I read the other day that Matthew Haller, with the International Franchise Association, thinks fast-food worker protests are a “blatant pretext” for organizing a workers association, commonly called a union. In his world, franchise owners can form and speak through an association, but the workers who make their franchises profitable cannot.
Strange world, that. Later in the same article, some nameless person with the National Restaurant Association preaches that, instead of focusing on unionization and higher wages, workers should focus on getting an “education that leads to higher paying jobs.” Do tell.
Contrary to Mr. Haller and that other person, I believe unions are a good thing. Working my way through college and law school, I belonged to two unions. In the late 1960s, while attending University of Missouri-Kansas City, I worked nights on the railroad as a member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.
Later, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I worked as a Teamster on a UPS loading dock. I financed my education with union jobs. My coworkers — one I remember from the railroad was a single mother — actually supported families on their wages.
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They bought refrigerators, cars and houses built by other union workers, following the path set by Henry Ford when he decided in 1914 to pay his workers a living wage. Workers paid a living wage buy goods and services and support families. It is that simple.
But somewhere along the line, we strayed from the path. At some point, “union” became a bad word. It may have been when the “greed is good” mantra of the mid-1980s took hold, and it became fashionable for corporate raiders to buy a company, shortchange the workers, sell the assets and pocket the profit.
Since then, helping the less fortunate has given way to sneering at them and blaming them for their misfortune. Then, for good measure, we increase our fortunes at their expense.
Witness the proliferation of payday, title, installment and other kinds of lenders that drain the lifeblood out of the working poor with triple-digit interest, while we look the other way, should we even happen to notice it. We blame the poor for not getting an education, even as we consign them to substandard schools and price higher education well beyond their reach.
We give them for-profit schools that play on their hopes in selling them expensive and worthless degrees, leaving them drowning in debt — a debt we make hard to get rid of in bankruptcy. Some education.
Oh, there are some who cheat others that get noticed. We get worked up over Bernie Madoff, who had the audacity to take from folks with means. When we think of those folks who lost their means, we are frightened of losing ours.
But we don’t think about, say, Vanessa Jackson, a recently divorced mother of three. Upon finishing her full shift at a cafeteria, she boards a bus to her second job at Burger King.
Her low wages mean sacrificing time with her children to make ends meet, a predicament no parent should have to face. But more importantly, her family's predicament is not an uncommon one that steals from too many American children a fair shot at the future.
That’s why Ms. Jackson has joined with fast-food workers in Kansas City, seeking higher wages and the right to organize an association, err, a union, without retaliation. Is that really such a bad thing, Mr. Haller?
Dale Irwin of Kansas City is a lawyer with the law firm of Slough Connealy Irwin & Madden. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.