, safety and health requirement beyond those mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, etc.) negotiated by the union without paying any of the union dues their fellow employees pay. …

Yet we are to believe that only the requirement that workers must join a union or else compensate the union for work it will do on his or her behalf constitutes a grave blow to the worker’s economic freedom. Despite the high-minded justifications proffered by some of its defenders, right to work has no distinguished, abstract theoretical pedigree, no elevated standing in the mansion of Western political theory. It’s a snarling pit bull of a policy that disempowers the institutional voice of employees – unions – for the benefit of corporations. Most of the wealthy states don’t have right-to-work laws, and most of the poor ones do. Workers in right-to-work states make less than those in non-right-to-work states, and their unions have fewer resources to fight the corporations and politicians who benefit from this lopsided system. That’s the idea.

And then too this is about one union in particular:

To understand why the impending transformation of Michigan into a right-to-work state is so mortifying to labor and its supporters – far worse, even, than what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio – one must consider the totemic status of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Although there are, despite all you have heard, many good reasons for public-sector workers to have the right to unionize, nobody ever made a movie or wrote a song about a public-sector worker; public-sector organizing campaigns are pretty tame affairs. But if someone were to write a book titled The Romance of 20th Century American Unionism, it would likely be a dual case study. One story would be about the United Farm Workers of the 1960s and 1970s, courageously built from the grape and lettuce fields by migrant Latino laborers in California.

The other would span from the mid-1930s until about 1970 and tell the story of the United Auto Workers…

This is a special case:

Mass industrial workers, whom many believed were impossible to organize, spawned the UAW. These workers, the immigrant laborers of their time, shocked the nation with the imaginative militancy of their factory-floor sit-downs and “flying picket” lines at the legendary Flint, Michigan, strike in 1937. The union’s brilliant, incorruptible president, Walter Reuther – himself beaten and bloodied in organizing campaigns – sought, with the power of his union and his ideas, to leverage the United States into something resembling the social democracies of Western Europe. He had to settle for millions of working-class people ascending into the middle class in the 25 years following World War II, benefiting directly from UAW collective-bargaining agreements, or seeing their own wages and benefits tied to those of the UAW (and Steelworker’s union) standard.

Reuther, furthermore, supported both the nascent civil-rights movement (and fought hard to cleanse his own union of racism), the New Left, and even supported the beginning of modern environmentalism. The Port Huron statement – the founding, now canonical, document of Students for a Democratic Society – was written in 1962 at a UAW-owned campground for use by its members. You can see Reuther standing behind Dr. Martin Luther King during the “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall in 1963, while George Meany’s AFL-CIO, from a mixture of racism and red baiting, shied away.

No wonder these folks are going after the UAW. It’s all the sixties things they hated, and there’s also this:

The UAW had enormous political clout, too. It couldn’t change the political economy of the country, but it was a powerful member of the Democratic Party coalition. Reuther had the ear, and vice versa, of every Democratic president and candidate of the postwar era. During this era, the presidential election campaign would begin for the Democratic candidate in – where else? – Cadillac Square in Detroit before a throng of union, mostly UAW, members. One can measure the changes in the Democratic Party, Michigan, and the country from, for example, reading the text of JFK’s 1960 Cadillac Square speech.

As for the decline of the union, and the domestic auto industry, and the larger labor itself, Yeselson offers this:

It is certainly true that the UAW has made more than its share of miscalculations and mistakes, and never developed the strategic competence to first anticipate and then aggressively organize the Japanese and German transplants that opened up across the middle and Deep South. It should be noted, however, that when section 14-B of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act gave states the right to permit prospective employees to refuse union membership (right to work) it was not with states like Michigan in mind. The strategy of the act – a successful one over the decades – was to cordon off the union-strong states of the Midwest and Northeast and surround them with anti-union states. No state was stronger than Michigan. When Kennedy gave his Cadillac Square speech in 1960, its unionization rate was probably around 40 percent. Sure enough, all the states of the Confederate South, and most of the States of the Plains and Mountain states passed right-to-work laws or state constitutional amendments.

It’s easy to see how this is playing out, and how it had to happen. Perhaps the South will rise again, and poor whites will rescue the Republican Party. This is just a taste of the long Yeselson item, and Matthew Yglesias adds this:

In political terms this really does seem like the tipping point. For a long time the United States has existed as a “house divided” in this regard. Democrats in states like Virginia and Nevada didn’t seriously try to repeal right-to-work laws, while Republicans in the northeast and Midwest didn’t try to implement them. But if right-to-work can pass in Michigan, then why shouldn’t Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or Ohio or Pennsylvania?

The particular political context here is that Michigan unions put an initiative on the 2012 ballot to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. That was meant to be a prophylactic measure to stop something like this from happening. But they lost, even on an Election Day when Barack Obama handily carried the state. So what was meant to be a show of political strength turned out to be a show of political weakness, with the union cause running well behind Obama and signaling that a strong anti-union move wouldn’t necessarily provoke a backlash…

But it did, and it’s 1981 again. Some folks are singing Look for the Union Label, while others are cheering on Ronald Reagan as he busts another union, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent sees a war coming:

Top Democrats in the Michigan Congressional delegation just wrapped up their meeting with Governor Rick Snyder, during which they urged him in no uncertain terms: If you go forward with “right to work” legislation, you’ll be consigning the state to years of discord and division. They urged him to consider vetoing the legislation or postponing it until the next session – or even agreeing to subject it to referendum. …

The tenor of the meeting, which participants described as urgent and intense, underscores the gravity of the situation – not just for Democrats, but for the state itself. Dems told Snyder that forging ahead with “right to work” legislation risked undermining the progress in labor-management relations in the state and could create a situation similar to Wisconsin, where an ongoing battle over collective bargaining tore the state apart for over a year.

This will just be worse. Rick Snyder didn’t go after the silly public employees union; he went against the big prize, the big union that fights the Montgomery Burns of America life, the one that fights giant corporations. He’s not protecting taxpayers. He’s protecting private rich people who want to remain untouchable by the scum below, which is something Paul Krugman has been harping on for some time now:

The American economy is still, by most measures, deeply depressed. But corporate profits are at a record high. How is that possible? It’s simple: profits have surged as a share of national income, while wages and other labor compensation are down. The pie isn’t growing the way it should – but capital is doing fine by grabbing an ever-larger slice, at labor’s expense…

More specifically, while it’s true that the finance guys are still making out like bandits – in part because, as we now know, some of them actually are bandits – the wage gap between workers with a college education and those without, which grew a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s, hasn’t changed much since then. Indeed, recent college graduates had stagnant incomes even before the financial crisis struck. Increasingly, profits have been rising at the expense of workers in general, including workers with the skills that were supposed to lead to success in today’s economy. …

I think it’s fair to say that the shift of income from labor to capital has not yet made it into our national discourse. Yet that shift is happening – and it has major implications. For example, there is a big, lavishly financed push to reduce corporate tax rates; is this really what we want to be doing at a time when profits are surging at workers’ expense? Or what about the push to reduce or eliminate inheritance taxes; if we’re moving back to a world in which financial capital, not skill or education, determines income, do we really want to make it even easier to inherit wealth?

That depends on who you ask. Go down to that odd Hollywood cemetery and ask Harrison Gray Otis – but he’s dead, as is Ronald Reagan. Or maybe not – history repeats itself, even out here in Hollywood. Some day we will have to figure out whether we love American workers, or despise them as useless greedy bastards. We never will of course.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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