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A Guy Named “Bob”:


Over the years I have gotten to know a guy named ‘Bob’ [not his real name].  The government would probably classify him as an independent contractor, but he works for this company that does what can broadly be described as home maintenance.  ‘Bob’ is a 40-ish, African American.  Very personable, he is equally reliable in his work ethic and performance.  A bit overweight, ‘Bob’ has been fighting high blood pressure, having recently experienced two incidents that landed him in the emergency room of a local hospital.

‘Bob,’ like 47  million other people in the USA, has no health insurance, and receives an insufficient salary to pay for private health insurance out of pocket.  He also has little job security, and he lacks a labor union, a fact very relevant to this overall situation.

 

A recent article in, of all places, Parade magazine [Lynn Brenner, 'How did you do?' April 15, 2007] helps to put ‘Bob’s’ story into context.  Despite the fairly conservative bent of Parade, they put their finger on critical issues of the day:

 

Workers’ productivity has grown 18% between 2000 and 2006, yet people’s real wages (factoring in inflation) have grown only 1%. 2/3 of those polled said that despite an allegedly booming economy, they do not believe that their children’s generation will be better off than they are. 47  million people lack healthcare. There is a declining living standard for the working person, in part because employee benefits have been steadily shrinking. In 2005, the average CEO made 369 times as much as the average worker, whereas in 1993, it was 131 times.

 

So, for the average working person, life is unraveling and a tremendous amount of wealth is being captured by those at the top of the wealth pyramid.

 

The only things that the article failed to mention were that:

 

(1) the attack on labor unions by the corporations and their right-wing political allies helps to explain part of the decline in the living standard, and

 

2) for those of us of color-and particularly for African Americans-in every category, we continue to be hit harder than the white population.

 

‘Bob’, like too many other people in the USA, recognizes that he is being stepped upon.  After years of denial of the health issues he confronts, he is finally trying to come to grips with them.  Yet, in one of our discussions, it was very clear that he had to weigh paying for medical treatments-which might prevent a stroke or heart attack-against his other survival costs.  For ‘Bob,’ however, the choices he confronts are choices he believes he must make on his own.

 

My fury with the system rose after my last discussion with ‘Bob.’  He, like millions of others, finds himself being squeezed on all ends and he also feels very much alone.  I asked him whether he had ever thought of unionizing his company.  He sighed and not surprisingly said that he wished that there was a union at the company.

 

But that was not quite answering my question.  There was no union at his company, so in order to get one, he and his co- workers would need to join together to form one. ‘Bob’ had not a clue about how to do this, which affected me as well, since it spoke volumes regarding the state of workers today and of the union movement.  Opinion polls over the last ten years have repeatedly noted that more than 50% of non-union workers would join or form a union or employee association if they could.  These workers generally do not do so because of:

 

(1) fear of employer retaliation, since employers regularly ignore the National Labor Relations Act [which gives workers the right to form or join unions], and

 

(2) the union movement is largely stuck and has not developed the internal political will, strategies and organizational forms to address workers like ‘Bob’, who fall into the category of being members of a growing unstable, insecure workforce.

 

The fact that ‘Bob’ is not alone in his experience should make it clear that a potential constituency of millions exists upon which a new union movement can be built.  Such a movement is necessary to address the issues of gross social and economic injustice people such as ‘Bob’ confront each day.  This cannot happen unless ‘Bob’s’ voice is part of shaping such a movement.  In other words, a service cannot be delivered to ‘Bob’.  Energy and organization can, however, be a vehicle for giving the millions of ‘Bobs’ [men AND woman] a megaphone to amplify their voices.

 

Each time I see ‘Bob’, I wonder whether it will be the last. On the one hand, he may leave his employer and engage in the horizontal job mobility of so many US workers:  going from one bad employer to another bad or semi-bad employer, but not really improving their overall economic situation.

 

On the other hand, I worry about ‘Bob’s’ health and whether he will have to continue this game of Russian roulette, where he is making the choice between blood pressure medicine and feeding his family.

 

Why should anyone have to make such a choice?

 

[BC Editorial Board member Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist who currently serves as a visiting professor at Brooklyn College-CUNY. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.]

 

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