We’re on the cusp, as a party, of moving into a supermajority in the government, and pushing the Republican party to becoming a strictly regionally-based minority. Of course, everyone remembers Karl Rove’s predictions of a permanent Republican majority, and how well that worked out. Certainly, there’s no hard assurance we won’t end up the same way.
The best way I can see to ensure that will happen is to “open the tent”- and including people of all political persuasions to join ranks with us. Moderates, independent voters, the conservative intelligentsia that was so thoroughly driven from the Republican party. The question is, however, how much are you willing to compromise to make that happen? And what will those areas be?
I am a former Republican. I was driven from the party for daring to dissent, for not toeing the party line and accepting things unquestioningly. For daring to suggest it’s not our damn business what goes on in people’s bedrooms; for railing against suggesting people were “pro-abortion”, and refusing to stop prostetylzing and do something to address the causes of the problem; for wondering why a wholesale attack on our civil liberties was needed to fight this intangible and unending “war on terror”.
I was labeled a great many things. Republican in Name Only! Baby killer! Liberal Kool-aid drinker! Commie! You know the names. All because I dared to not accept everything shoved down my throat. So I left the Republican party… and now I’m here. And there will continue to be people like me arriving at our doorstep, and wondering, where do I fit in with the Democratic party? Do I?
I can’t claim to know all those answers. But what I can do is help foster dialogue and understanding; to help you guys understand where I, and people like me, are coming from.
And the first issue in this series is on organized labor. Please keep an open mind; I’m not trying to be a concern troll. I’m trying to foster discussion, but I’ll be playing devil’s advocate more than one in the course of doing so.
For a long time, I felt like (and still do on this first part) that unions did important work getting us things like overtime, a 40-hour workweek, eight-hour days, et cetera. But the way I saw them was as bloated and corrupt… more concerned about power and the benefit of the union leaders than the members. Much like CEOs in that respect, anyway. UAW, probably the most maligned of all the unions, with their job bank that pays people for not working, or the fact $2000 of every GM car you buy is for the workers’ health insurance, employing secretaries and forcing union members to pass off letters to the secretary to re-write them before they can be sent, “It’s not my job!” and grevance filing if someone tries to sweep the floor of a safety hazard when the floor sweeper’s not there- things like that. Not to mention the bad press about the reactions that can occur when people don’t want to join unions, or may release bad press about the unions.
But guess what, folks- I never was a fan of Rush, or Hannity, or O’Reilly, or any of their ilk. I didn’t get that from the Republican party or right-wing talking points. It’s how my personal experiences and the way unions were presented to me shaped my vision of them.
Obviously, I recognize now that the CEO-level of our corporations are, by and large, corrupt and need to all be strung up. 600x the rate of an average worker- one CEO can provide the corruption, excess, and stupidity of a hundred bad unions. I think we can all agree on that, and most of my fellow former Republicans, moderates, and independents will, too. But a lot of them may carry opinions like this- well thought-out and sound in their mind. So railing on them for “right-wing propaganda spewing” isn’t going to change any hearts and minds.
The backstory on how I became to believe what I did stems from working for Home Depot, and from my father, who was an HR manager with a large manufacturing company that had union workers. The organization efforts I witnessed were at Home Depot stores. UFCW, I believe, was the union. And they were promising everything under the sun to our associates, talking about the possibility of job banks like at UAW, y’know, 20-dollar an hour lot tech and cashier jobs- and it seemed very much like they were trying to turn them against the managers. It got put down by our associates in a huge way, I think at least in part because of this. None of the Home Depot stores I worked at were dysfunctional; ours was no different. We were a family. By and large, the managers took care of the associates.
I was one of those managers. My employees were the most valuable thing I had, bar none, and any smart manager never forgets that, especially in the retail business. They were my family, too, because I sometimes saw them more than my real family! Heh. I was making $15 hourly, plus I had excellent benefits- indeed, I didn’t realize how good they were until I quit. Health, dental, 401(k), tuition reimbursement- I actually got about $6,000 from them for tuition reimbursement, and even part-time associates qualify for that. 80 hours of vacation a year, and 48 hours of sick time (actually, as I left I was just starting to accrue 120 hours of vacation and 72 sick). That’s standard for any hourly employee. I thought it was pretty good.
