Standing in union

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Whether it’s Athens, Wisconsin, or Athens, Greece, it’s the same old story: “I don’t want my son to go to school and have 35 people in his kindergarten class.” These words could have come from a parent in the Greek capital concerned about the PASOK government’s plans to merge schools and reduce education spending as part of its austerity measures. In fact, they were spoken by a father from another Athens, the community of 1,000 or so people in the American state of Wisconsin.

Tony Schultz expressed his fears to The Associated Press earlier this month as thousands of Wisconsinites stepped up protests against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s drastic budget cuts, which include $900 million being slashed from funding for schools, in an effort to tackle a deficit expected to grow to $3.6 billion within two years. Like their Greek counterparts, civil servants in Wisconsin are also having their salaries cut. The similarities do not end there. As in Greece, many voters in Wisconsin feel Walker’s measures have been rammed through the legislature with little respect for transparency or the democratic process.

However, Walker’s reforms have mostly stoked public reaction — the largest protests the state has seen since the Vietnam War — because they seek to prevent public sector unions from negotiating collective contracts. A few months ago, the Greek government, acting on orders from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, passed legislation allowing private companies to ignore collective contracts and negotiate individual deals with their employees. They are two sides of the same coin and whichever way you flip it, it confirms that unions are becoming a devalued currency at the very time they are needed most.

The developments in Wisconsin are significant firstly because they point the way labor relations are heading throughout the developed world. Wisconsin was the first US state to introduce workers’ compensation in 1911, unemployment insurance in 1932 and collective bargaining for civil servants in 1959. It was considered so forward-thinking that Theodore Roosevelt called it a “laboratory of democracy.” Walker has now donned the lab coat and is mixing a very dangerous concoction. “What we are doing here, I think, is progressive,” he told the AP with a lack of conviction unbecoming of someone purporting to be a great experimenter. “It’s reform that leads the country and we’re showing there’s a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government.”

Workers have heard the “We’re all in this together” argument — or in Greece’s case the “We all pocketed the money together” argument courtesy of Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos — with increasing frequency lately and it is starting to ring hollow. Placing the burden of the current crisis on the work force will simply not wash. As British newspaper the Guardian wrote in a recent editorial, “Whereas voters worried about unions’ role in pushing up prices in the 1970s, labor can scarcely be painted as the villain of the 21st century piece.”

Wisconsin has the potential to be the watershed moment in uncovering and ending the magic trick that has seen political leaders place blame on labor with one hand and then whip away workers’ rights with the other. The size of the protests in the US state — at times the crowd in front of the Capitol has numbered more than 100,000 people despite the freezing weather — and the persistence of the demonstrators has suggested a new unity and vibrancy in the beleaguered union movement.

“Frankly, most protests the past few decades, while led by well-intentioned organizers, have been tedious,” writes Jeffrey Sommers, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We turn out for good causes but would rather be somewhere else and we have secretly (and sometimes openly) doubted the effectiveness of the whole exercise. Not this time.” The Wisconsin protests have brought together people as disparate as nursery school teachers, farmers, students and firefighters. They have succeeded where unions have failed for so many years in convincing workers that they have common interests and that these are best served by standing side by side. Walker wanted to breed togetherness but got a very different kind from the one he bargained for. “There were no spokespersons for this movement,” adds Sommers. “People organized themselves, made decisions on the ground, and acted on them.”

This genuine and passionate reaction to what many perceive to be an injustice has given hope that the labor movement in the US is set for a grassroots revival. The pro-labor advocacy group Working America reported last week that it had gained 20,000 new members in a month. But there is much lost ground to be covered. After peaking at 25 percent in the late 1950s, union membership as a proportion of the total work force in the US has fallen to 11.9 percent. The disparity between union participation in the public and private sectors is huge. More than 36 percent of civil servants are unionized but only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are part of organized labor. A wedge has been driven between workers. The diminishing rights of private sector workers, who are increasingly left to fend for themselves, mean they feel their public sector counterparts have undue privileges.

It is a feeling that many Greeks will be familiar with. Few of Greece’s private sector workers were unduly concerned last year when civil servants had their wages and benefits slashed. The general feeling was that the public sector workers had been getting away with handsome pay for little end-product for too long. This was a symptom of the failure of unionism in Greece. The country’s two largest unions ADEDY, representing civil servants, and GSEE, representing 157 private and broader public sector groups, forgot they had a sacred mission to protect all, not just some, workers’ interests. They browbeat governments into sacrificing attempts at reform and making concessions to civil servants while leaving private sector workers to wilt in the shadows like the red rose that represents the labor movement worldwide. Sure, the private sector employees benefited from collective labor contracts that set minimum wages and benefits but whatever they gained from this was lost on higher taxes and social security contributions to keep the civil servants in the state of comfort they had become accustomed to.

Unionists should have been in the front line of preventing wide discrepancies in the treatment of workers; instead they acted as fifth columnists, positively encouraging the creation of unfair privileges. The unions should have been the first to ensure that governments paid public sector workers a decent salary for a good day’s work rather than buy their compliance with a wide array of payments for absurd things such as turning up to work on time and washing their hands. They should also have had the courage to single out those who were paid generous amounts of public money for doing very little or nothing at all.

They betrayed their cause further by blurring the clear line of distinction that must exist between organized labor and political parties. While unions have traditionally had links to the parties of the left, Greek labor groups perverted the process. They became mouthpieces for political parties of all sides rather than true defenders of the working and middle classes. They allowed themselves to be controlled by the most populist factions of these parties. The fact that the last four presidents of GSEE have gone on to become PASOK MPs should stand as a symbol of shame to Greece’s utterly compromised unionists.

