Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Union label

Here’s a topic that will rub everyone the wrong way: what’s good about labor unions.

Everyone has a story about some union excess they know of. I know I do. There is no question that unions have attracted both criminals and the over-zealous – like in politics or the business world. And I confess that I joined the United Steel Workers union when I was 19 so that I could work summers in the Ohio mills, so I am not totally unbiased.

When I went into the mills in 1968 about 30% of the labor force was unionized. By 1981 when Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO strike the figure was about 22%. Today, only about 12% of the workforce is unionized. That’s around 15 million workers, but that understates the decline of unions since the loss is almost totally in the private sector. Today, more than half of all union members are government employees, which makes it all the easier to demonize unions.

This decline didn’t happen because workers got tired of being in unions, it happened because business relentlessly fought to keep their workers from unionizing, and just as hard to drive them out of business when they could; NAFTA is a good example of the kind of tactics that drove good union jobs abroad by making it easy to import almost anything made abroad by people paid pennies an hour, in factories with no safety or environmental rules to deal with.

Fewer high-paying union jobs means less money goes into the U.S. economy. Not surprisingly, the last decade has given us virtually no job growth and no real wage increases. But we’ve seen fantastic gains in business productivity – all of which went to the management and shareholders.

If it weren’t for unions it would be a very different work environment than the one we have today. Unions gave us the only health care insurance system this country has ever had. Unions got children out of mines, gave us the 40-hour work week, vacations, and paid overtime. Unions made safety, including environmental safety, important issues. And they gave American working men and women the highest standard of living in the world.

Were there excesses? Yes there were. But that was part of the price we paid for having a thriving, blue collar middle class that bought all the stuff we made and provided the money to send their children to college so they could become upper middle-class, white collar weenies who used their skills to beat down the unions as they drove their Toyotas and BMWs to their executive jobs.


warrenout said...

D No spin zone here, thats a great synopsis. I wish what is left of the blue collar here in Warren could understand your point.The next battleground is Walmart. The unions need fresh blood and there is little growth in any other sectors.

fenway said...

Full disclosure: my daddy worked for the National Labor Relations Board then in labor relations for Westvaco then labor advisor to the pulp and paper industry's trade association. I wrote my thesis on labor law (it probably didn't even have a bloody POV). However, amen to all you said. Unions allowed people to buy houses, cars, send their kids to school. Allowed them to be free of worry about health care (the first I recall people worrying about health care was the early 90s when I heard the term 'managed care' - but I worked for Time Inc., what did I care). I lived in Detroit for a couple of years and saw first-hand the excesses to which you refer. All you have to do is walk into a post office to see others. Overall I have to come down on the side of unions - they did help make our country great. Or at least grow.

Kaz said...

Your final comment there D'Blank reminded me of a cover article that David Halberstam wrote for The Atlantic back in 1971. It was entitled "The End of a Populist" and was about how Senator Al Gore, Sr. had been defeated in the previous year's congressional election. He pointed out that the TVA, which Gore had sponsored in the days of the Depression, was a program that had allowed Tennessee to move out of dirt scrabble poverty and build a middle class. He showed how blue collar workers' children had moved from the central city to the suburbs, taken white collar jobs, switched their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and prospered. He called them "$10,000 a year millionaires." I think political scientists call it the transformation theory.

Birdman said...

I agree with everything said here so far. The republicans now have a bogey man they can scare people with and have no downside. They've attempted to equate the spending power of unions with that of corporate America when defending the recent supreme court case. That's as disingenuous as it gets. But then what else would you expect.

Unions certainly overreach and often lead with their chins but they've been responsible for creating a middle class in this country. and I suspect their demise will mark the disappearance of it.

Linda Shay said...

Unions served the US in their day ... but I think they definitely have now become a detriment to this country. A very small example: everyone else is working 24/7 and they still need to have their coffee breaks/sick days/vacation days/raises, etc. written into their contracts.

Hankster said...

During my first summer in dental school I worked for my neighbor in the Berkshires, Paul Dean Arnold, the baker. He built his bakery up from scratch. He was a great capitalist and smart. He knew the downside of unions, so he kept them out passively. He always offered his workers more than unions could deliver. His workers voted to stay non-union. But his was the exception. Andrew Carnegie might have become a philanthropist after he retired, but he sent in Pinkertons to suppress unrest due to subpar working conditions.

Evolution is a natural process to deal with adaptations in a given environment. Socially, we have seen excesses of both labor and management. Today, unions are at a disadvantage because the world's playing field has been leveled. America might prevail in the long run because we have a culture of entrepreneurship. But right now we do not have the growth potential of young economies like China and India. Until they mature, our unions will be in the back seat.

kgwhit said...

Another reason that unions lost ground was many businesses provided the benefits that unions had won years before. My mother worked at a union headquarters in DC but my experience in union negotiations and day to day running of a business was a far cry from what I “heard” growing up.
The number of outright lies that the union told our employees was mind boggling. One was when the CWA rep had to cancel a bargaining session because of a minor operation he had. We said fine and the next day on our bulletin board was a memo stating that management had cancelled the session because we didn’t want to bargain in good faith.
Our supervisors often went out drinking with the union employees before the union was voted in. There were so many confrontations with supervisors during the organizing that supervisors and union members quit associating after work and some supervisors quit because they couldn't stand it.
It also eliminated almost all flexibility. A client came with a special request that required something different and we had to bargain with the union and give them something every time. We lost work to other non-union firms because they were more flexible.
The one thing I learned is nobody wants to pay union dues for nothing, so part of the union’s job is to manufacture controversy to justify their existence.

Woody said...

Is that a scarf that you are wearing in your dinosaur picture? What would the steelworkers say about that accessory? My father was a union man with the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. Every other summer he would go on strike or stop working because of another union's(steel,auto,coal)strike. Overall, the union did not help my father at all. They collected his union dues, then told him to go on strike. He never recovered the lost wages caused by the layoffs. When his hourly wages increased, his union dues increased. The union bosses did very well.

d'blank said...

yes, it's a scarf. my old union friends would think it was an oversized tie.