Grit Nation

The War on Unions - Mark McDermott

January 17, 2021 Mark McDermott Season 1 Episode 4
Grit Nation
The War on Unions - Mark McDermott
Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode we discuss organized labor movements in America and why it is so important for UBC carpenters to develop and appreciate the storied history of our organization.  

Without knowing how we got to where we are, many may find it easy to undervalue the vast amount of blood, sweat and tears that were spilled in achieving the benefits we all enjoy as union members today. 

Countless hours devoted to organizing and negotiating campaigns often go unseen and unappreciated by the vary members whose lives they mean to better.  

Worse yet, many union members see it as someone else’s responsibility to do the heavy lifting necessary to protect our organization from the endless onslaught of attacks from big monied interest determined to destroy our way of life.  

Sadly, they do not understand the true strength of our organization, is its members. 

Our ability to command livable wages, healthcare benefits for ourselves and our families, access to training, safer working conditions, representation and the prospect of retirement with dignity, fall upon our collective shoulders to protect for future generations of carpenters to come. 

Today’s guest will share insight on the many hardships and successes, labor unions have endured over the decades, while paving the way towards a strong middle-class America, and how quickly our way of life can be disastrously altered if we don’t keep our eyes on the future. 

Mark McDermott is a lifelong supporter of organized labor and public presenter who has given over 450 talks on the history of organized labor movements and the long struggle for economic and social justice in our country. 

We’ll start our conversation by delving into why, now more than ever, we need strong labor unions.

Next, we’ll look into what attacks are being made on unions and who is responsible for these attacks. 

Mark will later explain the importance of member involvement in politics and how vital it is in maintaining the balance of wealth in America. 

And we will end our conversation by giving you the information needed to join the fight in protecting your future as a professional craftsperson.

Show Notes

http://www.markmmcdermott.com/

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https://www.nwcarpenters.org/
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Joe Cadwell :

Welcome to another episode of grit Northwest. I'm Joe Cadwell, President of the Northwest carpenters Union, the writer, producer and your host of this podcast. The aim of the show is to introduce you to the various personalities that make up the construction industry in our region. Through informative and insightful interviews, I hope to help you develop a stronger understanding of what it means to be a member of the carpenters union, and how you can become a proud guardian of the deep and rich legacy that those who came before us work so hard to build from leadership development and training to politics and organizing. My goal is to engage, educate and energize you to take charge of your future. Today's episode we discuss organized labor movements in America and why it is so important for UBC carpenters to develop and appreciate the storied history of our organization. Without knowing how we got to where we are many may find it easy to undervalue the vast amount of blood, sweat and tears that were spilled in achieving the benefits we all enjoy as union members today. Countless hours devoted to organizing and negotiating campaigns often go unseen and unappreciated by the very members whose lives they are meant to better. Worse yet, many union members see it as someone else's responsibility to do the heavy lifting necessary to protect our organization, from the endless onslaught of attacks from big moneyed interests determined to destroy our way of life. Sadly, they do not understand the truth strength of our organization is in its members, our ability to command livable wages, health care benefits for ourselves and our families. access to training, safer working conditions representation, and the prospect of retirement with dignity fall upon our collective shoulders to protect for our generation and future generations of carpenters to come. Today's guest will share insight on the many hardships and successes labor unions have endured over the decades, while paving the way towards a strong middle class America, and how quickly our way of life can be disastrously altered if we don't keep our eyes on the future. Mark McDermott is a life long supporter of organized labor and public presenter who has given over 450 talks on the history of organized labor movements, and the long struggle for economic and social justice in our country. We'll start our conversation by delving into why now more than ever, we need strong labor unions in America. Next, we'll look into what attacks are being made on unions and who is responsible for these attacks. Mark will later explain the importance of member involvement in politics and how vital it is to maintaining the balance of wealth in America. And we will end our conversation by giving you the information needed to join the fight and protecting your future. As a professional craftsperson. After the show, be sure to check out the Episode Notes to find out more about mark and his message. And now on to the show.

Mark McDermott :

Welcome to the show, Mark. Thank you, Joe. It's great to be here.

Joe Cadwell :

Well, Mark, I've seen you speak before and all admit I'm a fan. I i'm sure our listeners are going to benefit from your experience and insight. So let's get things started off by understanding how you became such a passionate advocate for workers rights.