We had a corporate minimum wage of $8.00/hour, I believe, which means that the lowliest lot tech fresh out of high school got paid no less than that- and an automatic $.50 raise at 90 days. Hourly management pay scale ran from about $12 to $19.50, depending on your position. Head cashiers, freight team (stocking), made anywhere from $9-14. But we paid more for people who knew. I had a retired union electrician, and he got paid $22/hour to stock shelves and occasionally answer questions from customers, because he knew what the hell he was talking about. Another gal made $18/hour to mix paint for the same reason. More than me, but then I couldn’t redraw a circuit from memory, and pfft- I’m a guy, I only know about five or six different colors. We also bonused based off of store performance, called “success sharing”.
I thought it was a great system. Many people feel the same way. They’ve simply never had any association with unions, and have had great employment experiences- or, at least, nothing out of the ordinary, per se. So they don’t see unions as a necessity.
However, even then, I thought the people at places like Wal-Mart could be better off. I think Home Depot had a good system, and Wal-Mart’s, at the associate level, can’t touch Home Depot’s- or anyone’s, for that matter. I mean, I never get asked for help going into a Wal-Mart store, but we’ve been known to fire people who didn’t acknowledge customers at Home Depot. I’ve done it myself, and good riddens to them. That’s our entire edge on the business, is customer service. Hell, at Wal-Mart, you’re lucky the person knows where anything is.
I haven’t seen a Wal-Mart PNL statement, but I was intimately familiar with the ones at my Home Depot store, and I know how all the financials come together- margin, shrink, cost, and especially operational expenses, like payroll. We ran pretty close to the edge as far as profitability went, and Wal-Mart runs even closer. They make more money total than any other company in the world, but their net off that gross is comparatively tiny.
Now, that doesn’t excuse Wal-Mart from treating their associates better- I’m just trying to establish positions. Wal-Mart is one of the most efficiently run businesses in the country. Say what you want about their labor practices, their distribution and operational models can’t be touched by anyone. It saves them a lot of money, which is essential for their business model, obviously. But if they were to unionize, well, they wouldn’t be Wal-Mart anymore. You wouldn’t have the Everyday Low Prices. Which, actually, would be fine with me, I’d pay a little more to know that an American job was being provided for. But not everyone shares this sentiment.
The same with what I saw at Home Depot. I mean, you understand, we sell a lot of our merchandise at cost, or below even! Lumber is always sold below cost, period; most commodity items are. The reason we were fat, dumb, and happy for awhile was because during the housing boom, people would also be buying the super expensive appliances, window coverings, paint, etc, which we did actually make money on. Now, with the market, guess what? Nobody’s buying that stuff, they’re buying the stuff that I might have made a 5% margin on. And if I doubled the average non-management hourly Home Depot wage (which, when I was there, was somewhere around $11/hour or so), we’d go out of business. We’d never be able to compete with Lowe’s. Even if they followed suit, when the price of a 2×4 suddenly doubles, and follows across the board? At least consumer goods have some room to move up and people still buy them. Contractors won’t.
I thought I had a good deal. I never felt powerless. And I’d often scoff at the thought of unions. It’s easy to dismiss something you don’t understand.
What I do understand now, however, after a great deal of discussion with the people in this community, is that unions are the reason I didn’t have to work eleventy hours a week with no overtime; that I was able to take care of my baby girl, that I had health insurance to fall back on and rely on when she was born with complications; that the wages at Home Depot were likely so competitive (at least in a retail framework); so forth and so on. I don’t think anyone truly willing to discuss this issue honestly will disagree on that point.
That begs the question, though, why does it have to be the union framework that provides that? Yes, we owe a great deal to unions… so is that an excuse for not changing anything?
Are unions the best way to address these issues? I don’t really know the answer to that question. I’d say right now, yes, they obviously are in the structure we have set up. However, I don’t see them as perfect, shining models of collectivization, working in unison to protect workers’ rights- and that doesn’t tell me why we should be beholden to them for any other reason than “just because”. I’d like to see unions held accountable for their excesses, just as much as CEOs.
