24 June 2011

Way Down In The Hole

Watching Season Two of the Wire I found a troubling feeling building somewhere in my gut near where my gall-bladder used to be, a phantom-memory of bile, perhaps, rising ghost-like to stoke the embers of my wrath and ire. Five episodes in and enjoying it so far, something was troubling me and I only put my finger on it this morning.

In Season One the main bad guy was not any one individual drug dealer, hit-man or crime boss, it was the Projects themselves. While individual criminal protagonists may have had redeeming features, the streets on which they lived had none. The Projects were the source of all their woes, holding them down and oppressing them, forcing them into a life of crime and compromise in a desperate attempt to break free from its shackles. Everything else was coloured in shades of grey, but the Projects, often seen through the monochromatic film of surveillance cameras, were entirely a black and white environment.

In Season Two this two-dimensional filter is applied to Unions.

Five episodes in and I have yet to see any positive portrayal of Union activity. Union bosses are all shown to be work-shy, corrupt and on the take, and while they act to protect their Union brothers they do so through underhanded means funded by the proceeds of criminal activity. If reduced hours leave the ordinary members with a short paycheck they liberate the cargo they are moving to make ends meet, and none of their brothers bat an eye. Everyone is drunk before they even start their morning shifts, and while they talk a lot about simply wanting a fair day's work, even when it arrives they still are happy to help themselves to a few extras from the back of a container when nobody is looking. When this activity is threatened with exposure the Union hides behind a screen of silence and feigned incompetence, nothing is ever stolen, just lost.

While of course the common thread linking Season One and Two is the effects of grinding poverty on a society and the methods by which those trapped in its clutches try to escape, I can't help but feel that the depiction of Union activities is even less sympathetic than that of the drug gangs. Perhaps it is because the drug gangs are only seen to prey on addicts and each other, whereas the Unions strike at the heart of America itself, its economy.

Working in the US I was shocked by how anti-Union everything was. I ran the regional office of a Cable Company and unlike most other larger company offices on the Eastern seaboard ours was not Unionised. My own bosses many miles away lived in constant fear that any day the Unions would swoop down and start a membership drive. We were one of the few employers in a depressed part of town, conditions and pay were good and, judging by the response to my laid-back Irish leadership style, the staff had little problems with management. Productivity was good, workers were happy, management was happy, but even so if I was an employee on the floor I would have insisted on there being a Union because in the blink of an eye everything can change.

The US is almost unique in the world in that it has no national labour laws mandating time off or regulating working hours. There is no national minimum paid annual leave for workers, no mandatory maternity leave. I was genuinely shocked when one of my employees reappeared at her desk less than five weeks after giving birth, HR explained to me that in our State mothers could only claim Short Term Disability if they gave birth, the same as if they had broken an arm or a leg and that this was paid for by the State, not the Company. There were no maternal benefits offered by the Company, you showed up for work or you didn't get paid. If you didn't like it then the Company could just fire you at any moment, because the state had At Will employment contracts, meaning there was no State or nationally mandated job security, no notice period before termination, you could just walk in one day and be told your job was gone with no warning, explanation or compensation. Six months after returning to Ireland I found out that the entire office had been closed down and operations moved 175 miles and two States away.

Despite all this insecurity Union membership is at an all-time low, with barely 12% of workers in the US holding Union membership. Watching a lot of the response to recent events in Wisconsin from those outside Wisconsin I was still amazed by how many ordinary workers parroted Fox News' soundbites about how the Unions were to blame for all the State's woes, and how they certainly wouldn't want to be in a Union or forced to pay Union dues. Thanks to collective bargaining US Union workers earn around 25% more than their non-unionsed counterparts, and yet fewer and fewer workers believe in the value of organized labour, and a major contributor to this decline has to be the portrayal of Unions and Union activities by the media.

Here in Ireland we may criticize the Unions for being ineffective, or too cozy with the previous government and employers, but in the US the prevailing meme is that the Unions are actually criminal enterprises out to destroy the fabric of society. As engrossing as The Wire is I can't help but feel unease watching it as it further reinforces these stereotypes.

The data on US Unions in this post comes from the July+August 2011 issue of Mother Jones. I've written on the ongoing struggle in Wisconsin before and Mother Jones again has a good summary of events there, recently updated.

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