By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – In nearly forty years with the Communications Workers of America Local 1180 in New York, twenty-five of them as president, Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipient Arthur Cheliotes has seen both the highs and lows of labor policies affecting workers. What stands out for him on this Labor Day is the great toll the Bush administration’s policies have taken on long-time safeguards for worker security.
“Bush’s record has been abysmally miserable,” Cheliotes said. “He has ripped up the social contract, and his administration’s policies affect all working people, not just those in unions.”
Overtime protections that date back to the early to mid 20th century have been taken away, he said, not via the legislative process, which ended with the defeat of the proposed legislation to remove those protections, but through changes in regulations of the Fair Labor Standards Act by the Department of Labor. Cheliotes said these changes were supported by the United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Manufacturing Association, organizations that work for large corporations. The new policies allow employers to offer unpaid compensatory time off instead of overtime pay to people who work more than 40 hours a week.
“In industrialized democracies, most workers are moving toward the 35-hour work week, while in the U.S., we are moving to 40+ hours,” Cheliotes said, noting that without the additional cost of overtime pay, employers would have an incentive to load workers with more and more work hours, keeping workers from their families longer, lowering employment demand nationally and lowering wages.
“This at a time when people need money to survive in a difficult economy,” he added.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry voted against the overtime legislation that was introduced in Congress; and he co-sponsored legislation to stop the Bush administration from issuing the new regulations that could take away overtime pay rights for millions of workers at a time when wages for personnel in production and non-supervisory positions decreased 8% from the early 70’s to 1999, a period that saw a comparable increase in productivity.
And workers’ contributions to productivity are also not rewarded with vacation time comparable to that given to workers in other countries.
“While workers in Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Great Britain have between 25 and 42 days off each year, Americans are only able to take 13, according to the National Geographic Explorer in 2001,” Cheliotes said. “We are in greater debt, work more hours, and send more family members to work. The media seek to make workers pawns of their agenda, to make them consumers, not critical thinkers.”
Cheliotes is also concerned about fewer people in the U.S. owning more of its wealth. In 1976, he said, the richest 10% of the U.S. population owned 50% of the wealth while in 1997, the richest 10% owned 73% of the wealth and the trend is growing. From 1947-73, he said, nearly everyone’s income was up 117% across the board; but from 1973-1998, the poorest 20% of income earners saw a decline of 3% in their income while the top 5% of income earners saw an increase of 69%. Nowhere is the disparity more marked than in the difference between how much more CEOs earned than the average employee, a figure that went from 41 times more in 1980 to 520 times more today.
Asked about the significance of these disparities, Cheliotes explained that “they are indicative of an autocratic, not democratic, society, where only a few people have control.
“When we look at our economy, the share of wealth workers get has been dependent on a strong labor movement,” he added.
The weaker state of labor unions today, seen in numbers that indicate only 9% of the workforce is unionized today as compared to 24% in 1979, and 40% after World War II, can partially be attributed, Cheliotes said, to the weaker enforcement of labor laws, which has allowed employers to fire with impunity workers who seek to join unions or to unionize workers in a company.
Today, if a company ignores laws intended to prevent labor-busting and fires a worker, they face only two penalties according to Cheliotes: they must repay a worker any wages lost from the time they were fired to the time their grievance was processed, often a process that takes six years, deducting any wages the employee earns in the meantime; and they must post a notice on the company bulletin board saying they were found guilty and would not repeat the offense.
“Dept. of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has said that her goal was to help employers increase their profits,” Cheliotes remarked. “I thought that was the job of the Commerce Department.”
“The last bastion where labor is strong, is in the public sector,” he notes, expressing concern that the desire of President Bush to privatize many government functions is partially motivated by a desire to weaken organized labor in that sector.
“The attempt to privatize Social Security is one example. In one recent analysis (America: Who Really Pays the Taxes by D. L. Bartlett & J.B. Steele, 1994) it was reported that families with incomes of $37,800 paid more than 7% in FICA taxes; families with incomes of $378,000 paid 1.46%; and families with incomes of $3,780,000 paid 0.1%. That is because there is a cap on how much people of different income levels pay into Social Security.
“Privatizing Social Security would benefit the brokers who would receive fees from those investing their assets in stocks. In turn, they would use part of those profits to benefit people in office.”
Neither the Democrats or the Republicans want to discuss the idea of removing the FICA cap, Cheliotes said.
“The goal of government in a democracy should be to intervene on behalf of the majority of the population, so that they are not exploited by the rich and powerful,” he said. “The world, however, is leaning toward a plutocracy, not a democracy, with the rich clearly controlling much of government and the sources of information we receive; and they will continue their attack on organized groups like unions who would be a threat to that.”
As for his own contributions to the betterment of the union movement throughout his long career with CWA Local 1180, he is especially proud of the increase in its membership from approximately 3,000 workers in 1979 when he became president to 7,000 today, attributing a drop from 10,000 in the late ’80s to the Giuliani administration’s active opposition with targeted layoffs of titles representative of his union and efforts to privatize their work.
Cheliotes said that, for him, “it is not enough to bargain a contract. I must be well-informed and participate in public policy on such issues as housing, health care and education.” He boasts providing more than 1,000 union members with the opportunity to participate in educational programs in urban studies and urban affairs, leading to their becoming better workers and empowered to participate in politics and government.
Among his Greek-American community activities, he has been the founding president of the Greek-American Labor Council, which was established in 1994 to “bring the Greek community into the labor movement and the labor movement into the Greek community,” and brought him honors from the AFL-CIO’s Ethnic Labor Coalition.
He is also the director and secretary of the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC), which provides community services in Queens and Brooklyn including: senior centers, housing for the elderly, home attendant services, addiction services, and training services for the unemployed.
When it comes to economic development of this city, Cheliotes says, “it shouldn’t be left only to developers; we need to address the needs of working people to have a more citizen-friendly city.”