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My Turn: Fighting inequality through unionization, collective action

  • MARK



Thursday, April 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of seven op-ed essays written by authors with local ties that will explore why inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity are bad for Franklin County and what the community can do about it.​​​​​​

 

Almost immediately after I turned 20 years old, I realized I was not going to be able to return to college next semester. I couldn’t afford to be there any more. I couldn’t afford the price of the tuition, the fees, or the books without taking out student loans, and I knew I couldn’t afford to rack up the student debt I would need to keep my education going. Even beyond the price of a college education itself, I could no longer afford to live without working a full-time job. I couldn’t afford the gas I needed for my car. I couldn’t afford to live on my own, and I didn’t want to burden my parents any longer.

So, I put my degree on hold, unsure if I would ever be able to go back to school, and very uncertain of what my future would hold. I started looking for work and soon began working full-time. First at a job making minimum wage, and then at a job making a slightly higher wage rate but in a position classified as temporary.

Then, my life changed. A month before my 21st birthday, I was hired by the telephone company, Bell Atlantic at the time and soon thereafter renamed Verizon.

I immediately signed up to become a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), a labor union dedicated to improving the working conditions of its members. The pay rate at the phone company was low to start, but we had a contract that promised fairly distributed step raises, equal pay for equal work, paid health care benefits, a pension plan, paid days off, and even a tuition assistance plan for employees. I learned my job quickly, and I learned it well because I wanted to be sure I did not lose this great opportunity. The possibility of future success meant I needed to dedicate myself to my work and to serving our customers well.

After working at the company for over two years, I was finally ready to resume my college studies. I was now an employee with permanent status and eligible for the company tuition assistance plan. I was also mature and responsible enough at that point to take my schoolwork very seriously, since my labor was paying for my tuition and my free time was dedicated to my classwork. Over the next eight years I completed five college degrees — associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, law, and doctoral degrees — and I did it without amassing any student debt and while maintaining a perfect attendance record while working full-time at Verizon. I had always had the talent, the passion, and the desire to pursue and succeed in a college environment. But without the financial means and this amazing opportunity, none of it might have happened.

Along my journey working, going to school and being involved in my union, I realized that the opportunity I needed to succeed did not happen by accident. It happened because my co-workers — from the CEO down to the newest employee at the company — worked together for mutual aid and advantage. My co-workers helped ensure that the company was successful. We worked hard to serve our customers well and because of that hard work, the financial rewards for the company were significant. But we also joined a union so that we could bargain collectively and ensure that the rewards of our labor were available to all employees, not just those at the top.

When my co-workers went on strike, they did so at their own peril. They risked their own positions, went without pay for weeks or sometimes even months at a time, and withstood the fear and uncertainty of a strike so that others like me would have opportunity. When we bargained together, we weren’t competing with each other for small advantages, we were ensuring that everybody who worked at our company was going to share in the rewards. That made us better workers, too.

We demanded proper safety standards on the job and avoided costly shortcuts. We realized we had a good future at our company and we did everything we could to not lose those jobs, including doing everything possible to keep our company successful and profitable. When everybody shares in the profits, when inequality is eliminated, everybody has a motivation to do their best and to push your co-workers to do better as well.

Unions, worker co-operatives and employee ownership in so many different forms can help to eliminate income inequality and create avenues for all stakeholders to share opportunity and success. Collective bargaining and organizing for mutual aid and protection ensures a level playing field and creates the opportunity for workers of all stripes to have an open and productive dialogue. Management and non-management employees have the same mission and the same goals, and being treated fairly as partners in an organization helps remove the obstacles to accomplishing those goals.

When union membership was higher in the United States, wages and standards of living were also higher and the wealth inequality gap was much lower than it is today.

The only things we truly possess in this lifetime are our labor, our time and our personalities. Therefore, it only makes sense that anyone who works full-time and gives their best at their job should have the opportunity to succeed. Nobody who has the talent, the passion and the desire to pursue an education should be denied because of financial reasons. For me and for many others, the pathway out of poverty was there because I belonged to a union. I continue working hard today to champion these values, to make sure others have that same opportunity to succeed now and in the future.​​​​​​

 

Paul Mark is the State Representative for the 2nd Berkshire District and Chair of the House Committee on Redistricting. He is also a dues-paying member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.