Mark McDermott :

Let me start with two quick stories. They're very personal. When I was 12, and my father was 56. He lost his job. He never got steady work again. We went from being working class to being very poor. I was growing up in a very racist, all white working class neighborhood, you know, industrial neighborhood. And a lot of the people in the neighborhood said the reason we were having a hard time was because black folk were lazy and we're taking our jobs. And I was trying to understand, well, a black folk were lazy, why would they be taking our jobs? This doesn't make any sense to me. Well, by the time I'm 15 years old, I'm sleeping in an unheated garage for three years, I become what is called today and at risk youth that is I caused a tremendous amount of trouble in my high school, but I had very good grades, so they didn't expel me. And I desperately wanted to go to college because I wanted to get a new start in life. But we had absolutely no money. And I was freaked out about how is this going to work? Well through the help of a teacher who was a union member and a public servant. She helped me connect up with a small college in Illinois, and they gave me basically full financial aid for four years to go to college. And when I went there, I soon discovered that most of my financial aid came from the federal government. And I wondered, well, where did these programs come from? That provided me with this opportunity of a lifetime. And it turned out that it was organized labor and the civil rights movement, and educators who joined together to lobby Congress to open up higher education to low income kids regardless of the color of their skin. Well, you can't see me but I'm jokingly what is referred to as an Irish pasty boy. I'm really white, very pale. And I'm a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement and that realization When I was 20 years old really changed the direction of my life. And then I understood is that don't fall into this racist trap. Don't listen to people talking about hating other people find our common ground. And if we work together, we can make things better for all of us. So that was that was lesson number one. And that set me off on a life of activism and both out in the community, but also in the labor movement. And the second story is I'm in my early 30s. I'm a working machinist. I'm in a heavy manufacturing plant in suburban Seattle. I'm on the executive board in my 4000 member, machinists, local, and life is good, I'm building a pension, I'm saving money to buy a house, I got good medical, good dental good wages, life is good. And one day I went to work on a Friday morning, and out of the blue, there's an announcement over the PA system in the plant, that we were supposed to put down our tools and assemble in the largest room in the plant. This was extremely unusual. So we all we all put our tools down, we troop into this room. And here's the owner, and there's some suits, guys weren't suits. And the owner then announces that he sold a company and one of the conditions of the sale is we're all terminated as a 330. This is like dropping an economic bomb on us. Well, an argument broke out. And since I was the top union official, I was still on the tools. But you know, in the plant, you know, in the ensuing argument I was asking are the new owners going to recognize the union, and it became pretty clear that they were going to try and get rid of us. So long story short, by the end of the day, all of us had been fired, we'd been marched out into the parking lot with our toolboxes. And the fight was on to save our union and hopefully get our jobs back. I was never rehired, our union was broken. I spent 15 months out of work, exhausted my unemployment benefits. I lost my medical, my dental, my vision, all of the benefits that I got that the Union had negotiated. Because I had worked in such a long time. I ran out of unemployment benefits, I had to move in with friends because I couldn't pay the bills. And I didn't buy a house because nobody was going to loan money to somebody who had been out of work. Well, it took 15 months for me to find another job, I left the trade, I lost six years on a pension. And I swore that day, I would never shut up and never stop fighting for organized labor and working people until I'm dead. And I'm still at it 38 years after that union bust. And I'm out spreading what I call the union Gospel to folks all over the country to say we need a strong labor movement, we have labor rights, they're under constant attack. And if we don't stand up individually and collectively, don't think what happened to me can happen to you. That's why I've been an activist for 50 plus years now.

Joe Cadwell :

So understanding that you have experienced firsthand marked the effects of union busting and have educated yourself on the subject. Can you please elaborate for our listeners on who is responsible for these attacks on the working class? And why would they jeopardize our ability to provide for ourselves and our families?

Mark McDermott :

