Friday, July 23, 2010

Reflections and Observations on Yesterday's Unite Here! Protest

My feelings about private sector unions are mixed at best. I know what their purpose has been in the past, but I question their usefulness today. Especially when it comes to entry level jobs that don't require much skill besides the on-the-job training one receives when first hired.

This isn't coming from some elitist snob who has already got his. I've worked in several $5-7 an hour jobs, usually closer to the $5 part. And even when I had work-study available to me, I still picked up shifts at Panera Bread when I could. Even now, with my IT job, I'm looking for a second job to pick up a few shifts and earn some extra cash.

But I'm under no illusion that my job at Panera, or one of the several other similar entry level jobs in retail, food, or the broader customer-service industry that my friends had/have was skilled labor. Any competent person could've replaced me at any time after some on-the-job training.

I also question how efficient a union would be to those that rely on tips. I know at least a few of the jobs in hotels are tip-based, which means the employee receives a low wage (usually between $2-3 an hour) from the employer and is expected to make the rest up in tips. The flip side to it is, just like serving at a restaurant, you can make a lot more money if you're really good at your job. It's not uncommon to go to some of the finer restaurants in cities and find servers who have been working there for years. It's because they've turned what a server at Denny's does for minimum wage into a dining experience, and are tipped accordingly.

And if it's just a money issue, people can always get a second or third job. I've worked two jobs before, and I plan on doing it again real soon. I know it's not exactly the best time to get a job right now. But they are out there.

Overall, I don't see much of a point in unionizing customer service related jobs. I know Kroger is unionized, but my friends who worked there never got any benefit out of it. And I've never felt like I've gotten better service there than I did at Marsh or Meijer. And I don't think there's a noticeable difference in pay or offered benefits between Kroger and it's competitors.

Now that I've alienated the several new readers I got yesterday, here's what I did appreciate about the protest.

It was a group of people doing something. These people, as part of an organized group , held demonstrations in several cities across the nation with a realistic goal, and got media attention as well (here, here, here, and here). In the coming days and weeks when union negotiations are occurring, they'll be able to measure the effectiveness of their actions. They'll be able to tell where their efforts were most rewarded, and where they weren't.

A surprising number of relatively young people were at the protest as well. I am all for my fellow 20 somethings getting involved in local causes. Just because it's a cause that I disagree with won't stop me from being proud that they're taking action. But I also hope it goes beyond this single issue. I talked up the Marriage Bus protest and counter-protest that is happening next week, and I hope to see some familiar faces there.

As for the actual arrest, I wasn't a fan of it. I'm sure there is an actual ordinance on the books saying you can't block a public avenue such as a sidewalk. But no street was blocked, and very few, if any, were walking down Maryland by the Hyatt, so I doubt it was a huge interruption to anyone's day. As a taxpayer in this city, I will tolerate a protest that takes up a sidewalk as much as I tolerate the beggars on nearly every street corner from 9-5. It's a small convience I'm willing to give up so some of my citizens can exercise their right to protest.

That isn't to say Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department didn't conduct itself well. They had no problem with news cameras and several citizens taking pictures. And by all accounts, it was a peaceful event ending in a peaceful arrest of 41 people. No charges were filed which was the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, other cities where arrests took place did press misdemeanor charges in some cases.

Overall, it was an interesting event that was worth my time. I hope some of my readers will join me at next week's protest. And feel free to drop me an e-mail or leave a comment if you know of any other protests or major events that will happen this summer.

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