One can always tell the economic, if not spiritual, health of Ireland by the regard in which James Connolly is held.
Had he sprung from his quicklimed grave during the Celtic Tiger he would barely have raised an eyebrow. In the current economic malaise, however, his policies and warnings have been gaining renewed traction.
American Labor has no such influential theoretician, even giants the like of Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones barely merit footnotes nowadays. Indeed, if Americans even think of labor leaders, Jimmy Hoffa is probably the first to spring to mind.
Connolly continues to have influence because of his prescience. Over 100 years ago he warned of the threat international big business would pose to the financial wellbeing of workers and their families. Between outsourcing, union busting, and a well-financed media assault, oh Mr. Connolly, how right you were!
One has only to look at that darling of corporate America, Apple Inc. On the face of it, I’m an admirer. I’m typing this column on a Mac Book Pro, my iPhone is within grasp; chances are, if Apple got into the booze business, I’d probably jettison my beloved Sierra Nevada for iPaleAle.
And yet this titan of innovation that turned a profit of $26 billion last year pays its iGenius staff just over 11 bucks an hour. Why? Because it doesn’t allow unionization! In fact store managers undergo “union awareness” training.
It seems those awfully outdated institutions, labor unions, tend to put a dent in corporate profits with such petty demands as a decent living wage. Unions even go so far as to frown on exporting jobs to Chinese sweatshops.
Come to think of it, Apple’s investors could use a union of their own since this fabulously profitable company has only paid one dividend in the last 17 years. Talk about corporate dictatorship!
Now there is no denying that in the past unions have made bull-headed calls that have led to the closure of businesses; but this has hardly been the case of late. Even the mighty UAW compromised and settled for an entry-level $14 per hour last year - hardly a wage that promises a white picket fence, let alone a house within.
Add to that the fact that jobs in the $12-$21 per hour class are fast disappearing and being replaced by those in the $7-11 field. You will be happy to learn that jobs in the $22-50 per hour stratum are holding steady.
This trend will eventually lead to a vast underclass with little hope of social mobility; relatively speaking, the same situation that James Connolly faced a century ago. My, oh my, what progress we’ve made.
To make matters worse most of this new peon class has little or no representation and thus barely any political clout. Of course, there is the possibility that through hard work some can leapfrog to the $20 plus per hour club. However, because of inequality of educational opportunity that chasm is increasingly hard to bridge.
Labor and professional unions are the only hope now – not only for a decent wage but for any kind of job security. Look around you! Someone you know has been afraid to ask for a raise of late even as their standard of living is plummeting in this era of zooming corporate profits.
With a few exceptions corporate loyalty, a.k.a. job security is now a joke. In fact, the recent recession has provided a smoke screen that allows corporations to make a naked grab for power; this has led to a re-alignment in the balance between board room/management and both white/blue-collar workers.
Not only has boardroom/management won the battle of public perception – unions are now seen as the root of the problem rather than as an active partner in protecting the rights of workers who want a decent standard of living and an eventual dignified retirement.
It’s time to turn the tide and salute our labor unions rather than to continue vilifying and humiliating them. You may feel you don’t need them now but, chances are, you will in the near future.