Let me start with a quote from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The labor movement was the principal force the transformed misery and despair into open progress. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation. In fact, they resisted until they were overcome. Dr. King is accurate in that statement. And I want to emphasize that it was the labor movement that was the principal force to make things better. And the millionaires and the billionaires weren't leading this fight to make things better for working people. As he said, they were resisted until we defeated them and won a set of victories. So imagine an America without any of the following the right organize a union and bargain collectively, to a right to a healthy and safe workplace. Workers Compensation, unemployment insurance, eight hours a day, five days a week, overtime pay, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, public assistance for poor families, food stamps for low wage workers and the poor, free public schools, increased access to higher education and equal treatment under the law. Imagine in America with none of those. That's what our country looked like 90 years ago, when organized labor was very weak. And we didn't have strong ties, with community allies working together to say we're going to build a better America. organized labor with our community. allies won every one of those important rights and benefits that lays the foundation for a strong and healthy, middle class and working class. But in doing so, it cuts into the profits of big corporations in the wealthy and the powerful and quite frankly, they don't like it. So if they can weaken the labor movement, or literally drive it out as they did, where I was working, their profits can go up. They can allow working kishin conditions to deteriorate. In the end, their employees have no effective voice on the job to say, ah, we don't deserve to be treated that way. And we're going to stand up and demand fairness in the workplace, and in a larger community. So simply put, most of corporate america and their political allies see organized labor correctly as the largest and strongest movement that keeps them from completely dominating economic and political life in the United States.

Joe Cadwell :

So if I understand you correctly, it's simple greed that drives these large corporations run by multimillionaires and billionaires to attack the livelihoods of the working class men and women across this country. And aside from buying a company straight out and firing all its employees, as they did in your case, what are some other ways these attacks occur?

Mark McDermott :

Well, there are right to work laws, a right to work law, which was started in 1945. by a man by the name of Vance muse, who was an extreme racist, who basically was saying that he had have to convince white workers, that they cannot be allies with workers of color, particularly black workers. And if we do so we can weaken the labor movement. And so in 1947, when the Taft Hartley Act was passed, they put in a clause that said, states can have a right to work laws. Well, what is the right to work law, it essentially says that even if you have a union contract with an employer, you cannot require everybody there to join the union, and to pay union dues. But they'll get the same rights, they'll get the same wages, they'll get the same benefits. And if they get in trouble with the employer, they can say to the union official, you need to represent me and defend me in in this dispute I'm having and if the union official says no, I won't do it, because you're not a member, and you won't pay dues. That worker can go hire a lawyer and sue the union. for failure to represent even though they don't pay dues, and they don't, and they're not members. It's hard to imagine if you don't know about this issue, that this is, in fact, true and legal in, in the majority of the states at this point. So in a state like Idaho, which is right to work, when they passed right to work, the labor movement was deeply weakened and deeply wounded. Because, well, why should I pay dues? And why should I join the union, I'm going to get the same thing anyway. And there are all sorts of tactics that they that employers can use to intimidate their workers into not voting for a unit. And I want to give you a specific example. It's called captive meetings. It is legal under federal law for an employer to say to an employee, I want you to come in the office, and I want to talk to you about why this union is a bad idea. Really, what businesses that have, you'd be telling me who I should vote for in a secret ballot election to determine if I want a union to represent me to advance my economic self interest? They can legally require you to attend those meetings. Can you imagine if they had if they did that for the presidential election and said, Come in the office, I want to tell you about who you should be voting for for President. Well, the intimidation, you know, it really is nice having you working here. We've been great partners these for many years. And, boy, I sure hope that if the union gets in here that we don't have to lay people off for or maybe even close the place. So they use fear and intimidation and threats. Some of which are legal, some of which are not, not legal. But they also resort to illegal firings. And even if you get your job back, there's not punitive damages for it. So let's say there's 200 workers trying to organize in a place and they fire the three leaders. Everybody else gets nervous, like oh my god They got those three guys or gals. They may get their job back 18 months or two years later, what do they survive on in the meantime. And the best they get is their job back and their Back Bay. But there's no punitive damages. So there's not really that much of a downside for employers systematically, trampling on their rights and intimidating workers who want to join a union. Those are just some of the methods that are used to make it more difficult to unionize. Even though as of this month, the Gallup, the National Gallup poll showed that 65% of the American people, when asked a simple question, do you approve of unions said yes, it's tied for the highest it's been in the last 50 years. So the sentiment and the feelings of the American people toward unions is growing better and stronger. But the intimidation and fear makes it hard to win a union election and get a first contract.

Joe Cadwell :

And if I can surmise market sounds like if I understand correctly, corporations with very deep pockets are using politicians and legislation that has its roots from the 40s that was based in racism to oppress today's workers in modern day America.

Mark McDermott :

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Joe Cadwell :

So as a union member, what can we do about these attacks? How do we combat large corporations unimaginable amounts of money that are being pumped into politics to how do unions push back against something like that?

