Out of the Blue: There’s no substitution for hard work (opinion)
September 7, 2016
There's an irony in the fact that I'm taking an afternoon break during Labor Day weekend from chipping away at a manuscript I have to submit in a week (cue nervous tic) to write about work.
I've struggled with my relationship with labor for years, but on the precipice of turning forty, I think I've reached a comfortable stasis with it. Being an artist (writer, at the moment), it can be tricky living from project to project, but anyone who's ever had a freelancer ethic knows that as long as you're willing to pound the pavement often enough, you can cobble together a fulfilling career.
On that point, friends of mine this summer grew tired of me fretting over what I was going to do after this novel I'm working on is finished. What would happen if I didn't drum up any new prospects in the fall?
How soon would I fall into financial ruin and never get to do the work I love again? As it turned out, once I actively chased down new gigs, I found myself with not one but two projects that stand to keep me busy through the winter. Funny how things work out that way…
But my overhead is low. I keep my rent paid, and I like to watch the Cal Bears play football on cable, but apart from these sorts of creature comforts, without a wife and/or kids, it doesn't take much for my bohemian lifestyle to keep on keeping on.
But what does "work" mean for folks with big families, with student loan debts hovering over their bank accounts, with cars nicer than my beater Jeep Cherokee?
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Last week, my buddy Kathleen forwarded me a story making a staunch pro-union argument, and a lot of the data it cited shocked me. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers' wages are 27% higher than those of non-union employees, which is an insane discrepancy. Another outrageous figure — 79% of union employees receive health insurance as compared to 49% of non-union workers.
This is a particularly imperative piece of information for me. In 2017, I'll be eligible to join one of my field's most prominent unions, and while their dues are significant, I'll be taken care of very well. I bring this up because I remain in disbelief at how expensive my monthly health care costs are.
My insurance agent in town didn't quite follow me when I said I wanted "dinosaur insurance." I'm a healthy thirty-something who (knock on wood) doesn't smoke, stays in shape, doesn't have any pre-existing conditions: I wanted my hospital stay to be covered if, while hiking in the Tahoe woods, I was attacked by a dinosaur, but otherwise, I wanted to make my dollar holler as thoroughly as possible.
But when I look at my bill every month, I can't help but think of folks who have family members with special medical needs, of older people who need to utilize health care in their daily lives — how large are their invoices? I mean, if your work covers you, that's great, but the numbers in this article made it seem like that isn't the case for many Americans.
And this is just one facet of unions. When considering the establishment of anti-discrimination laws, safety standards, child labor laws and collective bargaining (to name but a few key elements of the labor movement), my knee-jerk bleeding-heart response is to assume that the bolstering of our unions is of utmost importance.
Whenever I have a bold liberal epiphany like this, though, I want to make sure I consider the other side of the coin. There are instances of unions preventing highly-qualified workers from getting certain jobs because of less-merited folks being protected from layoffs or firings.
There's also the argument that unions make us less competitive internationally when non-unionized companies overseas can charge much less for products because of their workers' smaller salaries. And take your pick of editorials about unions wasting taxpayer money, of bullying city and county governments, of egregious lobbying in Washington.
But I can't get around the idea that in a country where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, even if our unions aren't perfect, it seems necessary for them to exist in order to provide a level playing field between company owners and their bottom lines.
As is repeated so often on these current presidential campaigns, the preservation of our middle class is essential to America's future. Some agency needs to make sure the workers of this country — even ones who maybe aren't the greatest — don't get left out in the cold. I mean, haven't I heard somewhere that we're stronger together?
Anyway, time to get back to work…
Mike Restaino is a writer and filmmaker based out of Incline Village. He is also a Vice Chair of the North Tahoe Democrats. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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