OPINION: An American’s Right To Strike Little More Than Symbolic Dissent


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[EDITOR'S NOTE: On Wednesday, Nov. 10th, local union members who work for four major grocery chains in Western Washington voted overwhelmingly – 94 percent in favor – to authorize a strike against their employers – Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer and Albertsons. However, a strike still is not a certainty, and we will update The B-Town Blog as this story develops. Below is an Editorial from our own Nicholas Johnson:]

by Nicholas Johnson

A strike is hardly an attractive option for anyone. Of course employers lose when their workforce walks out, but so do workers, their families and thousands of customers. Not only are workers forced to forego regular income, join picket lines in the cold and worry about how long it will all last, but inevitably they must face the fact that their employers will not concede. In fact, a union-organized strike in response to a contract dispute has hardly ever yielded significant gains for workers in the United States.

Why? Because: U.S. labor laws water down the tried-and-true tradition of holding production hostage. Today’s union-initiated strikes are little more than symbolic, posing an insignificant threat to employers.

Where they stand
For the past few days grocery workers belonging to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 21 and 81, as well as the Teamsters local 38, have been casting their votes on whether to authorize a strike that would impact several grocery chains in six western Washington counties. For the past nine months union representatives have negotiated the terms of their members’ new contract with Allied Employers, Inc., representing Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway and Albertsons, to no avail. The sticking points are classic: wages, pensions and health care.

Allied Employers, Inc. Vice President Scott Powers said since the economy’s harsh downturn, pension funds have lost about a third of their assets. He also said President Obama’s health care bill has caused medical costs to soar. Yet UFCW Communications Director Tom Geiger said the employers’ health care cost have not gone up in the past five years, largely because of responsible wellness and prevention plans worked into the 2007 contract.

Powers said the result of wounded pension funds and costly health care is that contract funding levels have become nearly impossible to maintain; nevertheless, the employers’ most recent contract proposal aims to make up the difference with $26.3 million added to health care coverage and $25.3 million to pension plans over the next three years, Powers said. Geiger said such additions would under-fund these benefits. He said when all cuts are considered, each employee faces thousands of dollars lost.

“It’s not like we’re saying we can’t pay any of this,” Powers said. “But these losses are going to take a lot of money to address.”

Powers said the employers would likely pitch their best offer soon if only the unions would retake their seats at the negotiating table. Although, Geiger said if the employers can do better, than they ought to stop the barking and start the biting. Powers said he is confident a strike will not take place, while Geiger said a strike is, indeed, a ways off.

“It depends on how the employers respond,” Geiger said. “The ball is in the employers’ court.”

The employers offered up their latest proposal in mid-October, yet the unions have not come forth with a revised contract since August – signaling to Powers that the unions aren’t willing to negotiate, he said. Geiger, however, said the onus falls on the employer anyway. He said since the union membership votes to adopt the contract, it makes more sense that the employers would appeal to the unions.

Lessons from labor’s history
UFCW workers in southern California engaged in a 20-week strike in 2003 and 2004; and while their cause was commendable – protesting Wal-Mart’s effort to undercut other grocers’ prices by hiring young, non-union employees to avoid paying out large benefits packages – their union backing weakened their impact. The supermarkets were able to keep their doors open because the UFCW failed to challenge federal laws denying workers the right to fully shutdown production without facing court injunctions and fines. Effectively, the union chose not to exert labor’s true force for fear of retribution.

Although many believe Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave workers the right to strike, it in fact only guaranteed the right to unionize and bargain collectively. With the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, affectionately regarded as the “slave-labor bill,” any truly effective strike became illegal. As a result, the United States has not seen a strike paralyze its economy with effectiveness comparable to recent strikes in France or even trucking company strikes in Chile prior to the 1973 military coop. Instead, American strikes have become rather predictable, ritualistic and overall, unthreatening.

