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Thursday, December 7

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Labor & Worker Rights Thu Oct 29 2009

Union Workers Are Not All White Millionaires

Laura Washington has been launching quiet barbs against unions in Chicago in her column space, specifically around the issue of the big blue retailer from Bentonville, most recently shoe-horning it into a piece about GOP gubernatorial hopefuls.

The existence of food deserts in Chicago is very real, and has a very nasty effect. The lack of any availability of affordable, healthy food in poor communities is probably directly related to the dangerously high rates of obesity among the poor, and the correlative high rates of heart disease and diabetes among the poor.

But the option of Big Blue is not the only option to solve this problem. There are more constructive solutions, ones that don't involve decimating the ability for small businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive, or exist; and ones that don't undercut the working conditions of the thousands of grocery and retail workers who have hard-fought benefits through their unions at unionized groceries.

It is very easy to attack "the unions" from an identity perspective, because of the horrible relations the trade unions have had with the Black community in Chicago.

But the UFCW, SEIU, UNITE HERE, and other similar unions that have led the fight against The Beast from Bentonville are hardly exclusive. Their membership in Chicago is overwhelmingly working class, and have high--majority--minority membership. These are unions that are composed of people of color that have won, over years, benefits that WM workers only dream of. In Laura Washington's world, is the choice only between food deserts and terrible working conditions for working people of color? Can't we eliminate food deserts without making the standard of living even worse for working class people?

Is it that Washington can't distinguish between, say, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a predominately white (and very small, but very rich) trade union, and SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana a (gigantic) predominately Black and Latino union?

What a rotten bit of reactionary pessimism, to insist that whatever crumbs a giant, exploitative corporation decides to throw out should be gobbled up thankfully, and damn the consequences. It's an elitist view that comes from the belief that things can't really change, so take what you can get. It's not as though the employees at the unionized retailers are living in lakefront highrises, swilling ancien regime bourbon and laughing at the peasants who live in the food deserts. These are hard working people who can barely get by as it is, and who rely on their contract-guaranteed benefits for their healthcare. Washington wants to wag her finger at the trade unions but ignore the service sector workers that have won better working conditions and benefits for themselves. Big Blue's business model leverages state welfare programs and volume to undercut competition, wipe them out (including suppliers), and sell subpar goods. The result is a lower standard of living for everybody, a hostile environment for entrepreneurs, and a reinforced sense in the community that the scraps are good enough.

The business community of Chicago was able to raise $70m to bid on the Olympics. How many small, community-owned grocers could have been seeded with that money? How many young entrepreneurs in food desert neighborhoods could have been given low interest loans to start affordable co-op stores? There is a solution to the very real and tragic problem of food deserts that doesn't involve undermining the victories working class Blacks, whites, and Latinos have won for themselves in that industry.

There are lots of criticisms to be leveled against our biggest unions--a comparative lack of democracy is a major one--but Washington's lazy (or disingenuous) lumping together of "the unions" to score emotional points does nothing constructive; and pretending the fight over the Beast from Bentonville coming to town is really just about the millionaire union members protecting their filthy lucre from the poor just folks in the food deserts both creates a false dichotomy and betrays a disinterest in solutions when there's a spiteful point to be made.

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CBlack / November 1, 2009 2:11 PM

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