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The Weekly

STATE OF THE UNION

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Workers of the world, unite? Sounds like a great idea in our second gilded age of extreme inequality. Yet, as our workforce and its dreams of a truly American middle class lifestyle, that of the fictional make america great again fantasies, is in utter dismay. Factories keep closing, teachers are grossly underpaid, and as uncertainty envelops all industries in our anxiety riddled day to day, the whole question of who is a “worker” and what can they do about it has brought our society to a breaking point. The importance of collective bargaining and joining labor unions that can stand up to and negotiate with corporate powers has finally begun to occur to ordinary people across industries that once might have considered themselves above this sort of thing. But in the end, whether you were laid off by General Motors or Condé Nast is irrelevant, because that day when you are alone and left without a future paycheck and decent severance, there is little difference how you saw yourself the day before. And without unions, as we have witnessed since the union busting days of Reagan’s America, inequality plus technology leads to the further twisted evolution of the now infamous gig economy. You know, the one where it’s "every man for himself" even though it's those very same men that are actually the fuel powering the industries that refuse to compensate them with an actual livelihood. So why won’t workers just unite, you may ask? Well, let’s just think about the language for a start. Middle-class vs. working class. Blue collar vs. white collar. Elitist definitions that keep our citizens believing they have little in common, when now more than ever it’s time to unite, not as a political manifesto, but as a lesson in the survival of American identity.

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As Julie Kuenneke explores in her new piece, laborers in the 21st century, victims of both the gig economy and globalization, are cut from the same colored cloth, no matter where they went to school or which part of the country they hail from. “While teachers and factory workers may face different workforce issues, they share the same solidarity, the same collective voice and, often, fight the battle to save the same middle class stronghold. But it’s the middle-class lifestyle, the stronghold, the livelihood, that is slowly falling apart. While auto workers fight to keep plants open and their jobs intact, teachers across the country have fought continuously for job security and reasonable wages. In Oklahoma, teachers shared images of broken chairs to illustrate the severity of funding issues and why they were walking out in protest. In April 2018, teachers across the state participated in a nine-day protest related to state funding. The walkout didn’t generate the necessary funding, but it did have a legislative impact. The response? A 2019 proposed bill that would strip a teacher’s certification if they participated in a walk out (teachers in Oklahoma also cannot legally strike). As the old saying goes—one step forward and several steps backwards, out the door, and jobless.” Read more here.

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It makes sense when you think about policy, legislation, and the working people we traditionally associate with strikes and movements. But what of those who consider themselves apart. Who think they are intellectually immune from such considerations. Until now. Because all of the sudden, technology has pushed digital media and its requirement to “scale” into the same conundrum as globalized manufacturing. And just as moving your workers to countries without labor laws and a minimum wage is the only way to maximize industrial profits, using an under (or never) paid army of freelancers is the only way to even begin to pretend your digital media brand isn’t fighting a losing battle with Google and Facebook.

“The shift in on and offline journalistic media and magazines from staffs of permanent writers to an ever-changing roll call of freelance writers and contributors has also set an economic standard in the industry that’s been bleeding jobs. Many digital mastheads use freelance writers for their bread and butter daily content. And, for contract writers, this creates an amazing number of opportunities.”  However, an alarmingly high number of media contributors have for all intents and purposes become the Uber drivers of their failing industry. Underpaid and stuck in a spiral of indentured servitude. “Conditions don’t change until they do. Until everyone wants them to change. Every digital media staff can unionize. But if writers (freelancers, especially) choose to work the line in fast food journalism and live by the motto to serve it up quick for the hungry reader, make it snacky and do it all for a dollar menu price, nothing will change. Nothing can change. And this is why the gig market is so problematic. When the bar is lowered for some, it eventually lowers for all.”

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So now all of the sudden, those who once might have said, “I went to Princeton, why would I ever need a union?” are now signing up left and right as an act of unity against the mismanagement that plagues both old and new media organizations. Tossed aside? Dehumanized? Humiliated? Yeah, those things all feel the same no matter where you built up your student loan debt.  Or what color your collar might have been. “Because in recent years, journalists have felt the sting of layoffs. Maybe ‘sting’ is putting it a little too lightly, though, because sting inflicts a minor pain. Sting is the lie pediatric nurses tell when giving a shot to a child… “it will only hurt like a bee sting.” Journalism, it seems, felt the full stab of the needle. And it hurt. The layoffs were off the pain chart. Thousands lost their jobs. Editors, writers, producers. But the job cuts have been hitting hard for years. According to Pew Research, the journalism industry lost 27,000 jobs during the past decade (2008-2017). This year already kicked off, literally, with over 2,400 media jobs being cut in 2019 and the numbers are still rolling. BuzzFeed laid off 15 percent, Vice cut 10 percent, and Verizon (which owns HuffPost, Yahoo, and AOL) said goodbye to 7 percent, of entire staffs.” OUCH!

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So let’s see what happens with all these new media unions and their grand proclamations, because there is a big difference between writing about the power of unions and actually giving unions their power. Joining a union means more than just changing your avatar and tweeting out self congratulatory messaging. You’re not joining some trendy new club like The Wing and showing up to a few cool events and reaping some awesome rewards. Union membership means actually uncomfortably participating in the collective bargaining actions and real sacrifice. That means striking, demonstrating, and above all, not crossing the picket lines until your representatives get what they want at the negotiating table. As we speak, some of Hollywood’s greatest talents are mass firing their power agents to put an end to conflicted business practices, and the Writers Guild has in the recent past brought television schedules to a screeching halt. Big sacrifices are not for the faint of heart, but necessary if you want your union to have a real effect on the powers that be. What kind of society enslaves its citizens? Who are we as a nation without the possibility of a dream?

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It’s a common misconception, mostly thanks to things like the Communist Manifesto, that unions are only for leftists. That they are only for those who don’t believe in the right to work. But, the actual truth is the union movement used to represent white, middle class, conservative Americans. And ironically enough, the very reason that union membership has shrunken is that there is no middle class if there are no unions. So it’s incredibly poignant to watch and sing along with that old classic jingle, wether you’re a garment worker or not.

Which is why, if memory serves you well, always check the label when you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse. Because back in the day, while a union was sewing, their wages were also feeding the kids and running the house! The theatrical spot, Look for the Union Labelwas a quintessentially classic American advertisement. But whereas most commercials were trying to sell a product, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers' Union was trying to persuade Americans with a message. It cold opens with a stern looking conservative blue collar casting laying out the importance of unions as the backbone of the American workforce, and therefore the basis for an authentic America.

The message was: the union worker is a neighbor, they are just like you. It was meant to persuade Americans to buy union-made clothes. And then of course, there’s that catchy tune and words you can’t get out of your head. When the commercial premiered in 1975, the inklings and whispers of globalization were beginning to stir when the first few manufacturers moved abroad. So, desperate times call for desperate measures. Paula Green was hired to create an advertisement for ILGWU, which led her to write the “Look for the Union Label” song. She drew upon the union's history of songs (like “Pins and Needles”)  and created arguably the most memorable union campaign in U.S. history.  

It’s been misunderstood that the union worker sits on the far left, that white collars don’t need the ole unions help. But this commercial shows a time when the union worker was conservative, dressed in pastels, believed in the American dream, and wanted jobs to stay in the States. These sentiments are usually only heard on Fox News, but the irony is most workers do still feel this way. Americans want a middle class. ‘Round the house we work hard, but who's complaining? Thanks to the ILGWU, we're paying our way. So always look for the union label. It means we're able to make it in the USA!

debra scherer