Where I stand
Despite Powers’ unwillingness to divulge the details of the employers’ contingency plan if UFCW does organize a strike, the time-tested response would be to hire “scabs,” or cheap labor, and wait out the storm. So, workers have a choice: walk out into the cold where even their own unions won’t allow them to hold the country’s largest grocery chains hostage; or leave their unions to reject formally organized labor, as well as their profits-first employers. Choice number two comes complete with creative ways to stick it to greedy grocery chains while simultaneously holding on to sought-after jobs.

Rather than walking out and leaving just enough space for cheap labor to walk in and take your job, workers can show defiance as a group by striking on the job. This entails collectively slowing down production, organizing T-shirt days and mobilizing concerned community members to non-violently protest company executives and board members. Also, workers are wise to reach out to fellow industry workers across the nation for solidarity in the fight against corporations like Kroger, Safeway and SuperValu – all three of whom make up the largest grocery chain owners in the United States.

So, if workers are unhappy with a proposed contract and want to strike, they’re best off ditching the tired, old union model and forging a more effective route that won’t cower to this nation’s slave-labor laws. Until this country legalizes a worker’s right to truly effective striking, creative and unorthodox ways of exerting labor power over employers stands as the only worthy way to demand that business favors people over profits.

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Comments

29 Responses to “OPINION: An American’s Right To Strike Little More Than Symbolic Dissent”
  1. Smapgrafle says:

    Economic illiterates would vote for this strike. They don’t understand cause and effect.

    I hope you enjoy your strike wages. Good luck actually shopping at the stores you’ve opted to not work for. I have no pity for those who walk out on their jobs, nor do I have pity on those who feel it’s “unfair” to have a job during this recession.

    I will continue to shop PROUDLY at these stores. Maybe they can make some profit back. Be happy to have a JOB! A lot of people DON’T.

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    • Joe says:

      Um, I don’t know if you know this, but the union screwed us. We either had to vote for a horrendous contract, or vote no which ALSO allows them to commence a strike. We aren’t able to leave the union as we would lose our jobs.

      I don’t want a strike, but I don’t want to have to work for 15 years for a decent vacation. You probably have a nice job with a decent salary. Good for you.

      Way to sound like a complete prick and offend 36,000 people that don’t actually have a say in this matter.

      The way you put it, why not have everyone lose their jobs and have to work for the federal government, which would offer no more than the wages in third world countries, hey, at least they have a job, right?! So go on and continue to shop at a place which treats their workers badly and reaps mass profits. That’s a good boy.

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      • Coverofnight says:

        Grover says, “We are not looking to make big gains but we are not going to give back benefits we have bargained for in the past.” You know, I thought everyone had to do some belt-tightening in this economy. It seems more and more that unions feel exempt from the realities of an economy in the toilet and the addition of trillions of new federal debt thanks to the union-loving Democrats. Also, I find it interesting to read elsewhere tonight that King County has a proposed budget that will eliminate police officers because THEIR union refused to give up pay increases.

        I also get the impression that Nicholas Johnson thinks this union doesn’t have the stones to really cause trouble with the employers when he states, “…creative and unorthodox ways of exerting labor power over employers stands as the only worthy way to demand that business favors people over profits.” I was surprised that he even suggests strategies to use – sounds like he’d really like to have Geiger’s position to effect change. Has the B-Town Blog become a forum for pro-union shills?

        And finally, it sounds like some union members are quite unhappy with their required union membership. If many members feel this way, has anyone considered de-certifying the union? You know, there are PLENTY of industries that have no union involvement and people are quite happily employed, making competitive wages, giving good customer service, have vacations, have health care; some even dental care! SD is correct that union membership is steadily declining. While the concept was fabulous and necessary at its inception, in these economic times and in this global economy, maybe the time has come to eliminate unions and let the free market dictate employment conditions. We can do a show of hands or a secret ballot on this….;)

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      • Rainycity says:

        Joe,
        I know the contract you got and call horrendous may not have seemed like much.
        I don`t know what you do for a living and it`s not my business, but did you stop and think about what you may have been offered with the union? You think it may be better?
        If so, then maybe it`s time to talk to your co-workers and see what you can do.
        A lot of people would even like to have a “horrendous” contract to vote on or even be stuck with as compared to what they have now which is nothing.
        Corporate is going to take advantage of every opportunity they can for the sake of their “shareholders”, not it`s workforce that makes them millions so they can give the brass huge bonuses even when they lose. Peace out.

