Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Company Store

Peace can only last where human rights are respected.

Dalai Lama
I am one of the "lesser people" as we were described by a US Senator one day when discussing the future of the economy. We are the people who live on Social Security and pensions. I am a retired person who manages to get by in life on very little, but I am not bankrupt.

They say the nation is going bankrupt, and the states and cities are running out of money. The United States is not a poor country. People are asking what to do about the fiscal situation. But they are not asking the most important question: Where is the money?

I am able to have pensions to augment my meager Social Security payments because I belong to two unions, and those unions held my employers as accountable for my welfare as I was accountable to my employers for showing up on time, observing the company's regulations and doing the best work I could.

"Saint Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store."

This song came out of the coal mines before there was a nunion. If you wanted to work you had to have tools: a pick, a shovel and a sledge hammer, and the only place you could get them was from the company store at an inflated price. If you couldn't pay the price (and who could?), you would owe the store and they would take it out of your pay. Then if your shovel broke , or you lost it or someone stole it, you had to go back to the store to get another one. The company store was also where you bought you food. More debt. Meanwhile they charged interest on what you owed. The working conditions were horrible. If you got sick or were injured on the job, too bad. But you still owed the store

Then along came the United Mine Workers Union and the lives of the miners changed for good. Unless.

I was working for a radio station in New Jersey. There were only men at that station so there was a small room with a toilet and sink, with a curtain to draw across the door. One day the toilet seat broke. The shop steward colled the management, which was in a different city, to inform him of it. The answer he got was that if we wanted a new toilet seat we should go out and buy one. Then the union representative came to see the situation. He called the manager and said "Your workers are paid to prepare to go on the air and broadcast, not to fix toilets. If you want them to continue I suggest you replace the seat." It was promptly done. It may seem strange to threaten to go on strike for a toilet seat, but the principle is plain.

I was doing a play in New York City. The producers were from another country. They saw no reason why they couldn't schedule rehearsals to last into many ours of overtime and not pay the actors any extra. I was the shop steward on that job. I told them not to do it but they did anyway. They were shocked and outraged when they got the bill.

The benefits enjoyed by labor and management come through collective bargaining. Without it workers can be forced into slave labor and management will find themselves with unskilled workers, which will cost them money.

It's a two way street. One of the concessions the actors union has made to the company is to agree to stay one night of extra time without extra pay and appear in costume and make up so that the management can take photographs to document their production. One night in a play I was doing one of the actors got uppity and said he wasn't going to participate. I was the shop steward (the union deputy) on this production also. And it was my turn to be the heavy. I told him if he did not get up on stage and be prepared to do what he was told I would report him to the union, which could fine him or even take away his union card. He participated.

Labor unions are the bedrock of American industry and collective bargaining is the corner stone of it. Take it away and the whole system will collapse.

Dana B ate
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Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

The original premise of unions was sound, I am not sure that some workers need the same level of protection in this day of age. Compromise must occur on both sides of the coin.

Nance said...

DB, this is a righteous post. If only my aunts and grandmothers had had union representation at the textile mills in NC, I'd have had them all with me longer.

You know what gripes my tush this week? Malarkey about the NFL unions. Football. Give me a feckin' break.

pacifica62 said...

I have heard that there a problems afoot down there with states wanting to break unions. In their pea brained little minds unions are the root of all evil with their exhorbitant wages and demands. Break the unions and send people back to working for minimum wage in unsafe conditions. There are two important words in union talk and they are "good faith". Contracts are negotiated in good faith and companies accept them in good faith. Trying to blame and break unions has nothing to do with good faith at all.
I am a union member and a shop steward and I feel we need unions now more than ever to protect workers rights and safety. Working people, unionized or not, pay part of their hard working wages to taxes. If municipal, state and federal governments are in financial crisis, then where is the money going? Bad financial decisions, paying off executives, messed up priorities and just plain deceit to name a few. If a bank were to handle your money in that same way, you would fire them and take your money elsewhere. The same for spendthrift governments, fire them, and find some new people who can manage your tax dollars better. Politicians can be replaced just like banks.
Oh, and just one more thing. Where is the money? Take a look at that huge, super duty vacuum cleaner that is sucking every dime, dollar, breath and ounce of blood that it can from hard working people unionized or not to wage wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Unions need not be blamed and made the scapegoats in all of this. Deceitful politicians and governments need to be held accountable.

DB said...

Brava Pacifica !!
You said it better than I could.

Beth said...

Hear, hear, DB. If we strip unions of all their bargaining power, you can bet that unscrupulous companies who are concerned mainly about their bottom line will quickly do everything they can to pad their own pockets...even at the expense of their workers' safety and health. Why does anyone think that has changed? Hell, the Wall Street mokes don't care about their own damn country...why would they care about any of the little guys?

Beth said...

Shoot...I got so riled up I forgot to mention something. :) Company stores were everywhere...they may have started in the coal mines, but I've read a few books about the Dust Bowl migration, and they had company stores at the migrant worker camps. It was a very effective way to keep the workers muted and dependent.

Arlene (AJ) said...

I'm with Bucko 100 percent on his thoughts of unions back in your day versus the unions of today.

Happy Being Me said...

Some scary stuff going on now days, but think of what back in the day faced. Great reads, thank you for sharing. Take care and enjoy!