Thursday, February 02, 2006

Unions Hire People at Low Wages With No Benefits

The labor movement is always talking about how the minimum wage needs to be increased, since it’s not a “living wage.”

And they are also talking about how so many jobs bring substandard or no fringe benefits.

Wal-Mart has been a particular target of this campaign.

But what do unions do when they hire people to do their work?

From the Detroit News.
WASHINGTON — You’ve heard the panhandler’s common refrain, “Will work for food.”

How about: “Will picket for food?”

In Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta and elsewhere in the country, union organizers are scouring shelters and recruiting homeless people to staff their picket lines, paying just above minimum wage and failing to provide health benefits.

The national carpenters’ union, which broke from the AFL-CIO four years ago in a bitter dispute over organizing strategies and other issues, is hiring homeless people to stage noisy protests at nonunion construction sites.

“We’re giving jobs to people who didn’t have jobs, people who in some cases couldn’t secure work,” said George Eisner, head of the union’s mid-Atlantic regional council in Baltimore.

The carpenters who belong to his union, Eisner explained, are gainfully employed. With homes and offices being built or renovated and real estate booming in many urban areas, he said, the union carpenters are too busy to join the picket lines.

“Work is good, and our members are working,” Eisner said. “This is just the best thing for us to do at this point.”
Since this particular union broke from the AFL-CIO, are they a rogue union atypical of the labor movement? No, they aren’t.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said he saw nothing wrong with unions hiring homeless people as pickets.
This is not an isolated example. From the Las Vegas Weekly:
The shade from the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market sign is minimal around noon; still, six picketers squeeze their thermoses and Dasani bottles onto the dirt below, trying to keep their water cool. They’re walking five-hour shifts on this corner at Stephanie Street and American Pacific Drive in Henderson—anti-Wal-Mart signs propped lazily on their shoulders, deep suntans on their faces and arms—with two 15-minute breaks to run across the street and use the washroom at a gas station.

Periodically one of them will sit down in a slightly larger slice of shade under a giant electricity pole in the intersection. Four lanes of traffic rush by, some drivers honk in support, more than once someone has yelled, “assholes!” but mostly, they’re ignored.

They’re not union members; they’re temp workers employed through Allied Forces/Labor Express by the union—United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). They’re making $6 an hour, with no benefits; it’s 104 F, and they’re protesting the working conditions inside the new Wal-Mart grocery store.
So the union is hiring workers at wages lower than Wal-Mart would pay, giving them no benefits at all, and having them work in 104 degree weather, to protest the labor practices of Wal-Mart.

And it isn’t union members doing the picketing. They are working somewhere else.

Why don’t these workers just go get hired by Wal-Mart? Some of them probably do, but jobs at the giant retailer are pretty competitive.

Finally, from a Washington, DC paper that is apparently targeted at the homeless:
It’s early morning on one of the hottest days of the summer, but there are already half a dozen homeless people crowding around Mike Zaner as they wait for breakfast at Zacchaeus Community Kitchen. Zaner is there to offer them jobs — as protesters.

Zaner works for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, which has been carrying out daily two-hour protests against Tricon Construction at 601 13th St., NW, an office building, located three blocks away from Zacchaeus, where Tricon is doing construction work on the ninth floor.

The union is objecting to what it says are the substandard wages Tricon is paying, but instead of having carpenters chant and protest everyday, they have hired homeless people to do so.
The protestors are paid $8.00 per hour. That’s not a lot, but one can make arguments for this kind of low wage.
Jonathan Ward, manager of the Downtown Services Center that houses Zacchaeus, said he supports the effort. He and Zaner both cited a similar program in Atlanta; Ward called the Atlanta program “a national model.”

Ward said his goal was to promote employment for Zacchaeus clients and that the union protests represent “another option, another resource” for doing that. He described the work as a “foot in the door” that helps his clients “get in the mindset” of working and become “reconditioned to be in the work environment.”

“You’ve got to crawl before you can walk,” he said.

The protests themselves give people a work history and income history, which can be helpful if they apply for an apartment rental or for credit, Ward said. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re helping them out,” he added.
This, of course, is an excellent argument. People with few skills and modest education and a spotty work history (at best) need jobs. Any movement up the occupational latter is going to have to start with a low paid job.

But while this is a good argument when unions are hiring people, it’s an equally good argument when Wal-Mart, or McDonald’s or Joe’s Taco Bar does the hiring.

But when businesses hire people at low wages, they are using them for economically productive labor. The unions are using them to try to coerce businesses to force workers to join unions.


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