Older union member's fears

Workers face broad assaults

Posted: March 06, 2011

He is worried, he says, about a lot: the future of the bankrupt supermarket chain he works for, the midcareer colleagues who feel trapped and hopeless, and anyone, really, who strives for a middle-class life anymore.

He's been stocking shelves and moving groceries through the checkout line for the same Philadelphia-area chain since the Vietnam War. It's how he put a child through college, bought a $28,000 rowhouse, and pays for the occasional movie when he and his wife go out for a treat.

He is reluctant to have his name published in The Inquirer, even though he belongs to a union. Partly, it seems, because he belongs to a union. And partly because it feels like a scary time to be a worker in this country at all - union or not.

"I'm afraid I'd be retaliated against," he says, in a tone so evenhanded, so unassuming, that during the first, the second, and even the third time we talked, it was hard to resist wanting to hear more from him.

When reader and reporter finally met after two years of occasional phone chats, the blogosphere, and the so-called cable-news pundits were bloviating about assaults by Republican governors against public-sector unions in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and elsewhere. (Time will tell whether this remains an exclusively Republican pursuit.)

Against all the raucous blah-blah-blahs, his middle-of-the-road wisdom was humbling.

His thoughts are like the unvarnished dispatches of a soldier on the front lines of a lost war. Some people might find his plain-and-simpleness jarring as it portrays an American dream gone off the rails.

Decide for yourselves.

"The anxiety is tremendous," he says. Fellow employees of the bankrupt A&P chain are worried they'll be out of a job soon and unable to find decent-paying new ones, given that many supermarkets now hire mostly part-timers at wages too low to support a household. Full-time positions at his company are going unfilled, as part-timers come in.

"I don't want to come across as a griper. I have a good life," he says. Paid about $19 an hour and in line for a modest pension if he retires in the next few years, he counts himself among the luckier people in the retail sector, which accounted for more than one in 10 U.S. jobs in February.

And yet, he says of his pension, "we would still starve on that." He is putting off retirement because health benefits for him and his wife will cost $10,000 a year - more than a third of the $27,000 in Social Security and pension payments he expects. "I got a gas bill for $240, you've got the phone, you've got the Internet, you've got Comcast, you've got real estate taxes: $2,400." The math is troubling.

"If I can get you to pay me more by contract, that's capitalism. It works," he says of the basic concept of collective bargaining, the foundation of labor unions. But curiously, the tenet is under siege in states being governed by some newly elected Republicans.

"I think the governor just whooped them bad today," he says of Ohio, where GOP lawmakers last week backed a bill to ban strikes and curb bargaining by unionized state workers. This followed street protests in Wisconsin, where that state's Republican governor launched a similar assault weeks earlier, and came as strife continued between New Jersey's Gov. Christie and teachers.

"I don't make enough money to buy my house today," he says. Even his union wage falls short in the current economy. Homes in his neighborhood sell for about $180,000 - too high even for the $19-an-hour full-time rate he's worked up to through the decades.

"The younger ones, I'm saying, 'Go back to school and learn something.' . . . The people that are caught in their late 30s and early 40s, they feel really trapped," he says. "They just can't make that leap." He feels for midcareer workers who have 15 or 20 years with the company and feel too invested to leave. With young kids at home, they fear starting somewhere else at lower wages.

"We're not martyrs. We chose to do this," he says. Here, he insists on playing the devil's advocate with his own thoughts. "I wanna smack myself in the head." Why? He dropped out of college and never went back. "I could have gone back to school a million times and gotten a degree." He tells today's young workers to go to college - for their own good.

It's interesting, he says, how some people think nothing of beating up on unions: "How one group of workers is always annoyed at how somebody else got a raise - instead of aspiring to do the same." But up close, he says, they all have something in common, and it's the one thing he believes is truly threatened by the changing U.S. economy and the harsh winds of political opportunism:

"There's a million of us, and unfortunately, we're the core of this whole country. When you attack the middle class, which is what I think is happening," he says, it's attacking "what this country is all about."

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.


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