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A Tale of Two Workers: 30 Years; Different Outcomes

The protests in Wisconsin this week are a turning point in this nation’s history. Despite what the pundits on cable TV say, these protests are not about paying for pensions or health insurance. They are about preserving employees’ right to join a union and collectively bargain for their wages and benefits.

If you watch Fox News or think it was just great when Ronald Reagan broke the back of the air traffic controllers’ union 30 years ago, you’ve probably never gotten a real picture of what it means to be in a union. If your primary impression of unions includes images of thuggery and beatings, it may be time for you to reconsider. Let me tell you the tale of two ordinary middle-class women. Both roughly the same age. Both live in the same area. Both took different career paths.

UnionWoman

UnionWoman graduated from high school and became pregnant just weeks after graduation. She chose to have her child with the support of her family, and ultimately was hired at the telephone company as a 411 operator. UnionWoman has a great work ethic and worked her way up through the ranks to supervisor. She joined the CWA on the day she was hired, served as a union steward, and supported her fellow union workers in contract negotiations over the years.

She married, had another child, raised them in a suburban area, and remained an employee for 30 years. Over that 30-year period, her children and husband were covered under her health and dental insurance, she earned pension credits each year, and her paycheck kept up with the cost of living. It was a modest paycheck, not enough for their family to purchase a home in pricey Southern California, but they rented a home and raised their family. They sent their kids to college and out into the world with a great education and the best start possible.

Of course, 411 is a dead service now that the Internet is so easily accessible. What isn’t served by the Internet is automated, so her job — indeed, her entire department — was eliminated. When the decision was made to eliminate those positions, the company “bought her contract” by adding 3 years of pension service to her 32 years accumulated so that she could retire on a reduced pension until age 55, when her full pension will be payable. Her health and dental benefits were also continued on her behalf with a minimal personal contribution from her each month.

While it’s been a challenge for her to get used to not going to work each day, she says she’s grateful to know she has a reliable income and health benefits. She and her husband (who still works) are planning their daughter’s wedding and if asked, will tell you they’re content with their lives.

Are there things they might have wanted to do and haven’t? Maybe, but they’ll tell you they have gratitude for not being faced with the reality many of their friends face: lost jobs in their 50s with no prospect of being hired anywhere.

ProWoman

ProWoman took a different path. In the late 70s when she was in college, opportunities began to open up in a field where people with decent writing and reading skills could earn a good living. Women were almost exclusively support staff, but still treated as professionals. Because there was no college degree available at the time, professional associations offered education and certification programs, which ProWoman availed herself of. However, every employer she worked for offered minimal health and dental benefits, no pension plan, and basic vacation and holiday benefits.

Over the years, ProWoman enjoyed moderate success in her job, but little upward mobility. She struck out on her own, but was caught in a maelstrom of economic downturns and Congressional modifications to the tax code which overcomplicated and limited her product.

ProWoman looked for alternatives and second jobs to assist with the exploding costs of health benefits for the self-employed, and ultimately landed a second job online working for a company which offered a 401k plan with a matching contribution, robust health benefits and decent pay. Sensing that it was time to make a transition, she began to wind down her self-employment business to devote herself full-time to the internet job.

Then the economy imploded, and ProWoman found herself out of a job, without health benefits, and with about $20,000 in her 401k plan. COBRA continuation was impossible, and when the unemployment ran out, there wasn’t much available in the way of jobs to go back to.

Two Workers; Two Outcomes

There are many criticisms to make of ProWoman’s choices. She could have stayed in college and earned the degree rather than seizing the opportunity to go to work in an opening, burgeoning field. She could have chosen to juggle the job and the business, burning a candle at both ends for awhile, so that the business served as a safety net for the possibility of job loss. All of these things are true.

However, it’s also true that UnionWoman never had to make those choices, because she had the power of collective bargaining to act on her behalf to ensure good working conditions, job security, a solid retirement, medical and dental benefits.

It’s undeniable that UnionWoman’s outcome was far superior to ProWoman, and further undeniable that the difference was the union.

I’d add one other observation to this. The company that UnionWoman works for is extraordinarily profitable and always has been. Providing for their workers did not cause undue losses in profitability; in fact, it could be argued that workers who were secure in their jobs with access to decent health and dental services were more productive workers than those who did not have similar security.

This is a 30-year story. It’s ongoing. But as I sit here today, I tell you that if I had it to do all over again, I think I would have stayed in school and found a job at a company where the union had organized. As a worker in the financial services industry, that opportunity was not available to me in any job I ever held.

Yes, ProWoman is me. UnionWoman is someone I’ve known and been close to for over 30 years. I just saw her a couple of weeks ago, and heard about her plans for her daughter’s wedding, how much fun she was having planning for it, and how content she is. I was happy for her, but it was a little bittersweet.

Turning points

Wisconsin is a turning point for the unions, but it’s not just Wisconsin. It’s Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, and other states. The argument isn’t about benefit costs. It’s about collective bargaining rights. It’s pure strong-arm union busting and if those of us who are in the middle class want a hope of any kind of decent future, we should all be standing with them. Every single one of us.

Part of what’s going on in Wisconsin has nothing to do with the unions. Governor Walker’s budget proposal would also give him complete authority over Medicaid, which is the back-door way Republican governors hope to take to kill the Affordable Care Act.

It is co-ordinated and was planned before the midterm elections. I can show you the flow of money into these states via the Republican Governors’ Association, but that is a topic for a different post. For this one, remember this: One employee weathered this Great Recession with a safety net that wasn’t the governmental safety net. For another employee, all financial stability was ripped away, suddenly, legally, and with unrecoverable consequences. The sole difference? The union.

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