This article is part two of a series. Part one,  “Republicans target labor,” appeared last week.

After rereading last week’s article on this subject, I realized that the coming attacks on labor are much more than big business’s legislative program to roll back labor law. The Republican, tea party and corporate right-wing agenda is much broader than legislation.

During the height of the Great Depression, with millions unemployed, most of big business continued to rack up big profits. In this crisis we see and hear constant reports of record profits and record bonuses in the corporate suites and financial houses – while millions are unemployed and now threatened with the loss of even meager unemployment benefits. Another feature of the Great Depression was that big business used the crisis to attack workers’ wages and living standards directly, cutting wages even while turning big profits. And exactly the same thing is happening again.

Last week the New York Times ran a story that described how three industrial unions, the Machinists, the Autoworkers and the Steelworkers were recently forced to take concessionary contracts from some companies, even though the manufacturers were making good profits.

In some cases, recent concession contracts even include a two-tier wage and benefit scheme. In other words, new hires take pay and benefit cuts that mean they make less than those working right next to them doing the same job, sometimes a great deal less. In some cases this second tier pay cut is even imposed on workers when they are recalled from layoffs, regardless of how much seniority they have with the company.

Let’s face it: big business loves unemployment. They see unemployed workers as a reserve workforce that can be used as a club against the workers they employ. Don’t want to take a cut in pay? There are plenty of hungry people waiting to take your job, they say. Don’t want to pay big copays and deductibles for your health insurance? We can find plenty of people who will work without health care – and on and on.

This crisis has also seen a ramping up of union busting schemes, like the use of temporary workers to do union jobs. It’s and old practice. Most new hires, even in a union shop, have to work a 30 to 90 day “probation” period before they can join the union and receive even starting union scale and benefits. In this scheme most of the new hires are worked up until just a day or two before ending their probation period – and then fired. And a new batch of probation workers is hired, allowing the company to keep a steady flow of workers without union protection.

All of this not only affects union workers, but also puts great downward pressure on all workers. As union workers well know, their wages and benefits set upward standards in local job markets. So when the top wages and conditions are weakened then companies can pay even lower wages overall. Times like these, with millions desperate and unemployed, are when companies also use wage theft schemes: paying sub-minimum wages, getting illegal kickbacks from workers for jobs, scheduling unpaid work times before and after regular paid time, and on and on.

Again, this is why it is in the interest of all the working-class people and their progressive allies to defend labor and the unions. This is why growing the unions and wining passage of the Employee Free Choice Act are critical fights for us all. Labor is moving aggressively to defend the unemployed and the progressive movements. Building bigger, broader coalitions and bigger and stronger unions, including new forms like workers centers and union committees even in shops without formal union recognition, are critical for the fights ahead. We all have a stake in defending labor and stopping the big business, ultra-right Republican onslaught on unions.


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.