What would you do if you were treated unfairly at work?

Many people in America are against the idea of sweatshop labor, which means that we are generally in favor of workers’ rights–we believe, for example, that workers should have breaks, that they should get paid if they work over and above a standard work week (if they’re on an hourly salary), that they should have a minimum wage to ensure a baseline standard of living.  Our worker protections aren’t that great, though; minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation for years, and many bosses find ways to get around paying for overtime–some even get around letting employees have breaks or meals.  What would you do if you were employed at a company that you felt was treating you unfairly–if they were not paying you enough for your services (like, you are a “supervisor” but you’re doing the job of a manager for less pay), if they were finding loopholes to make you work overtime for little or no extra pay, if they make you clock out for “breaks” and then make you keep working?  If you were at a job where you couldn’t get benefits even though they were promised, or where your benefits were being taken away?

I suppose the first step would be to complain to the next highest boss, if your immediate boss was causing the problem.  This could be very effective, but it could also be a company-wide policy.  What next?

You could look for another job.  If you have a nice nest-egg saved up, or your spouse has good benefits, you may have the freedom to pursue a different career; if you’re living check-to-check and your family relies on you for benefits, like many–if not most–working-class families, finding a new job isn’t always an attractive option or even a possible option.  If your kids need health care now, then leaving your job for another job where you may have to wait six months or more for your benefits to kick in just won’t work.  If your rent or mortgage can’t be paid during the transitional period, or groceries can’t be purchased, then starting a new job isn’t even an option.

You could hire a lawyer to represent you and work things out with your company.  If you have the money for that, it’s great; if not, well, that’s not even a viable option–not to mention that your employers will probably not look very kindly on you if you bring a lawyer into the mix, and you may lose that job anyway.

You could organize the other workers and go on strike or collectively demand that you stop being treated unfairly.  This does work, and it works for several reasons.   The first is that the power of many people is greater than the power of one person; one person can be fired, transferred, swept under the rug, shuffled around, be permanently put on hold, and unless one of the above options is a viable option, one person is simply forced to deal with it when they’re being mistreated at work.  I thoroughly believe, and I think most Americans would agree with me, that having to “put up with” being mistreated at work is un-American.  Many people who are organized, on the other hand, pose quite a problem.  If everyone quit, not only would it be a short-term disaster for productivity, but it would be a media sensation–the only replacements management may be able to get for those workers would be those who are desperate for any kind of job (although, in this economy, there are a lot more of those than usual, which has led to more workplaces treating their employees less well) and may or may not even be skilled enough to do the job.  The company would look bad, and some people may even boycott, causing them to lose profits–if they’re a government agency, the people in charge may not get re-elected, or the people who appointed them may not get re-elected, and the people in charge could lose their positions.  Many people can afford to hire lawyers and representatives where one person probably cannot alone.  Many people can come together and work out the most important priorities, where individual opinion may be completely unfocused.

Does this situation sound at all familiar?  I’m talking, of course, about unions.  Unions offer protection for working-class people who cannot otherwise afford protection.  Unions offer protection for those who are the most vulnerable to shady business practices–because People In Charge have proven time, and time, and time again that they can and will take advantage of their workforce in any way possible.  They have proven that they can and will skirt the law as much as possible, find loopholes in laws, and do everything in their power to turn the highest profit (or, in the government’s case, trim the budget as tightly as possible to make room for “more important” things than the workers or to look good for re-election).  Most who have a direct financial benefit from slashing employee wages and benefits will do so time and again, until they are literally compensating the absolute minimum amount that they can get away with; in my opinion, it’s a hugely one-sided conflict of interest, and that’s why unions are needed to step in and negotiate terms.  Who would you want to have deciding your pay scale–a person who will get more money for each dollar less that they pay you?

