postheadericon Kuire Ko Kura: State of the Unions


It's no joke that the state of worker's trade unions around the globe is dire, and in many cases, labor unions are being dismantled or outright destroyed. This week's results from the recall election in Wisconsin USA, where Republican Governor Scott Walker's win to keep his seat, was just another nail in the coffin for a healthy & unionized workforce in America.

This blow to workers in Wisconsin, who now have a diminished membership and very few rights left (as far as collective bargaining and the right to strike goes), hit me hard, and on a personal level. You see, my very first job was a unionized one, working as an apprentice meat packer in a frozen food factory back in the early 70's. That's when unions still had teeth and were aggressively fighting for fair wages, better working conditions, and essential benefits for worker retirement and health. Jimmy Hoffa was still alive and kicking, and the number of unionized workers in America held at about 30% of the workforce (down from 35% in the 1950's). Today, that percentage is less than 12% across the board.

Now depending on your political stance, you may or may not agree that worker's unions are essential, or even relevant in today's modern age of global capitalism and world-wide market forces, which seek to squeeze every dollar of profit possible from any business venture, regardless of the toll taken on the worker. Fiscal conservatives in America have long ago decided that labor unions, hotbeds of left-leaning Democratic thinking & political funding, had to go. And now that Wisconsin has fallen – a testing ground for conservative thinking – the rest of the country is sure to follow. 

As a younger man in the workforce, I myself was not so na├»ve to think that belonging to my Local 101 was going to be an end-all to all my work-related problems. It was easy to see that the Meatpacker's Union that I belonged to was mobbed up and corrupt as a fake two-dollar bill. Union dues constituted a large chunk of my paycheck, and it was clear that workers were just pawns in a larger game of power and control over local and state politics, as well as fodder used when battling with business owners. But it was a choice of the times that was the lesser of two evils: to either have some say with employers, or to have no or little say when it came to getting your fair share of fruit from one's labor. 

But then I got a better job, one where the hacking of dead meat was not required, and I could go home every day with clean hands and not even a crinkle in my suit and tie. I had worked my way through college and joined IBM, where the cubicles were neat and tidy and you could work all day or night and hardly break a sweat. All the benefits were there (at some level), and today I now rest retired knowing that some pittance of a pension is coming my way each month. 

At least I got something...even if just a pittance.

It's clear to me (after the fact) that being unionized would have given my fellow IBM'ers and I a better deal in the end. But throughout the 80's and 90's, the logic went something like this: either work for a company or organization that allowed unions - and then trust in your union leaders to negotiate the best for you – or - work for a company that banned unionization in return for the promise that the company would take care of your needs. There was no middle ground, no other real alternative, you were either unionized or not.

And now, at least in America, the choice is "not" for 93% of private sector workers. The only folks still left unionized are government workers, where about 35% of those folks have some form of organized representation in the workplace, but with 65% without. Yet government employees have very limited collective bargaining rights, with right-to-strike banned in most cases, and influence on politicians is on the wane as membership drops to record lows. 

For Nepal, I think this trend in the state of the unions in America is foretelling, regardless of my limited experiences here: feeling the heat of many a burning tire in the street and reading the newspapers regarding the many labor battles with businesses, as well as following the campaign to ratify (in full) ILO Convention 87. Workers are still struggling here, all within the confines of awful choices and limited support from the government, and in the middle of a global economic meltdown. 

In short, the global floor of social protection (as described by the ITUC, which represents 175 million workers around the world) is disintegrating plank by plank. From the Eurozone to Kathmandu to Wisconsin, austerity measures now seem to outweigh the need to stimulate growth in employment. 

So I pose these questions dear reader: is there a better way... a rethink on the way we have chosen to organize as trade unions, or not? Are there really only two choices in this day and age of Internet access, iPads and smartphones? Shouldn't we - as a collective global citizenry - be thinking of remodeling the ways of business and employment? In other words, can't we come up with something better than the institutions we have now, and that have clearly failed us?

Isn't it time for a more global human (and humane) union movement? You tell me.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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