This country was built (or stolen from its prior inhabitants, depending on your point of view), by mass movements, teamwork. Americans overwhelmingly believe the cowboy myth that rugged individualism built this nation. We have been romanced by the movies and propagandized by corporate America to believe that single-minded determination and personal responsibility guarantee individual success. It ain't true. Never has been.
Corporate shills have infected the media over the past week during the Teamsters strike against UPS. One told CNN that that Americans prefer individual negotiation with the boss and that unions promote dreaded collectivism and that's just plain un-American. All of this echoes the cold war, where Democrats and trade unionists were accused of communism and treason for daring to advocate worker cohesion as a counterbalance to exploitive, robber-baron corporations.
During the short post WWII-period (1945-73), when we came closest to a balance between labor, business and government, the country enjoyed broad-based prosperity the equal of which has never been seen before or since. (For complete information, read "America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?" by Don Barlett and James Steele, the Philadelphia Inquirer's two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative team.)
Rugged individualism means nothing against corporate greed. More important, individuals can't win. Employers certainly promote the teamwork idea, but when workers want to act in unison to deal with issues like safety and pay, they find bosses don't like it a bit. And companies have imposed that dislike into the law.
As a result of a long line of court decisions and sellouts by the Nevada legislature, Silver State workers basically have no rights. You are a tenant in your job and can be evicted at any time.
U.S. workers now suffer from the most repressive labor laws in the industrialized world. I laugh every time some corporate weasel says that there are plenty of government rules in place to take care of employees, thus making worker organizations unnecessary.
In Nevada, the only protection of your right to work lies in securing either an individual or union contract. Otherwise, big business has bought government upfront to ensure that you are disposable.
Nevada's insurance system has been rigged to beat injured workers out of compensation and care for on-the-job injury. The 1997 legislature passed a blackball bill, exempting employers from legal liability if they blacklist safety advocates or union sympathizers. The 1987 case of Sands Regent v. Valgardson, detailed here last week, legalized age discrimination in this state. Despite the Reno Hilton losing a major 1995 lawsuit to the Carpenters Union after the hotel fired a cocktail waitress for pregnancy, gender discrimination still abounds. Several maternity lawsuits clog the courts down in Gomorrah South.
Society pays a severe price for all this low-wage carnage. Look at Nevada's alcoholism, teen pregnancy, smoking and suicide rates. We are not big on traditional family values.
Americans form committees to address common problems. Always have. There is no more historically fitting place for a major breakout of teamwork than Sparks, now host to at least three major workers' rights campaigns.
Teamsters union members and most of their non-union co-workers remain on strike against United Parcel Service, headquartered in northern Nevada on Vista Blvd. Local building trades unions continue to picket the downtown construction site of the Syufy/Century 14-plex theater. This Thursday, maintenance workers at the sprawling K-Mart distribution center will vote on representation by Operating Engineers Local 3, the same union which has long counted City of Sparks employees among its ranks.
The issues are all the same: a good day's work for a good day's pay in a safe environment; insurance should a worker or family member become sick or injured; a little something put away for the day people can labor no more; a bit of job security till then.
Simple enough to state, difficult to get. American workers have seen corporate profits and executive pay skyrocket while their own wages, adjusted for inflation, have been mostly stuck in neutral since 1973. The largest employer in the U.S. has long been Manpower, Inc, the temp service. We are plunging headlong toward becoming a third-world nation with a big freeway system and indoor plumbing, a place where most workers can't afford to buy the products they make and service.
The newsmedia have been full of stories about the impacts of the UPS strike on businesses. Almost none have dealt with UPS workers, many of whom are forced to work full-time for part-time pay. The company has a brutal record on repetitive stress injuries, but you don't hear about them among complaints from people not getting their sugar cookies from Denmark.
Organized labor long ago lost the public relations war to tax deductible corporate PR and legal departments which successfully demonized the word "union." The tremendous expenditure of public resources by Sparks police at the UPS terminal reflects a reaction to that chronic corporate propaganda.
Sparks cops, most of whom are union members, have nonetheless been indoctrinated by corporate propaganda to over-react. Like other American students, they were never taught in history class that almost all violence has been done to protesting workers, not by them.
Nothing else explains the barnyard-based excuse for expensive police escorts of UPS convoys assembled at public schools. Lt. Paul Ochs told me someone allegedly hurled an egg at a UPS truck, thus alerting the cops to potential violence.
Zounds. Put rape and robbery on hold and call out the army - we've had an egg breakout. Start looking for violent chickens.
Despite the propaganda, the desire for a better life remains unquenchable. Americans will organize because they now have no choice. Sparks residents need only look around them to see what a nice community union pay can build. This makes the local battles highly winnable.
Be well. Raise hell.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. Part of this column originally published 8/10/97.
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.