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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Kelly Masjoan: Living wage and unions: A history easily forgotten, and a call to action

By Kelly Masjoan IAFF Local 29

Everyone deserves a living wage. Minimum wage is not a living wage. A living wage includes benefits like health care and a retirement plan. A living wage allows an individual or family to not have to make dangerous choices between a trip to the doctor or paying the heating bill. A living wage allows us to live.

Most of the burden of negotiating a living wage in this country has fallen on the backs of the unions. Yet this history is rapidly being forgotten among younger workers. “Union” is not a dirty word. Sadly, however, with the recent Janus decision and move to push workers to “opt out,” anti-union movements are growing. Groups with clever names like “Stand With Workers” focus on striking a nerve with people, especially younger workers, about the money they pay for union membership dues – but they don’t cite the multitude of benefits received for such representation. Those benefits are a result of decades and decades of hard advocacy. Without protection within a collective bargaining unit, workers are completely at the mercy of budgetary pressures, political whims and special interests.

Collective bargaining is how working people gain a voice; it helps to give them power to shape policy and hold government and corporate officials at their word. Simply accepting verbal promises from executive leadership, with nothing in writing, is playing with fire. Unions have trained, experienced officers who have years of experience at the negotiating table. They ask questions and scenarios that line staff don’t always think of. This experience comes on the heels of many, many years of learning the hard way. Just like policies and procedures within any organization, union contracts exist because something somewhere along the line went wrong, or workers were exploited. One need only read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” for a graphic account of working conditions at Chicago slaughterhouses at the turn of the last century to get a feel for corporate greed run amok.

We cannot count on the good will of companies to make sure they pay their employees enough to make a living without public assistance or going without basic needs.

Of all the organizations that should realize this, our city government should understand and practice it. Here in Spokane, with our rich labor history, we are fortunate enough to have a City Council that does understand. The mayor’s office, however, is at odds with them – and at the expense of public safety. Citizens don’t often see or hear about the goings-on behind the scenes in their local government and how their tax money is being spent. It’s hard to blame them – it’s not pleasant to see how the sausage is made. But here it is, in all its ugly glory: our mayor and his city administrator have declared war behind the scenes to our police and fire departments. As a recent example, by refusing to support the Proposition 1 levy, they put public safety at risk just to make a point. Police officers and firefighters had to have their hands out, campaigning hard to fund their own salaries and badly needed increased staffing. Further, their dispatchers’ jobs are being genericized and absorbed into a pseudo-corporate entity that promises still-unproven efficiency and cost savings. It’s union-busting, rebranded.

It’s time to advocate for ourselves. It is also time for our leaders, especially those in public safety, to speak up and take on the uncomfortable stance, even if it means running counter to the mayor. We need to be aware of consultant phrases and executive management asking workers to adapt to change and “retool” for the future – it is often code for cutting costs and cutting jobs. Be vigilant. Pay attention. Don’t take top decision-makers at their word without something in writing. If you are a member of a union, make sure such offers are reviewed and agreed upon by union officers who have your best interests in mind.

Everyone deserves to work, earn and support themselves at a livable, comfortable level. These benefits belong to everyone – they should not be reserved only for those at the highest levels of management, who already have the resources, contacts and back-room relationships to ensure their continued survival and comfort.

Kelly Masjoan is a fire dispatcher and a member of the executive board of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 29.