Take Wal-Mart, for example.  Wal-Mart promises fantastic benefits if you come to work for them–health care, the whole nine yards.  When you go to work for them, though, it’s a different story–it can take one to two years for benefits to kick in, and only full-time workers qualify for some benefits; a mere 25% of people working at Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the U.S., is a full-time worker.  Wal-Mart also won’t let workers unionize.  (Hmmm, wonder why not.)  Why don’t people who work at Wal-Mart just go get better jobs?  For one thing, it’s extremely classist to assume that people who work at Wal-Mart have the qualifications, or should have the qualifications, to get “better jobs.”  Until college becomes required to everyone and/or free like high school, some people will not have the education or qualifications to get better jobs because they don’t want to go or they can’t afford to go.  And, it doesn’t really matter, honestly, if they do or not–Wal-Mart will find people to replace those few people who have enough qualifications and skills to move on to better jobs, and the consumer demand for Wal-Mart workers is so high that there will always be jobs to be had there.  We as consumers create a need for jobs at Wal-Mart, despite the fact that the working conditions are less than desirable.  As long as Wal-Mart is able to hire unskilled labor and as long as we shop there and create a need for cheap labor, there will be workers with crappy working conditions.

For people who do go out and get “better jobs,” many times, those jobs are better because of unions, whether workers are unionized or not.  Union jobs are good jobs; they’re negotiated to be fair, and they help keep the industry more balanced.  A non-union job can only afford to go so much lower than union jobs to get quality workers; otherwise, they will only get the cast-offs who didn’t get hired on for a union job.  Very rarely, a non-union company that has very high ethical standards will have the same effect on an industry.  Starbucks was one of the first service industry companies to offer health insurance to part-time employees.  They offer stock options and other benefits if you work 20 hours a week or more.  Slowly but surely, similar companies are following suit and offering better working conditions for employees.  But companies like Starbucks, who do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing, are few and far between.  Without unions, many employers would be cutting more and more corners, everywhere they could, to save a few dollars at the workers’ expense.  With unions, they are unable to do that nearly as much.

Governor Kasich in Ohio and Governor Walker in Wisconsin have been trying to diminish the unions for government employees.  Why?  According to Cincinnati.com, “Proposed legislation that would significantly alter Ohio’s collective bargaining law could create jobs and enhance the state’s economic competitiveness by saving hundreds of millions of dollars now being spent due to generous union contracts, Gov. John Kasich said in Cincinnati today.”  This is total bollocks, because the only things that create more jobs are government projects that spend tax money (a major one was the intercity railway that Kasich put the kibosh on) and consumer demand where we spend our money; cutting government spending does squat toward creating jobs, and will probably make the economy leaner.  A business doesn’t hire people if they don’t have a need to, period, so this is an asinine reason to gut the unions.  Governor Walker wants to completely abolish the employee unions for “budget cuts.”  Walker even lied, claiming that taxpayers are responsible for paying government employee pensions (they aren’t, Forbes.com is the source), and said “. . . we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”  Is he joking?  I know that, in Ohio, most government employees have been receiving leaner and leaner benefits, being forced to take unpaid days off, all in the name of balancing the budget; many government employees make less than $50,000 a year, some far less.  Do you know any highly-paid teachers?  How ’bout bus drivers? No? Cops? Firemen? No? Government employees generally don’t live in the laps of luxury (unless you’re, oh, I don’t know, a governor or a senator), and we all know that. Public employees the “haves”?  Are they joking?

No, they’re not joking–and they’re doing their level best to cut their state budgets on the backs of the state workers.  We can’t buy into their misdirection, though.  They’re not trying to trim the budget to “create jobs,” they’re not trying to make sure public employees “pull their own weight.”  They’re trying to look good so they can get re-elected and get campaign contributions, or possibly get elected to the senate–or maybe even run for President.  That’s what they care about.  They do not care about workers, and most people in America are workers–in fact, the working and middle classes of America probably have the greatest spending power in the world, and we have the biggest voting power in the country.  It’s time that we put aside silly political games and started supporting each other.  If you wouldn’t want protections taken away from you at your job, please get behind the state workers whose protections are being threatened.  It’s them now, but it could be us next.  If you live in Ohio or Wisconsin–I’m an Ohio resident, myself–let your governor know that you won’t stand for them preying on those who can’t protect themselves for their own gain.

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2 Comments on “What would you do if you were treated unfairly at work?”

  1. call guy says:

    I work in a non-unionised call centre in the UK. Previously I had worked in a highly-unionised company.

    The contrast between the two is amazing and I can testify that non-union firms find it much easier to stretch or even break employment law and target individuals. Currently my employers are trying to force us to work an amount of unpaid time which is truly shocking, but nobody feels they have the power to stand up to them.

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