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    • Penny says:

      I am scared about the possibly impending strike. I am not even making it working at safeway approximately 20-30 hours a week plus another part time job. I pay union dues, which essentially reduces my pay to barely above minimum wage, and then there’s my weekly donation to the current foundation that Safeway is supporting even though I signed a paper opting out and they put me on the Safeway Employees Foundation weekly donation even though I didn’t agree to it, and put that on top of my taxes….Safeway wants to take away our current benefits and pay, and that’s not ok. Why am I paying a union if I barely make minimum wage? There is no benefit (besides health insurance, which is nice, but not even useful really because the health insurance only covers a portion of my health bills, and what I do have to pay, I can’t afford on my current salary) for those who are not journeyers or in a department that offers raises (i.e., no benefit for courtesy or helper clerks). All in all, working for safeway in the lower levels is not that beneficial, and even less so if Safeway takes away our current benefits.

      I would’ve quit long ago if I didn’t like my management. I hate the company, I suppose, but my bosses are great.

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  2. SD says:

    Really…”cower to this nation’s slave labor laws”?

    Which laws would those be?

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    • Nicholas says:

      Those that comprise the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

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      • SD says:

        Thanks for following up, Nicholas. From what little I’ve read on the internet, sounds like prior to Taft Hartley, labor had the upper hand – could hold management hostage until demands were met. The excerpt below from Princeton University’s website doesn’t paint the Act as an evil slave-labor law.

        “The Taft-Hartley Act was passed to restore a more balanced relationship between labor and management. It gives employees the right to refrain from participating in union activities and adds a series of prohibited unfair labor practices by unions. In addition, it creates the Federal Mediation Service to assist management and unions in settling disputes. It also establishes certain Presidential powers to be used to retain order in certain emergency situations (such as a strike or lockout that would likely cause adverse effects on an entire industry or would threaten national health, safety or security).”

        Giving employees choices, leveling the playing field by setting boundary, providing a mediation tool and having a process in place to deal with emergencies doesn’t equate to slave-labor to me.

        While we may not agree on the above point, I do agree that the union’s model is tired and old….and is becoming increasingly obsolete in the 21st century.

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        • Grover says:

          Then why do the Teamsters and many other unions keep getting stronger and stronger. You can’t tell me that companies aren’t greedy and ready to treat workers like cattle just to get their “numbers up”. Companies merge all the time and as they get bigger, the individual worker gets smaller and smaller with less of a voice. If you are not protected by a union and you speak up about an injustice, you may just lose your job. The union is needed more today in times of tough economies than ever before.

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          • SD says:

            Grover, I’m not sure how you measure power, but if it’s based on the number of unionized workers, then those numbers have dwindled decade over decade. Also, you don’t need a union to protect you from wrongful terminations. There are employment laws that protect everyone.

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          • Nicholas says:

            Thank you for mentioning the fact the union membership has slowly, but steadily, decreased in the United States for the past 56 years or so (at least since the Korean War ended).

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  3. Grover says:

    If you think that a recent strike has not been effective, you must have a short memory. A little over three years ago all the union concete companies in Seattle went on strike. Contruction came to to a halt in the Puget Sound Region for a month. An organized strike can be effective but the key word is organized. Strikes are not always about money. Benefits are very important in todays economy. In September the Teamsters who drive concrete mixer trucks signed another three year deal. It was signed after a 13 hour strike when the companies saw that we were serious. We are not looking to make big gains but we are not going to give back benefits we have bargained for in the past.
    Don’t give me the line “you are lucky to have a job”. I have made the company a lot money and they have provided me with a job. I need the company as much as they need me.
    I support the grocery workers and their right to strike. If you choose to shop that at the store as it is being picketed that is your right. I for one will take my grocery dollars elsewhere to some other store that is not being picketed and I am sure a lot of other people feel that way.

