When people think of unions, they think of salaries and benefits. And indeed, unions do improve wages for union and non-union employees alike. But have you ever wondered why a lot of companies are willing to match union pay in order to stay non-unionized? If the company is going to pay the same, why not just allow the union? It is because unions are most important in their ability to stop employers from abusing workers.
Age Discrimination—at 35!
I remember back in 1999—when I was 35 years old—I was applying for a job with a high tech company. They made a very big deal about my age. They were concerned that I wouldn’t “fit in” with their group. But they really wanted me because I was such a high tech badass. Eventually, they hired me and I went to work in a group of 13 people. Out of this group, almost all of the work was done by one other guy and me. The other guy was, of course, “old” like me.
Both parts of this story are typical. First, high tech companies do not want to hire older workers. Most of the time they are not so up front about it. And most of the time it isn’t because they are worried about group cohesion; they are worried about salary. Second, there is often a huge gulf between the knowledge and skills of the old and young workers.
I find this all particularly interesting in light of the conservative obsession with raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare. It is certainly true that most white collar workers could easily work until they are 70. The problem is that there is a big difference between biological and cultural norms. A computer programmer could work past 65 and might even want to; but most corporations don’t want to employ such a programmer. Of course, most companies don’t wait that long. Usually, white collar workers get the ax in their 50s.
RadioShack and the Globalization Lie
Al Lewis at the Wall Street Journal wrote a column about a typical case, Getting Sacked at RadioShack. It tells the story of David Nelson, a guy who started at RadioShack in 1979. He worked his way up through the company, becoming district manager and supervising 51 stores. In 2008, when Nelson turned 55, a new regional manager came in. After the first month, he gave Nelson a negative performance review—the first Nelson had ever received. After the second month, he gave Nelson another bad review and fired him. Nelson managed to get the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to represent him in court. Last month, the court found against RadioShack and made them pay Nelson $187,000 in back pay. Of course, that means Nelson had to wait 4 years for this justice. I’m sure he has lost far more than he’s gained. But it is a much happier story than that of most people who are illegally fired.
Lewis ends his article with something of an apology for RadioShack—talking about how poorly the company is doing. I don’t see how this belongs in the article. What’s more, all of my tech friends and I were horrified years ago when RadioShack switched to being mostly a phone reseller. It was clear at the time that the company was trying to cash in on a short term opportunity at the expense its long term health. But this is what you get when companies are managed on a quarterly time scale.
I think the point of noting RadioShack’s bad situation is a way of saying, “Globalization is hurting everyone; workers just have to get used to it.” Note that Canada has basically the same level of unionization as it did 50 years ago; unionization in the United States has plummeted; no one has ever explained why the US would suffer more from globalization than Canada. What’s more, corporate profits are way up. The management of places like RadioShack don’t fire people like Nelson because they have to in order to survive. In fact, Nelson’s position wasn’t going away. They were just getting rid of him because they could replace him with someone younger and cheaper.
Unions Protect Us
All these stories highlight the one systemic problem facing the middle class here in the United States: unions are dying. There are only two ways to protect workers’ rights. The first is for the government to intervene aggressively in the work place. That is not going to happen. The other is to strengthen the ability of workers to organize. Over the last 60 years, we have made it much harder for unions to organize (both through legislation changes and lack of enforcement). If there is any way forward it is through stronger unions. Note that conservatives are almost all against unions when they should be for them.
Unfortunately, unions are running scarred. Union members are just trying to hang on to the little they still have. Non-unionized workers tend to resent unions—often thinking that no one should be unionized rather than that everyone should be. And this resentment is something the right has been very good at promoting. Now the main coverage of unions in the media is about how public sector union pensions are killing us. (Funny that when Wall Street was handing out big bonuses to the people who caused the crash of 2008, we were lectured on contracts and how we had to fulfill our obligations. But when it is ordination workers’ pensions, contracts don’t matter that much.)
David Nelson is an object lesson for all of us. In most circumstances, a company would not screw up. In most circumstances, they would have fired Nelson in a way that would not have allowed him to sue. And regardless, the whole of the Republican Party is against even having the right to seek legal redress, as we saw with Lilly Ledbetter. This is not a war we can each fight alone. The situation is dire. We must organize so that we will have the right to organize.