by Eric Bergeson, March 4, 2011
Everybody has their horror story about unions.
“Of course, he's union, so you can't get rid of him,” is the usual punch line after a story about some guy who wouldn't lift a finger to fight a fire at work because fighting fire wasn't in his job description.
Even when 19th century workers organized to improve deadly work conditions in dimly-lit factories, install the forty-hour work week, get rid of child labor and institute other reforms we take for granted today, they faced public opposition.
At that time, people said unions were unAmerican, communistic, socialistic, even unbiblical.
If you don't like your working conditions, went the mantra, you can just quit.
But before we hate unions as a matter of general principle, we should remember the horrific conditions early unions fought to improve.
It is also good to look at the arguments which were used against unions at a time when they asked for nothing more than enough wages for decent food and safe enough working conditions so workers didn't die young.
The labor market should be completely free just like the market in goods, went one argument. Unions poison the relationship between workers and management went another.
Why do anti-union arguments have such power today, even when one can't argue with vital role unions performed earlier our history?
Because unions and management got fat and happy and screwed it all up!
General Motors, United Airlines and other huge businesses gave away crazy union contracts that did not allow for downturns in the economy.
Buried in those contracts were crazy rules which pretty much outlawed efficiency and sanctified laziness.
An obnoxious mind-set arose in some of these unions: Our entire goal as workers is to make more while doing less.
Good workers, instead of striving for excellence, innovating on the job and trying to save money, were pressured by their peers to slow down, do less and not come up with any disruptive ideas, however much good those ideas might do the company.
Management, meanwhile, had plenty of cash and assumed that the river of money would always run full. So, they gave away the store in negotiations.
Crazy pension plans! Total job security! Fewer hours!
It didn't work. Many companies have gone broke due to inflexible and unwisely generous union contracts doled out during good times.
Other companies have been hobbled by silly rules and work slowdowns.
Compare Northwest Airlines with Southwest Airlines: Fifteen years ago, Northwest had pouty, overpaid workers who would refuse to fly if the light bulb in the restroom burnt out. They were on a “slowdown.”
Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, had fun-loving employees who seemed to enjoy their job, even though they were paid less. Perhaps their happiness arose because their stock options were going up.
Northwest Airlines disappeared. Southwest is making money.
Public opinion, which was often pro-union from the Depression forward, turned against unions in the 1980s as juicy stories of huge hourly wages and crazy work rules spread. Ronald Reagan told those stories, cracked PATCO and became an anti-union hero.
But let's not go overboard here.
Collective bargaining has a vital role. We can see it under our nose in our small towns, if we bother to look.
When he assembled the painful budget which addresses the $6 billion shortfall, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton had to decide where to cut.
His decision pitted the interests of the local school against the interests of the nursing home down the street.
Teachers are organized. Pretty tough to impose cuts on them. As Wisconsin has proven, teachers can really raise a ruckus!
Most nursing home workers are not organized.
Surprise, surprise, nursing homes got the axe. Many face an 8% cut.
Because of past cuts to nursing homes, there is nowhere else to slash the budget. New cuts fall directly on the workers. They will lose wages and benefits. And they have no way to fight it.
It is cruel to say “If you don't like it, quit” to the won-derful people who provide basic care to our loved ones because we’re to lazy to do it ourselves. These people are already on the edge.
It's all about power. If you're organized, you have at least a little power. You can get on the evening news. You can stir debate. You can mob the capitol.
But if you're unorganized, you're going to get the shaft.
And nobody will even hear about it.