Mark McDermott :

Well, we have an election coming up on November 3. And that election is going to determine whether or not we have a president and a congress that is pro union, and pro worker or not. So I would say to everybody who's listening, make sure you're registered, make sure you know the issues, and then go out and vote. Now, I'm not here to tell you who to vote for but I got to read a direct quote from a man by the name of Donald Trump. He was a candidate for president at the time. He said this on February 17 2016, in North Charleston, South Carolina, outside of the non union Boeing plant, he said, and I quote, I can live with unions in certain locations. But I like right to work. My position on right to work is 100%. Now what was going on at the time, that he says this, the machinist union at Boeing here in the Puget Sound area was fighting with Boeing over them, you know, breaking union contracts and breaking federal laws around labor rights. And they have been shifting work from unionized Puget Sound down to non union, South Carolina. Now, there are members of the carpenters union who worked for union contractors that helped build new facilities maintain facilities in the unionized Boeing plants here in the Puget Sound area. As they move more and more work to Nan union, South Carolina. That means that members of your union will directly lose work. So this isn't some abstract issue, it will directly affect your members. And they're currently talking about potentially closing down one of the major production lines that is using union workers here and moving that entire production line down to North Charleston, which is their non union plant in South Carolina, which has the weakest labor movement of any state in the United States. And I say to everybody, you better know who stands with you and who stands against you and go to the ballot box and be counted.

Joe Cadwell :

So Mark with an understanding that the UBC is a nonpartisan organization that chooses to endorse those candidates that have the best interest of workers rights in mind. It seems way like we have a disproportionate track record of supporting candidates from the Democratic Party. Is that your understanding as well?

Mark McDermott :

Yes, absolutely.

Joe Cadwell :

And why would you say that is?

Mark McDermott :

Well, to be blunt, I think that the republican party at the national level for sure, is largely bought, sold and paid for by Powerful corporate interests. And let me let me give you a specific example. Many of your members here in the Pacific Northwest and across the country working on federal federally funded projects, and they probably know that there is a federal law called federal Davis bacon, which is the prevailing wage law, which is designed to uphold area labor standards, wages and benefits and working conditions on public and federally funded projects. Some states like Washington, Oregon also have state, little Davis bacon laws, as they're called. In 2017, the Republican Party in the US House, put a bill up and put a vote on floor to repeal the federal Davis bacon law. Okay, it was defeated because some Republicans broke ranks. Although the vast majority of the Republican members of the House voted for it, some republicans did not. If they had been successful, and they had got it through the US, Senate and President trumpet signed it. Because that was one of the national planks of the Republican Party, repealing Davis bacon. All of your members who used to work on federal projects that were protected by prevailing wage would no longer have that protection. And that means that, you know, contractors would come in and grossly underbid and drive down the wages and then put union contractors at a severe disadvantage in bidding on work. All of a sudden, a whole bunch of your members find themselves out of work. Well, what happened? Oh, well, they repeal prevailing wage, Oh, really? Well, I guess elections do matter. Now we beat them. But the federal to use an example of the courts, who's being appointed to the courts, anti union judges. In 2018. After two appointments by President Trump, of Cavanaugh and Gorsuch, they issued a five four decision called the Janis case that created right to work in all 50 states, for all public employees state and local boom. And it immediately took effect. There was not one change in the US Constitution, there was one change in federal law. They overturn decisions that had been in place for decades. And all of a sudden, millions of union members found themselves with union contracts that had been voluntarily bargained. Those clauses about union security, we're being tossed out the window. Politics matter, and who gets appointed to these judges matter. They could come along and say, we think that federal Davis bacon is unconstitutional and repeal it through the Supreme Court. And if I was working for the other side, that's what I would be trying to do. And then everybody wakes up one day and what, Oh, my gosh, we don't have prevailing wage anymore. And federal projects. Hmm. And our contractors just lost a bunch of bids. And now we're out of work. Wait, none of the union hall for work?

Joe Cadwell :

So if there was a repeal of Davis bacon, in Oregon and Washington, it seems like it would put our union contractors at a severe disadvantage against the non union competition. Basically, it would be a seems like it would be a race to the bottom for workers wages.

Mark McDermott :

Right? Yeah. If they repealed federal the federal prevailing wage on federal jobs right now union and non union contractors have to pay their workers the same wages and benefits at least the same wages and benefits as the prevailed rate, you know, in various jurisdictions in the state of Washington, okay. Now, the union contractor also assigned a union contract saying you will pay your workers X dollars plus y dollars worth of benefits when prevailing wage goes away. Now a non union contractor can come in they don't have to pay their workers the same prevailed rate and a union contractors looking at that going how in the world am I going to bid on this job? So he either he or she won't bid. Or they'll come back to the union and go, Hey, if we're going to stay in business, we need you guys to take a $15 an hour pay cut, but we're not going to do that. Okay, well, that's good. But then I'm not bidding on any of these federal jobs anymore. So I'm not, I'm not going to be, you know, we won't have any of that work, and you won't be working for me in federal jobs.

