John O'Connor

If unions have their way, nursing homes and other low-wage employers will soon be portrayed as being on the wrong side of the civil rights movement.

Consider last week’s flash strike of some 200 workers from fast-food restaurants around New York City, which headlined a string of unorthodox actions sponsored by organized labor.  Unions are hoping that new aggressive tactics, often in collaboration with social justice activists, will help portray low-wage employers as anti-civil rights.

Which raises an interesting question: Are employers who offer a low wage to people with little training or education good or evil? There would appear to be plenty of ammo for both sides of the argument.

Those who hold nursing homes and other such employers in low regard note that it’s immoral if not illegal to pay workers poverty-level rates. After all, earning $8.50 an hour translates to an annual income of only $17,680 – if you can actually work those 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Jack the hourly rate up to $10, and the sum is a still meager $20,800. Both totals are fractions of rounding errors when compared to the retirement deal just announced for the outgoing CEO of Johnson & Johnson, which will reportedly exceed $140 million. All told, William C. Weldon will be eligible for $95.1 million in deferred and long-term compensation, in addition to $48 million in pension payments, the company revealed. Is that how capitalism is supposed to work?

Just a second, the other side would surely counter. Would it be better for people who lack education or training to have no job at all? While $17,680 is hardly a princely sum, it has a lot more buying power than zero dollars. Besides, should nursing homes and other low-wage payers go bankrupt because they can’t make payroll? Is that how capitalism is supposed to work?

Like most difficult problems, this one does not seem to offer an answer both sides are willing to abide by.

What we do know is this: Fewer and fewer people are joining unions these days. We also know that many of the middle-skilled, good-paying manufacturing jobs that once attracted union workers have either gone overseas or been replaced by machines.

Unions are basically left with two choices. The first is that they can take actions to make sure their members are better trained and better educated. The second is they can portray low-wage employers as the devil. There does not appear to be much doubt about which option is winning out.

So what does the employer-as-evil moniker mean to you, besides the fact that your business is likely to be portrayed as inhumane, and on the wrong side of history? Well for starters, you might want to brace for more episodes of organized and random disobedience.

Idle speculation? Well, as Editor Jim Berklan noted in his Nov. 28 blog, union workers at HealthBridge nursing homes in Connecticut recently sabotaged two Alzheimer’s wards before departing. Resident nametags and photos were removed and dietary stickers altered, which made caregiving considerably more challenging for the employees who remained. Think that’s an outlier example that couldn’t happen again? Really?

Union-labor relations in this field have certainly hit some rough patches over the years. Unfortunately, it appears things may get even more bizarre. And if the people fanning the latest rounds of civil and uncivil disobedience have their way, you can be sure of one thing: You’ll be blamed.