News & Events

Workplace benefits: not the result of the employer’s benevolence or goodwill

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
October 2005 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

You may have seen bumper stickers on vehicles as you drive down the highway that read, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”

What exactly does that mean? Well, in a nutshell, it means that many workplace benefits that we all take for granted were issues that were fought for and won by organized labor.

Consistently over the years, it has been labor unions that have waged the battle (and it has always been a battle) for improvements for workers—whether in a collective bargaining agreement or through legislation. These include: the non-working weekend; child labor laws; the 40-hour work week; overtime premium pay; contractualized tuition reimbursement; employer-paid health insurance and disability insurance; paid vacation leave; leaves of absence; guaranteed pensions and retirement; health and safety legislation; child care and elder care provisions; paid holidays; due process through a grievance and arbitration procedure; a wage scale with escalator clauses; job security; workplace non-discrimination; and other major intangibles like dignity and respect in the workplace.

Many of these issues have been won over time, with labor working in coalition with other spearhead groups. These also include many of the broader social issues, such as: Social Security; Medicare; civil rights legislation; Fair Labor Standards Act; family and medical leave; and OSHA to name a few.

Which side are you on?
Consistently throughout history, management and employers were on the wrong side of these issues. None of these improvements in American workers’ lives were given out from the goodness or generosity of the boss. The boss always had an argument why anything that stood to enhance working conditions would cripple their business. This was the case in:

  • The late 1800s with the push for the 40-hour work week
  • The early 1900s with the drive to eliminate and regulate the use of child labor
  • The 1970s and the initiation of health and safety regulations through OSHA
  • 1993 with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act
  • The current issues of mandating safe needles, bans or limits on mandatory overtime and nurse-to-patient ratios

The arguments of doom and gloom have always repeated themselves. That’s why it is important to remind ourselves collectively how the workplace improved. It was Thomas Jefferson (with a sometimes controversial quote, “Every generation needs a new revolution”) who realized early in the history of the American republic that the benefits and freedoms enjoyed in this country would be taken for granted by later generations who never experienced first-hand all of the sacrifices made to achieve those gains. Much is the same in labor today.

Collective amnesia
In today’s workplace many workers forget—or never had the opportunity to learn—when or where all of these benefits came from. Some workers assume that these benefits are simply a part of the package that employers unilaterally want to offer employees. Others point to non-union workplaces where some or even many of these benefits are also in place.

It is important to recognize that many non-union facilities are forced to offer some of the benefits that labor has won elsewhere simply to attract and retain employees and to remain competitive in the labor market. These benefits are not offered as a result of the employer’s benevolence. Furthermore, in non-union worksites, all benefits that are not protected as a part of legislation are not enforceable because of the lack of a contract. That is, the employer can choose to ignore or to use “management’s discretion” in providing or continuing benefits. Such benefits have not become part of the workplace “social contract” as it has in many other countries. Every gain has been fought for—often with blood, sweat and tears—and they are always in danger of being lost.

Employers have fought all of these benefits repeatedly using the same old and stale tactics and arguments, such as “the need for management flexibility,” or the right to exercise management’s prerogative to run the business, or—the most over-used one of all—business cannot afford to operate with such onerous laws that require a minimum wage, or safe working conditions, or bans on child labor, or family leave, etc. Allegedly, these employers won’t be able to compete as a result and it will be the end of Western civilization as we know it.

Of course, none of that has happened. What has happened is that because of labor’s constant struggle over many of these issues, the workplace is a better and safer place to work. And yes, more rewarding financially as well as personally.

Health care and nurses

For nurses in the workplace, whether in an acute care hospital, mental health facility, school district, visiting nurse/hospice association, or long-term facility, the same lessons hold true.

New nurses coming into the workplace come out of the same popularized culture that tends to hold labor unions in disregard or outright disdain. It is therefore the union’s job to educate new members and the general public on what labor has won over the years. This is particularly important in each worksite. The record of improvements in health care work is impressive for the working nurse, as well as for the patient and the over all delivery of health care.

For instance, the hospital industry vigorously fought against safe-needle legislation, claiming that prohibitive costs would force them out of business. Yet such federal legislation passed in 2003 and no hospitals have closed over the use of safe needles any more than bottling companies have gone out of business because of the can/bottle deposit law.

Consider the record on:

  • Whistle-blower legislation
  • Latex sensitivity contract provisions
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Professional development clauses
  • Bans or limits on mandatory overtime
  • Living wage ordinances

Where did the health care industry fall in each of these instances? They consistently fought against them. Labor, along with patient advocacy groups, senior organizations, health care groups, community groups, and health and safety advocates fought long and hard for many of these, and continue to do so.

The fight continues

It is no surprise then that currently in Massachusetts the hospital industry is fighting the MNA’s safe staffing legislation in the same manner. They are willing to spend gross amounts of money to mislead and confuse the public and their own employees about such legislation. They have taken out misleading ads and billboards and testified at the State House relating contrived and inaccurate stories about the impact such legislation has had on hospitals in California. Carefully they avoid recognizing the many studies that support and endorse the MNA’s position.

None of the workplace victories were easily won. It took sacrifices, and even death, to force changes and improvements—from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took 146 lives because of the lack of proper precautions and safety exits, to registered nurses’ deaths by AIDS or hepatitis from infected needles and sharps.

Yet there is a constant and ever-increasing onslaught of attacks on these workplace gains from:

  • The employer and corporate industry, through mergers, runaway shops, benefit cuts, globalization and outsourcing
  • The Legislature and Congress by sacrificing union rights in the Department of Homeland Security and “free trade”
  • The executive branch by the loss of public sector collective bargaining rights in Indiana and Missouri by newly elected Republican governors, and anti-union appointments to the courts and the Department of Labor and the suspension of the Davis Bacon Act’s prevailing wage provision in the rebuilding of hurricane-ravaged communities
  • The media by negatively stereotyping labor and using loaded terminology in news reports such as “special interest group” and “labor bosses”
  • And the NLRB with decisions increasingly hostile to workers

Unions remain a progressive force in the United States today, even as its numbers decline in the face of this multi-pronged attack. They are among the most democratic, dynamic and diverse organizations in the country. As organized labor is under attack it has responded by joining coalitions in social justice movements and broadening its own vision. History has shown unmistakably that it is organized labor that has fought for employee rights and against the race to the bottom.

Abraham Lincoln said in his first message to Congress, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves the much higher compensation.”