The result is that although GSEE and ADEDY represent more than half of the Greek work force of 4.4 million people, only a small percentage of those workers are active members of the unions, producing representation figures similar to those in the USA, which would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Decisions are taken by a tiny minority of executive members and ballots on key issues such as whether to strike are hardly ever held. Greece’s unions have managed to march themselves into irrelevance.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the economic crisis should find them unprepared and neutered. Beyond the odd public transport or general strike, the unions have hardly registered on the political landscape over the last few months. No longer able to squeeze politicians for greater benefits for their public sector members, they are at a loss over what to do. Yet this is the time that their members need them most. As jobs vanish by the day and business owners turn the screw on their employees, workers need someone in their corner. As insecurity grips the work force and politicians strip away labor rights, workers need a champion. Every society needs equilibrium and just as the years when the unions pursued narrow interests proved harmful for Greece, so the tipping of the balance totally in favor of the employers will bring new disharmony.

This is the time to remember some of the things that unionism at its best has provided for workers, be they in Athens, Wisconsin, or Athens, Greece: the five-day week, guaranteed holidays, a minimum wage, unemployment benefits and the right to negotiate wages in unison with colleagues. Like all things we take for granted, we don’t realize their true value until we start to lose them. Now that many of the rights born from years of negotiations and effort are being torn down, labor groups must find a way to rebuild decency and solidarity. Even in a dark hour for its historic labor movement, Wisconsin has provided a ray of hope that people can pull together to protect principles which make our society fairer. The burden now falls on others, including those in Greece, to realize the value of joining hands, of standing in union.

Nick Malkoutzis

2 responses to “Standing in union

  1. “The burden now falls on others, including those in Greece, to realize the value of joining hands, of standing in union. ”

    A call to dismantle the existing unions and build a new model of working together to safeguard basic rights that are just what they are: absolute minimum rights to safe people from slipping into misery every time something goes ‘wrong’? That I could agree with.
    After almost 100 years we are now at a point where the head of the corpse that’s called Unionism is rotten so much it is not bearable any more Union leaders all over the world have, like political leaders, managed to create great things in the first half of their existence and then they slowly became the problem which they were hired to solve for in the first place.

    Minimum wages, unemployment benefits, HEALTHCARE (you did not mention that?! Why?) and collective bargaining are all things well worth fighting for. And these are rights that have to be safeguarded collectively by employees. And grass-roots movements could do that job.

    My impression is that in Europe Unions always were/are affiliated with political parties. So the Greek example is nothing special in that sense.

    I have seen how important good functioning Unions can be in the late 70s, begin 80s in The Netherlands. After a few years of strikes, massive lay-offs and loosing battles the Unions started to talk with the Association of Dutch Employers behind the scenes and together they pressed the government into sitting down with them and hammering out the Wassenaar Agreement in 1982. In this employers and unions agreed to restrain wage growth. In return the government agreed to not intervene in the negotiations between labour unions and employers. This lead to shortening of working hours without slashing the salaries and by this stimulating the economy into a long period of growth and almost full employment. By the way, that agreement was not more then one page!
    Wim Kok was Union boss at that time. And in his later years he became a archetype of (former) union barons who utterly betrayed their roots. But that agreement was his finest hour. And it prevented a lot of misery for a lot of people at that time.

    But that was then and this is now. And to paraphrase the Lonely Planet Greece guide: Things change – union leaders move on, political agenda’s change, good people go bad and bad organisations or countries go bankrupt.

    Would a social pact like this be possible in Greece? Although I am convinced of the great benefits it could have here, I am afraid it will not. Not that there is any lack of talking here. Listening is the problem. And oxi is a word that seems to be engrained in the Greek psyche?

    “A few months ago, the Greek government, acting on orders from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, passed legislation allowing private companies to ignore collective contracts and negotiate individual deals with their employees.”
    Why “ignore”? When I first read of it in the MoU I thought of it as a one of those measures that are in place in a lot of countries. When a company has a real bad period which threatens the survival of that company it can apply to a (government) agency to invoke some measures in order to survive that period. Part of it can be working shorter hours, getting subsidies for social insurance premiums for a short period of time. Just like getting a protection against creditors to prevent going into bankruptcy. So, no ‘ignoring’ of collective contracts, just a reasonable lifting for one company in dire straits.
    Are you saying that the Greek government has written it into law in a way that a company can “ignore” collective agreements? That would be a travesty indeed. But totally in line with all the other travesties around…

    • Anton – thanks for reminding me about the Wassenaar agreement. I had heard about that and your insight is very useful. I believe the Germans have used a similar system in recent years. It seems that if you remove the politics from the mix, the two sides can agree on a way forward. You are perfectly right that I did not mention healthcare. I should have, although this does not really apply to the USA. On the issue of the collective contracts, we disscussed this issue briefly a few months ago. I have been back to check my notes because I read through the law word by word at the time. The law neither places a time limit on how long these in-house deals can last – in fact, it says “they can be renewed” without being more specific. It gives no specific financial parameters for when collective labour contracts can be by-passed. Again, I quote from the bill itself: “The special company labour contracts take into account the need for firms to adapt to market conditions with the aim of creating or preserving jobs and improving the productivity and competitiveness of the companies.”
      I think you will agree that this is vague enough to be exploited by employers if they wish to do so. My concern is that in Greece, and probably many other countries, there is no sense of business of ethics, of employers gaining from being honest and transparent in times of crisis. I have seen some very worrying examples of employers abusing their extended powers over the last few months – getting employees to agree to wage reductions on the promise that this will prevent sackings and then getting rid of them a few months later on a reduced compensation package. I have real difficulty accepting this is going to help tackle the crisis.

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