Now of course, as I mentioned earlier, if we look at the problem by proportion, unions are nowhere near the top. The current CEO of Chrysler, Bob Nardelli, used to be my boss at Home Depot. He negotiated a $200 million severance package BEFORE HE WAS HIRED, regardless of performance- and the company took a huge dive in the process. Now, he did fix some things that needed to be fixed (he crushed the “good old boy” network, made sure we were following federal HR practices, reigned in rampant corruption at the buying offices and normalized wages and raises), but for the love of God- $200 million dollars?
The current Home Depot CEO makes a comparative paltry $900,000 a year, with all bonuses and severance based on performance. That I’m okay with. A company the size and scope of Home Depot, I’m comfortable with that. Store managers make 75-125 thousand, I made 30 thousand or so, so he makes, what, thirty times what I did? That’s within the realm of acceptability. When it starts getting 300 or 3000 times that size, however… Hell, yeah, that 200 mill could’ve given everyone at Home Depot $500, or revamped a thousand breakrooms, or funded more tuition reimbursement, or put another 10,000 bodies on the floor for customer service?
And now he’s trying to blame his woes on unions. Bullshit, Bob. Unions may have their problems, but talk to me about running a shitty business model and paying yourself enough money to start your own space program first.
But this doesn’t excuse us from ignoring problems at our level, simply because they exist higher up. My biggest personal sticking points are things like secret ballots- sorry, I understand the point with having open elections and their benefits to unions, but a person’s vote is their own business, and nobody else’s. If we can’t organize without secret ballots, IMHO, it’s not worth being done.
Other things make me frown, too. I don’t like the thought of being forced to join a union to work for an employer; I just don’t like the principle of being forced to do something like that. I don’t like hearing the stories about “it’s not my job”, and job-banks like the ones at the Big Three, and union corruption. But I understand, cognitively, that those aren’t what define unions as a whole. While all of those things may exist and be excessive or unacceptable, it’s not taking in the whole picture.
But it’s going to take education and compromise to get over this issue. I posited some of these points over at DailyKos recently, just to try and see how well my lines of thought stood up to determined attack- and I suddenly became more sympathetic to the plight of the Clintonistas this spring. One of the frontpagers from Kos actually accused me of being racist (a “Dixiecrat”, even!); I was spewing right-wing propaganda, etc, etc. I think you all understand that’s not my intent here. But a great many of people responded passionately and intelligently, and helped me come to an even better understanding of this issue- and hopefully one that will help us convince the moderates and independents and former Republicans we’re the right side to join. A good thing, too. The atmosphere there became quickly toxic, and it’s clear that we have reactionary jerks on our side, too.
But like I said, it’s going to take compromise. So, let’s say EFCA comes to a vote, but it’s filibustered in the Senate. However, we can bring a few votes to our side if we strip out the “card check” provision. Is it worth the compromise to get through?
Or pointing to employers like Home Depot. Where did I have it bad? How could unions
How about on CEO salaries- we impose legislation for some sort of limit, but it’s coupled with an omnibus plane that would on put stricter provisions in place on union accountability, both to the union members and to the Government?
Or Flex Time. I originally thought Flex Time was a great idea- I don’t mind working 60 hours this week if I can work 20 the next- until I realized it would be at the company’s whim, not mine… and especially as a manager, I would be frequently get whipped around in this manner. So say passing Flex Time is part of a compromise, but in the guise of being at least partly employee-controlled?
And confronting people on issues like Wal-Mart. I know, sympathy for them is (rightly) low, but their business model does run on razor thin margins, and they do employ more people than almost the entire US military. Fiscal conservatives will probably use the same points I have illustrated here- that something drastic regarding their associates could end up having huge implications for them running their business, and as un-sorry as you feel about Wal-Mart, is that right to do, simply because they’re such a huge target?
My answer to that last question would be “universal health care”. If we can cover everyone, we can kill Wal-Mart’s, the Big Three, and a lot of other concern on the impact of benefit cost to these companies. If the government has to shoulder that load, then I personally think they had better own up to treating their employees better. But I digress- UHC needs another article like this one.
So, there you have it. Some idea of where I, and people like me, stand. Hopefully, this will help you see where we’re coming from, help you to open your eyes to our viewpoint, and decide where we can compromise to help get things accomplished.