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  4. Rob says:

    In difference to Smapgrafle, While he may shop the affected stores,I am one union brother who will honor my union brothers and sisters at safeway, albertsons Fred Meyer and QFC and not cross the picket line. Good luck and Godspeed.

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  5. Ivan Weiss says:

    People should know that Thriftway stores, which are unionized, would continue to operate in the event of a strike or lockout. I don’t agree with much of what Nicholas Johnson writes here, but I am glad B-Town Blog is covering this issue. Needless to say, I support UFCW right down the line, and I urge both sides to remain at the table and continue to negotiate.

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  6. firefly says:

    Im a union employee who has a few things to add to this debate. Solidarity is all the workers have going for them. Without collective numbers in agreement, there would not be a union. And greed prevails with these fortune 50 companies which have all done very well during this recession. Their profits have been spread out to many CEOs, executives and managers, not workers. Three and a half years ago the workers’ contract was sliced and diced without a recession…the reason? Rising health care costs. Now they want to take away nearly everything else. Many people working for these stores are parents of young children who are barely making it now. With the new cuts, they won’t survive. You could see thousands of more people out of a job on welfare. New employees living at home with their parents who can afford the new wage packages the employers are offering do not have the experience of the long-time employees. So expect a much slower, less efficient, unknowledgeable high turnover staff helping you when you shop. And by the way, my store has had openings continuously all year long for all those who say they can’t get a job. What? Not enough pay to survive? Exactly!

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  7. Rainycity says:

    I don`t agree with much Nicholas has to say in his union bashing commentary either but the beauty to having your own blog like Scott does here is you can allow the biased to write commentary for you and call it journalism.
    Even though half of it is plagiarized and the other half bullshit.
    Which half is which. I don`t have much time here as I have to get back to work but let`s ask Nicholas what these new “effective routes” are he seems to know about but doesn`t mention except for t-shirt days which have been utilized for years, (I`m sure there`s strength there.) Those are formalities to let your management know there would be solidarity amongst the work force and WILLING to strike if they have to.
    And what was one of the others,, oh yeah, work slow-down,, (Isn`t that what a strike is for?)
    Nicholas, you mention cheap labor, jeez, insn`t that part of the reason why they are willing to strike? How many times do they need to mention making just above minimum wage before it sinks in that that is what the grocery chains are doing now. Not to mention their hours getting cut back to almost part time status.
    The reason why our great nation hasn`t seen a “paralyzing” strike as you put it is because of scabs like ronnie reagan forcing the workforce back to work with federal sanctions. (remember the air traffic controllers, the railroad?) He was nothing than a scab when he was an actor crossing the actors guild to get one of the few jobs he could starring with chimpanzees and a union buster when he was voted into the presidency en route to starting the destruction of our great nation with his reaganomics, But thats another topic entirely.
    Maybe Scott will let someone write a unbiased article on this subject,
    (not myself, I aren`t smart enuff.)
    I think folks here know how I feel about worker fairness and I am behind them 100% in their quest to leave the near poverty status which is what the grocery chains are trying to get them down to.
    Quit feeding the troll (c.o.n. and his other moniker smapsomething) you guys and he will go away. Peace out

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    • Nicholas says:

      You accuse me of plagiarism. Would you mind backing that up? It’s slightly offensive to be accused of such a thing in my line of work.
      Also, you claim my opinion column is biased.
      Reread that last sentence. Anything seem oxymoronic about that statement? In case you missed the all-caps label in the headline, it reads, “OPINION,” and what follows is such.
      By the way, Scott did not solicit my opinion column. In fact, if you are concerned his editorial decision to publish my opinion represents some kind of bias, I encourage you to craft a coherent piece of writing and submit it for publication. In my experience, he has always been open to new contributors.

