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Put Up Your Dukes

This Is About a Fight that Wasn’t Fought

A friend was recently given a layoff notice, with the action to take place a couple of months in the future. The layoff effected several dozen others, as well. It was a really unpardonable thing to do, considering the length of service and loyalty that the friend and the others had displayed to the institution over the years.

I suggested to this and to certain other friends, who were collectively in a position to display and organize resistance to the layoff, that we start a campaign to force the management of the non-profit institution to rethink the manner used to save money. My shoot-from-the-hip initial proposal involved interfering, on a temporary basis, with an income stream of the non-profit, individual donations. Then my mind started working in overdrive, not letting me sleep, considering strategy and tactics. After all, this was not being the first such campaign with which I’ve been involved. After a while, I came up with a stroke that, if I do say so myself, was brilliant and would be a sure winner if enough people got involved. Then, around 3 a.m., I finally got to sleep.

The following day, my friend said that he didn’t want a campaign started to get his job back. He didn’t want to do anything that might harm the institution that he liked so much. Besides, he said, the institution had offered a long severance period, as well as training and assistance in finding another job. Had I been directly involved, i.e., I had been one of the ones laid off, his opinion would have made no difference, and I would have proceeded. However, that was not the case. Although I had certain ties to the institution, I had no direct involvement, and no one who does has expressed an interest (that I know of) in starting such an effort. Not wanting to be a boor and a busybody, I backed away and wished him the best of luck in managing the situation and in finding a good job. What else could a reasonable, polite person do?

My friend is making his decision based upon his own situation, and on details with which I’m not familiar, so I don’t mean to be judgmental. I reserve the right, though, to express my opinion about the overall situation. (I’m trying to keep all of the details vague and anonymous, not wanting to give my friend any other worries; he has enough as it is.)

What Was Really at Stake

Years working in and around unions, as well as involvement in other political causes, has given me a certain perspective on situations like this. Although the immediate goal was to get those noxious layoffs rescinded, there was a lot more involved. It was really about :

  • control,
  • dignity, and
  • highly-paid bureaucrats solving their problems on the backs of little guys instead of on their own backs, because they were management and had sole responsibility for the situation. (Isn’t it interesting how management reserves all of the powers, credit and responsibilities for running an organization up to the point of discovering that there isn’t enough money in the till. Then it becomes the responsibility of everyone else to absorb the sacrifice.)

The other consideration in such struggles is that all victories are cumulative. Little victories here and there add up over time into something substantial. The gains might be financial or things harder to pin down, like having more control over one’s life or having to set a good example for one’s children that one shouldn’t automatically just bend over and take it.

I was recently given a copy of a presentation made at the final convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), in 1955. The presenters wanted to note the progress that had been made in the twenty years that the CIO was active, from its formation in 1935, from new and existing industrial union organizations, to the merger with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The cumulative gains were described as follows:

  • statistically (Bureau of Labor Statistics), average hourly earnings in 1935, 55¢; in 1955, $1.89, up 261%.
  • experience of an individual industrial union worker who retired in 1950:
    • pay in 1933, 60¢ an hour, in 1950, $1.83; including fringes, like holidays and vacations, $2 even; altogether over the period, the union procured an additional $24,000 in wages, and an additional $16,000 in pension and insurance. That makes a total of $40,000 won by the union. The person paid $225 in dues and lost about $1200 walking a picket line. For every dollar in dues and lost time, he got back $28.

This is the way things add up over the years if people choose to fight instead of always accepting the consequences of management’s decisions. The times are different, now, and the dollar amounts need to be adjusted for inflation. However, it should be obvious that deciding to stand and fight has long-term benefits over the alternative.

How It Really Works

How do you feel when management says that you must endure one or another management decision and make some sacrifice, knowing that the persons making the decision will still be collecting their big checks and you will be collecting unemployment? Are they better Americans than you are? Have they been so much more productive and valuable to society than you have, that this difference should exist? Highly doubtful! So what are you going to do about it, accept it or fight back? Will you be willing to squeeze the organization’s wallet for a while until management comes into line with the rest of the country and relents, recognizing your contributions, even if the organization has its good points?

While this article isn’t meant to be a broad political statement, nevertheless some broader principles apply. Entrepreneurs in capitalism justify profits and high salaries by saying that “we take big risks when investing in bold, new projects, and deserve the rewards when the ventures succeed.” All well and good.

Why is it, then, that when things are not so successful that the folks who hired on for just a steady job end up paying the price with layoffs when things run down hill, while the big shots still take home the big paychecks? Where is their own touted risk-taking? Do we have some hypocrisy and dishonesty here? Business sets that kind of precedent and other kinds of organizations, including non-profits, follow it. When things don’t work out the way management has planned, do they lay themselves off? Do they cut their own pay in a significant way? Perhaps it happens, but I’ve never seen it!!

What Does Non-Profit Mean?

What is the point of declaring that an organization is “not-for-profit” when all aspects of the organization of the enterprise are identical to a “for-profit” corporation, except that no stockholders get checks in the mail? If the organization is just as authoritarian and pays its executives the big bucks, why should it hold any preference in the minds of the employees over some rapacious corporation? Is there any reason why the employees shouldn’t make the same struggles to control the operation of the supposedly “higher purpose” non-profit organizations than happen via the unions that strive for dignity in private corporations?

We Live in a Democracy, Supposedly

By definition, a democracy is a society in which people rule themselves. The United States is a republic, in which we elect representatives govern the country. No matter; the principle is the same. The thing we must consider in this country today is this: do private individuals, people appointed by private organizations, whether for profit or not, do they have the right to make decisions about the lives of the rest of us? In my opinion, they do not! Must we allow them to arrogate to themselves the setting of society’s direction, and an out-of-proportion share of the wealth? That kind of thing isn’t democracy, it is the subversion of democracy and those who practice it are this society’s subversives.

No, Not a Union

The things I’m saying don’t just apply to unions. They apply to any possible kind of fight for the improvement of society that can be fought. Whatever it is, if you can call out the troops, then it will be worth the fight. If you win, then it will draw interest for the future. If you lose, even though you played all of your cards correctly, then you’ll have learned some lesson that you can apply in the future. That’s still a kind of victory, and when you add up the wins and losses, it is still in the win column.

In Pete Seeger’s song Talking Union, he finishes up by saying:

if you don’t let red-baiting break you up
And if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up
You’ll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it!

Amen.

This essay appeared in The Ethical Spectacle in April, 2010.

June 2, 2010


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