Despite rising unemployment, foreclosures, business failures, credit shortfalls, personal bankruptcies, families lacking health insurance, credit card debt, and deep economic insecurity, the New York Times concluded last week that the real problem is “American workers are overpaid.” The paper’s prominent “BreakingViews.Com” column broke this astonishing news. It even argued that, unless wages are cut, we could approach “Depression–era levels of unemployment.”
The timing of this self-described “independent financial commentary” may not be coincidence. Corporations from hotel giants to electric companies are seeking to curtail employee benefits, an act easier to justify if “independent” experts agree that workers are overpaid. And as the AFL-CIO makes gains in getting the Obama Administration to ensure fair trade, we now hear that “American manufacturing workers should take average wage cuts of as much as 20% to get into global balance.”
If the New York Times story on overpaid American workers had instead come from a right-wing think-tank or a non-credible source, it could be dismissed as pro-corporate nonsense. But it became clear during last year’s debate over the auto bailout that powerful voices believe U.S. workers earn too much, and that a further downward adjustment is needed.
Further, while progressives see the current economic crisis as demonstrating that working and middle class jobs now pay too little, the Times writers — Edward Hadas, Martin Hutchinson and Antony Currie — see the opposite. They believe that “the recession shows that many workers are paid more than they’re worth,” and are especially “paid too much relative to their foreign peers.”
No wonder workers are being forced to fight to maintain benefits in industries across the United States. And these battles now include workers whose long harmonious workplace relations have been torn asunder by management attacks on worker benefits.
IBEW 1245 Members Take Action
Consider the case of longtime International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 1245 workers at NV Energy in Reno, Nevada.
This local has not walked a picket line against NV Energy in 62 years. But ever since executives from Florida Power & Light came into town five years ago, the long harmonious labor-management relations turned rocky.
Now, echoing the strategy increasingly seen in corporate America, NV Energy is attempting to effectively eliminate health care for its local IBEW 1245 retirees. And given that many current workers are approaching retirement, it would impact their savings as well.
The company may have thought that workers unaccustomed to fighting would not know how to respond, and would quickly agree to a weak deal. But NV Energy failed to account for a few factors.
One factor is the IBEW 1245 workers themselves, who, upon hearing of the attacks on their health care, got extremely angry at what they saw as the company’s betrayal. As retiree Dale Huntsman put it, NV Energy “negotiated the terms under which we could eventually retire….and now no longer feel obligated to meet their commitment.”
Another factor NV likely overlooked was that former United Farmworkers activist Tom Dalzell now leads IBEW 1245. Dalzell was in the trenches during the UFW’s heyday, and is not afraid of a fight.
As part of his effort to strengthen IBEW’s organizing and negotiating capacity, earlier this year Dalzell added Fred Ross, Jr. to his staff. Ross’s organizing skills became clear when an astonishing 600 people attended a Senior Citizens Center on November 7 to rally against NV Energy’s health care attack.
Such a large turnout among this long satisfied workforce was unprecedented. But it shows just how far many corporations have gone to anger even the most friendly of workforces, and explains why worker protests are now cropping up in unlikely places like Reno.
First Picket in 62 Years
On November 19, the Local 1245 workers will hold their first informational picket at NV Energy in 62 years. Dalzell has recently hired Ross’ former SEIU colleague Eileen Purcell to help with the turnout, and the Nevada AFL-CIO has pledged its 200,000 workers full support of the IBEW members.
AFL-CIO state leader Danny Thompson captured the essence of what is happening in Reno, at the Hyatt Hotels and throughout the nation when he highlighted that given NV Energy’s $182.6 million profit last quarter, “don’t come telling me you’ve got to cut somebody’s health care and you got to cut somebody’s retirement.”
Incredibly, as Reno’s Local 1245 workers were organizing for the November 19 picket, NV Energy announced last Friday that 100 workers would be laid off on December 22. That’s not the type of holiday gift the workers expected, and will only spur worker activism..
If recent resistance by IBEW and UNITE HERE members are any indication, the Times’ BreakingNews folks and corporate America have a long way to go before convincing workers that it is they, rather than their high-paid, amply-bonused bosses, whose compensation should be downsized.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook
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