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      • Rainycity says:

        Nicholas,
        You`re right, that was not a poor choice or a word, but an unfair one also. I let my emotions get me that time. I`m sorry.

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  8. Rainycity says:

    For a better of words lets use mandates and threats in place of sanctions. I was pounding this stuff out as fast as I could in the 10 minutes I had and that was a poor choice of words.
    And in all fairness to Scott, and I have to give him credit, he lets everybody post, biased or not, even the troll c.o.n. of which who`s I.P. address I would block permanently and not because he`s mostly opposite of what most folks in his efforts to cause controversy but simply because he`s a troll.

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  9. Rainycity says:

    For a better of words lets use mandates and threats in place of sanctions. I was pounding this stuff out as fast as I could in the 10 minutes I had and that was a poor choice of words.
    And in all fairness to Scott, and I have to give him credit, he lets everybody post, biased or not, even the troll c.o.n. of which who`s I.P. address I would block permanently and not because he`s mostly opposite of what most folks in his efforts to cause controversy but simply because he`s a troll. Peace out

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  10. Eric says:

    I used to work for UFCW in Fred Meyer, and I also had the opportunity to supervise and be trained as management (never actually got promoted). All opinion, but here are some observations I have made about the situation:

    - The strike is going to hurt the workers more than anyone else. The company can handle it, the union is going to get paid either way, so only the workers and consumers are left to suffer. Unionized food retail companies understand that non-union work in retail ceilings at 10-14 dollars per hour, and they can use that.
    - Nobody has realized it, but large corporations have slyly set employment policy that prevents slow downs from ever happening. They have done so by making almost all of the employees part-time. During the holidays (like now) almost everyone is working 40 hours per week (full-time hours) without the status. If you slow down, you get fewer hours. They may not be able to do this to all of their employees, but definitely to the majority.

    It is my opinion that the stores will win and the union will settle, because the workers are the ones who can’t afford to strike. It is exactly what happened in California, except this time belts are already tight.

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    • Coverofnight says:

      Good comment, Eric. Maybe more insights like these will spur the workers to exercise their freedom of speech and rise up against the union to take back control of their employment. Anyone looking to stifle a right to dissent…well, only a bully would advocate such tactics…;)

      To Smapgrafle – hang in there, buddy! Peace out.

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  11. sean says:

    1) if workers are forced (which they are upon employment) into a union that can’t actually protect them then what is the point of the union?
    2) i would believe in free enterprise if this was 1850. the problem with the overly-capitalist-republican-small-government-no-union-anti-socialism ideal is that it was instituted at a time when, if a company, individual, or government overstepped their bounds, acted selfishly, or mistreated anyone else, there was real potential for somebody to come along and take them out by physical force (be it by competing in the market or by getting thier guns and pitchforks). because of the way our laws are set up, and because individuals and corporations are so powerful and control all aspects of everything, it is impossible for any sort of uprising to occur which would un-seat the powerful. really, the only option, for anyone who feels that they are being mistreated, is to try, fruitlessly, to vote and use the government to the best of thier abilities. safeway made a profit last year. it is one of the only businesses that did. this profit came at the hands of hourly individuals that worked twice as hard as anyone in corporate headquarters. this is about loyal employees trying to keep thier retirement–don’t try to make them out to be greedy socialists. unless you too are losing your retirement after eleven years of employment, then, really, your opinion is just theory.

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  12. Kathie says:

    All I can say is “GOOD LUCK’. My company went on strike in 2003 (times weren’t nearly as bad then as now) and no one got their jobs back other than the 36 people who crossed the picket lines. It had nothing to do with wages, only benefits. The medical had been very good but they wanted us to take a horrible medical plan and pay horrendous amounts for this bad plan. We had no problem paying more for our medical (we had been spoiled for a long time but understood that time was past) but not willing to pay a LOT for a very, very bad plan.
    I can guarantee you that training for our jobs was 100% more difficult than training to be a clerk or bagger. But the 36 who crossed the lines trained the scabs and no one got their jobs back. We had people who had worked there for 30 years and more. :We had more than one husband and wife team who worked there.
    The company keep going and I don’t know what a lot of those people did. I was able to retire, thank GOD, or I don’t know what I would have done. (I was 62 years old by then).
    So, I’m not saying what I think one way or the other, but GOOD LUCK.

