dorothy.jpg“It’s economic Armageddon!” Roll over workers!

This economic downturn has yet to hit the dire levels of the severe slump in the early 1980s, but that’s not keeping employers from gouging every little bit out of their workforces.

Unions are being forced to give in to unprecedented concessions. Many workers at all levels are being asked to take chunks of time off without pay, a process known as furloughs. And for many employees the money they’ll have to chip in for health care will hit record amounts this year.

But such cuts didn’t work in the 1980s, why do people think they’ll work now.

Here’s an excerpt from an article on union concession from 1989 in the New York Times:

Job security replaced wage increases in the 1980’s as the top contract goal of many American labor unions. But with the decade almost over, the unions have had precious little success in winning employment guarantees.

Unions have repeatedly found themselves forced to make wage concessions to prevent companies from laying off workers or closing plants. Trying to get more mileage out of these concessions, many unions have sought explicit job guarantees, usually without success.

As a result, manufacturing workers have seen their wage increases sharply curtailed, while business has generally preserved a free hand to lay off workers to cut costs and protect profits, many labor and business experts say.

Today, it’s hard not to take these cuts without a smile, say many economists and business gurus, because the alternative is the unemployment line. But I wonder how much of this is fear tactics to get workers to give up even more than they have already done over the past two decades.

Sometimes it seems things are not as bad as they seem.

While all these companies begging the government for a bailout were supposedly falling into financial abyss, the top executives at many of these firms were acting like everything was just dandy.

Merrill Lynch paid out $3.6 billion in bonuses late last year while the government was crafting plans for the financial services firm to be bought by Bank of America. Also, we all know the endless stories of executives at a host of companies heading to lavish company retreats at a time when they’re laying off thousands. And who could forget the auto industry CEOs heading to Washington in private jets while they were crying poverty to their workers and the nation.

Rank and file workers, as in any economic downturn, take the brunt of the financial hit. That’s just the way it’s always been.

But workers everywhere should not walk blindly into the recessionary buzz saw.

If your employer decides to cut your benefits, retirement, health insurance, etc., it might be a good time to look at what you were promised when you were hired. Do you have anything in writing that states you would get certain perks as part of your job? Also, there is nothing to keep a group of workers from calling a meeting and asking for managers to explain exactly why certain cuts are going to be made and whether there are ways to do other belt tightening that wouldn’t hurt workers at much.

As for furloughs, they seem to be all the rage right now as company after company do the copy cat thing and impose them whether they are necessary or not. It’s a great boost the firm’s bottom line but employees need to know their rights. Hourly workers can be furloughed under existing labor laws, but that doesn’t mean you work off the clock to make up for the time off. Some supervisors will want you to do that, even encourage you to do so, but you guys need to stand up for yourselves. If you’re afraid, you should approach managers as a group. Put a call into your local department of labor and know what your rights are in your state.

Also, firms just can’t keep furloughed salaried employees, according to the Department of Labor. If you’re asked to take unpaid time off more than one week during a year I’d call the labor department ASAP.

And unions have to stand by their guns during negotiations because so many of these firms squeezing workers will still be around in 25 years and good luck getting back what you’ve giving back.

We all need to start acting like there will be life after this recession. I remember the downturn of the early 1980s. It also seemed like we would never recover. Well, we did?

In the recent United Auto Worker talks for Ford Motor Company, the union may be taking more of a future view than many of us are.

One of the key concessions they made was accepting stock contributions instead of cash into the union’s retirement health care fund. That means the union leadership is banking on Ford being around for a long time. If it goes belly up, the stock will be worthless.

Many people want us to think it’s the end of the world economically, but in reality, according to most economists I’ve talked to, it’s not. It’s bad for many individuals, but the majority of people have job and the majority of companies are profitable.

If we all live like it’s our last night on earth, we’re all going to end up with a killer of a hangover.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems by Dorothy Parker:

–The Flaw In Paganism–

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)

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