Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Why we need labor unions

I have supported labour unions for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a union household. My father was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. I put myself through school in the late '70s and early '80s by working in unionized grocery store chains as a member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

I remember at the time having discussions with people who didn't like unions. They either didn't think they were necessary or didn't think they were a positive force in the country. I could never understand this kind of logic, especially as it frequently came from working-class people.

Generally, I assumed that they didn't understand the history of the labour movement and how they benefitted even if they were not themselves a member of a union, how working conditions and compensation improved for everyone because of unions and how easy it would be for gains to be lost.

The bottom line for me has always been that unions are about respect for the employee, the ability to negotiate fair compensation certainly, but also a modicum of protection should relations with an employer sour for whatever reason. And to be clear, a problem could be, for example, the fact that you've been around too long and make too much money and they want to replace you with someone younger and cheaper.

Anyone who has ever had a job knows that things can go awry with one's supervisor or the organization with which one is employed. It's human nature in general terms, but it's also human nature in a highly competitive market economy. If you have ever worked in a union shop and a conflict arises with management -- and conflicts always arise -- you know that there are mechanisms to deal with the problem and that you have some protection from summary dismissal or other kinds of action contrary to your interests.

What I recall vividly about working in a unionized shop is that the workers feel better about themselves, have more self-respect and pride because they know that they are backed by a collective agreement that puts in place mechanisms to mediate problems and negotiate on their behalf.

It's not even that I think employers necessarily want to be bastards, but that our economic system is based on competition. The exigencies of competition can mean that employees are chewed up if they stand alone. Too many things can go wrong in a workplace for an employee -- too many things that are patently unfair -- to fail to see the need for collective bargaining.

It's been that simple for me for a long time. That the employer may not see it that way is pretty clear. But so what? Fair is fair, and if the only way to guarantee a degree of justice on the job is to level the playing field somewhat, what could be more American?

So it is not surprising to me that a strong majority of Americans, according to a recent poll, oppose depriving public sector employees of collective bargaining rights. Specifically, a New York Times/CBS poll indicated that 60 percent of Americans oppose taking away even "some" of public employees' collective bargaining rights.

Anyone who has ever had a job understands that securing a decent living frequently requires having the political and economic power to fight for your rights. Perhaps people are developing a new understanding, especially in lean economic times where fairness is one of the first things to go, that we hang together or we hang separately (metaphorically speaking).

James Gray Pope, who teaches constitutional and labor law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey, recently wrote: 

The idea that anybody who works hard should enjoy the American Dream harks back to the 1950s and 1960s, when unions were strong enough not only to win decent wages and benefits for their own members (who made up more than 30 percent of the private workforce, as opposed to 7 percent today), but also to induce many non-union employers to pay similar wages to avoid unionization. 

Those were the days of what economists call "The Great Convergence," when the incomes of rich and poor were relatively close, and all Americans shared to some extent in our country‚Äôs prosperity. 

As we know, those days ended and union membership declined precipitously, as did the gap between the very rich and the rest of us. As Professor Pope puts it: 

Unfortunately for American workers, corporate employers launched a relentless campaign against unions and union standards. In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired hundreds of air traffic controllers for refusing to accept his terms and going on strike, employers took it as a green light to break unions. They discovered that they could instill fear and discourage organizing by firing workers for joining unions and threatening to close facilities if workers voted union. 

Public-sector unions are one of the last strongholds of the union movement in America so, clearly, we should not be surprised that conservatives everywhere, who seem hell-bent on doing the bidding of corporate power, either want to weaken them dramatically or destroy them outright. 

Our economic system, for better or worse, is a competitive system. At the end of the day, it's better for the system taken as a whole if both management and labour have enough power to make the relationship fair. 

As I have written elsewhere, the concentration of wealth and power in America is now such that it should be inconceivable that we would want to dismantle one of the few oppositional forces that has in our history been able to provide a counterweight to that wealth and power. 

It seems that a lot more Americans are now understanding this. Perhaps when this current skirmish is over, we will have Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to thank for helping more people understand. 

The high numbers in support of collective bargaining for public-sector unions suggests to me that a lot of people understand that confronting the power of an employer as an individual is difficult at best and usually impossible. 

Sure, a lot of people may look at public-sector contracts and resent the fact that they themselves are not in such a strong position and side with conservatives. It seems that a lot more of us look at those public-sector contracts and ask why more of us can't have access to greater security in our working life and a better standard of living.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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