Joe Cadwell :

So the actions that we take at the ballot box seem to have direct consequences on our ability to provide for ourselves and our families.

Mark McDermott :

Absolutely, absolutely. And one of the things that I think is so important in these elections, I want to read you a couple of quotes. One is from a man named Paul white rich, who was one of the architects of this decades long, what I call corporate war on working people. And he said in 1980, elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting population goes down. That is a direct quote. And you know, he works. He's not dead, but he worked for the Heritage Foundation, which was funded by powerful right wing anti union billionaires. Now, he's basically saying, We don't want people to vote. So if we can discourage people from voting, either by making it more difficult to vote, which is called voter suppression, or we can convince them that it doesn't make any difference. Well, let me address the last point first. Well, it doesn't make any difference whether I vote because they're all a bunch of lying, cheating scumbags. Anyway, this is something that I hear frequently. And then I respond, okay, if all politicians at all times are a lying, cheating, dirtbags. Then how did we get the right to form a union? How did we get the right to a safe workplace? How did we get workers compensation, unemployment insurance, eight hours a day, five days a week, Social Security, Medicare, and so on and so forth. All of those were passed through Congress, by elected officials who were sufficiently pro union and pro worker that we won those historic victories that still give us enormous benefits today. So they couldn't have all been lying scum bags. That makes no sense. And so if people get that in their head, and they don't vote, they play right into the hands of people like Paul white, he says, Hey, you fools. Don't vote, it doesn't make any difference. And let me contrast why Rich's quote, with a beautiful quote from Gloria Steinem. She says, the voting booth is the one place on earth where the least powerful and the most powerful are equal. Okay? Because a billionaire gets one vote, and a minimum wage worker gets one vote. There's a heck of a lot more workers and a heck of a lot more low wage workers than there are billionaires. And if we stand up as working people and united and say we want to elect pro worker, pro union, pro people, pro fairness, elected officials, we will overwhelm the money of the rich and the powerful, but we have to believe that we can do that and our vote matters. I hope I'm being clear here. We can't fall into the trap of our vote doesn't make any difference. History proves that wrong. And we need to do it again right now.

Joe Cadwell :

So Mark, a few years ago, I saw you speak live and you had this really, really inspirational quote about the importance of carpenters understanding their history, and I was hoping you might be able to recite that for our our listeners.

Mark McDermott :

Yes, there was an American philosopher named George Santayana in 1936, made this famous quote, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who did not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. So let me further amplify what Mr. santiana said, if we don't know our history, then we're likely to repeat a whole bunch of mistakes that that our ancestors have already made. If we have an incorrect or incomplete understanding of our history, then we're also very likely to repeat their mistakes as well. What I do know is that I have done workshops and trainings in 28 states for over 30,000 people. And the vast majority of the attendees acknowledge that They've learned virtually nothing about labor history when they were in public school and when they were in high school. And so for many of them, this is like, Oh my gosh, I had no idea that organized labor did all this to make our country better. understanding our own history. Not only gifts can give us more pride, but give us encouragement and inspire us to say, Hey, we're in a tough spot right now. We can make things better our ancestors did it. So can we? Well, Mark, this

Joe Cadwell :

has been a really great conversation, where can our listeners go to find out more? Well,

Mark McDermott :

one thing you can do is you can go to my website, which is www. Mark, m mcdermott.com.

Joe Cadwell :

I'll make sure to add that to the show notes at the end of the episode as well, Mark. Great. Again, thank you so much for your time. It's been a real pleasure having you on the show and I truly look forward to having you back here in the new future.

Mark McDermott :

I would love to talk with you and take care.

Joe Cadwell :

Well, that wraps up another edition of grit Northwest. you enjoyed today's episode, make sure to hit the subscribe button Be sure to share it with a friend, fellow Carpenter or family member. If you have not already done so please take a moment to post a review on Apple podcast. We'll help others find the show. Till next time, this is Joe Cadwell reminding you to work safe, work smart and stay union strong Transcribed by https://otter.ai