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  13. Rainycity says:

    The unions have declined ever since the reagan era and what are the results of such?
    The bottom 90%,,,,, 90% people,,,,, have seen their incomes go nowhere.
    Corporate greed is the reason, not the unions, the unions made the middle class not destroyed it like some of these scabs on here are saying. These people are simply trying to survive in these tough economic times, they aren`t asking for anything more than to be able to do so, even with what they are asking for, they will still be struggling. All these corporations like safeway made profits last year, and the workers aren`t asking for it.
    Pricks like coverofnight and his other moniker Smap who sit here and brag about how they would be proud to cross the picket line and shop at these stores if the workers go out on strike is sickening to say the least.
    I would love to see that TROLL in this situation then walk up and spit on him (actually I would like to invite him to the gym and climb in the ring with me, (that is an invite by the way TROLL) which is basically what anyone who crosses these lines are doing to these workers and their families, The TROLL may as well come into your home and steal the food right off your kids plate, it`s not much different.
    What we call free trade is really not that at all but a tool to encourage corporations to take their work elsewhere , (and no not in this country) but countries like China, Taiwan etc then what happens with these products?
    You America, buy them BACK after the cheap (slave) labor in these countries mass produce them with poor quality a lot of the times.
    By the way, what does less money to the wage earner mean anyways?
    Less money for America so the those of us that are fortunate enough to have an income just sit back and watch it decline?
    Why? Because of the decline of unionized labor for one.
    How many people here can honestly say they actually bring home now than they did, lets say 10 years ago. I don`t mean you make more money, but are you economically better now then you were then?
    People, the unions made middle class America and the decline of the unions is NOT good for this country, just the opposite. After all, aren`t there less middle class and more poor now. The numbers I think if you look at them openly and honestly will paint you a picture.

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  14. lovintherain says:

    Rainycity I totally agree with you about corporate greed. I have just heard that the CEO of Safeway took a 10.2 million dollar pay increase this last year. I work for Safeway and have been there for 5 years. I love my job but I don’t like the fact they want to cut a lot of what I live for. I have a child and I work my butt off to bring home a paycheck to take care of my child. I live in this community and I would sure think that a lot of people would go on strike if they were in the position I and my fellow employees are. I just hope people can put themselves in our shoes.

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  15. Higher Ed says:

    II am a public sector employee. I am non-union. I have been working under a state-mandated wage freeze for the past two years. I am almost certain the mandated wage freeze will be extended for the next two year budget. I am paid under market value in comparison to my private sector jobs I had previously, but it was my choice to work where I do because I believe in what I’m doing, and there is some form of job security – kind of like a union might offer.

    My state benefit package, which included a nice medical plan that I contribute to, and a “pension” plan that is basically a 401K, is being whittled away bit by bit due to the economy, and now just this month I learn I have to select a different plan for my health care because the current plan is now too expensive for the state to help pay for. The new plan offerings suck, to put it bluntly, and I will have to pay a little more for it.

    I don’t get time-and-a-half, or anything like that, and average 50-60 hours a week (sometimes more). I don’t get paid for that extra, being a salaried employee.

    Again, no raise – not even a COLA – for two years, and now maybe for another two. Positions are not refilled when people leave, so I get more work piled on.

    I’ve garaged my car, and use a bus pass. I gave up my own apartment, and found a room for rent because rent got too high a few years back. I’ve pared down as much as I can because sometimes you have to do that. Right now, I and many others, have to.

    Everyone else seems to be having to work harder, longer, and for less. Why should anyone else be immune?

    I’m having a bit of trouble working up much empathy for the grocery clerks in the area. I’ll try to, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to.

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