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Unions: Yes or No?


My dad, a musician, belonged to a union for at least two decades. When he became a parent and took on the dreaded Day Job, his trombone-related activities became a weekend thing. His income from gigs wasn't enough to justify paying union dues. And so, he entered the shadowy world of independent musicians, playing neighborhood festivals and occasional weddings, which were paid "under the table." Taxes? No idea. Never asked; never thought about it, and now he is not available for inquiry.

Mom was a union member during the few years she worked at a factory. It was an in-house union, apparently, and they were often plagued by the United Auto Workers wanting to take it over. "I wish they'd leave our little union alone," she'd say; it sounded like the UAW was a more oppressive force than the management. I never heard her say anything negative about her employer. I guess she figured, they hired a woman in her 50s who'd been a homemaker for 20 years, so they couldn't be all that bad.

My teachers in suburban New York were union members and they went on strike twice during the time I lived there. At the beginning of 8th grade they marched outside the school. My friend Pam, never one for subtlety, saw a friend of hers near the front door, so she plunged straight through the line of teachers, probably not even aware of why they were marching. I remember running after her, calling "Pam, you never cross a picket line!" I didn't know much about picket lines or why you shouldn't cross them, but at the very least, it seemed rude (which it was). There were no classes during the first week. We assembled in the gym, where we had to stay for some minimum number of hours so that school attendance could be counted for "state aid." Then we went home. For some reason, I remember two of the top songs on the radio at that time: "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" by Mac and Katie Kissoon, and "Want Ads" by Honey Cone. When the union and the school district settled their differences, everything went back to normal as we knew it. My Social Studies teacher explained to us what a "scab" was. When I told my mother about this, she rolled her eyes and said "Can't they drop that and just let you kids be kids?"

Seven years later, I was out of high school, and the teachers went on strike again. This time, it wasn't just a few teachers marching. They were lined up all the way down the street, shaking their fists at cars, shouting, and being very, very hostile toward their colleagues who chose not to strike. One of the teachers I'd grown close to took early retirement because people she'd eaten lunch with every day in the faculty room since the early 1960s trashed her new car and called her The Scab because she didn't picket. There's something very ugly about social ostracism, so my general view of unions has been shaped quite strongly by this episode.

Nearly every news story I hear about "education reform" has teachers' unions at the epicenter. It's easy to blame them -- except if you're a teacher. I know a lot of teachers. Just from having been a student, I am aware that lesson planning for numerous classes is hard enough without having to plow through mountains of paperwork, attend meetings, confer with parents at all hours, sponsor extracurricular activities and function as an unofficial social worker. A school district in New England, where most of the teachers were let go for "substandard" performance, was one in which poverty and unemployment were so pervasive, the teachers couldn't hope to get through the year's syllabus unless the kids got breakfast. But the district cut meal funds, and the teachers ended up buying breakfast for the kids who needed it. They pooled their funds to buy winter coats. It's so easy to say "School is for learning; let Social Services take care of the kids, you just teach." But when political agendas and budgets cut funding for life's basic necessities, how do you look the other way? So if teachers in places like this feel the need to organize to protect their jobs and income, then it's understandable. It's about monetary vs. intrinsic value of a job.

That's the Northeast, where labor has historically had a stronger voice and social programs get relatively more respect (though getting to that point has taken a long time).  But what about other parts of the country, such as the south? You can spend an entire day, or longer, reading historical and political analysis of why it's so different to be employed down here than it is in other places. Skipping over the whys, I can affirm that it is indeed different. Salaries are lower and benefits are not a given.  So when you grow up in New York with the impression that unions do some good but seem to have the unfortunate effect of making life unnecessarily complicated, it is interesting to see what happens when unions are actively blocked and opposed.

You can't get a straight answer when you ask about teachers' unions in the south. But there is no doubt whatsoever that this part of the country is attractive to businesses (such as Boeing) that have had significant labor conflicts and would like to avoid them going forward. 

In Southeast Tennessee, a major European auto maker has opened a plant. This company, back across the Atlantic, has had what they call a "works council" for many years. It's not something that a Detroit line employee would recognize as a union; it's more of a collaboration between management and workers, so that each side can have a thorough understanding of the other's priorities and concerns. News reports describe this arrangement as a useful and positive one. But importing the concept to American shores has opened up a lot of cans, and the worms are wiggling with all their might. The United Auto Workers wants to be involved. The company is reserving judgment; they want to know more. However, local politicians are in a veritable panic at the prospect of any labor organization. They see it as a communicable disease, or a "domino theory," to evoke the old Vietnam metaphor. Let anything resembling a union into even one company and soon we will be awash in all of the problems that led to General Motors being bailed out by the federal government.

Okay, we've talked about New York, Michigan, Washington, and a handful of southern states. Let's visit Illinois. A friend of mine is employed by a utility there, and they have a union. Her take? "Any company that has a union has done something to deserve it." By this, she means that companies can be quite a bit like the family down the street: When the police are there several times a year and the kids keep running away from home, it's time for Social Services to step in. And what happens then? The intentions of the outside agency are undoubtedly good, but their scrutiny carries a heavy load of unintended consequences and misinterpretation. Families have their own unique styles of doing things, and social workers sometimes impose awkward rules on relationships that emphasize the problems they're endeavoring to solve, and weaken the aspects that make the family strong.  Calling in an outside entity is a last-resort type of move. No family is perfect, but most of the time, they can work out their differences privately. Companies that can't forge an alliance (however uneasy) between management and labor have set themselves up for union involvement. 

One company in the south that I know fairly well has been keeping a close eye on the auto manufacturer's situation. It's making them nervous. Entire management-training sessions are devoted to the subject of keeping the unions out. They teach how to spot signs that employees may be trying to organize; they give advice called "TIPS" (don't Threaten, Intimidate, Promise or Spy) on how to deal with the specter of organized labor, and frequently remind employees of their policies and fervent desire to keep things as they are and have been since the company's inception.

No unions there for the time being. But benefits have gotten more, ahem, liberal in the past three years or so (coinciding with the auto company's arrival). Employees feel a stronger sense of respect. There's a feeling that management has finally accepted that this is the 21st century. Would all of these steps have been taken without the fear of union intervention?

I'm inclined to think not. ...It isn't such a terrible thing to see companies that are not unionized, treating employees the way they would if they were.


The Urban Blabbermouth said…
It seems to me that Northeast Unions have lost their way. They have accomplished their main purpose of improving pay, benefits, and work conditions. So what do they do now?

Teachers union gets an unfair blame for the state of the school systems. I blame weak school management not the unions. If unions has so much say in management matters, and they probably do, it is because that management gave it to the unions. Threat of unionization in that southern company caused improvements. This is the Free Rider effect but that cannot last. At some point, the union threat looses power without any successful unionization.

What puzzles me most is why do voters approve laws, such as anti-union statutes, that are not in their best interest?

I miss your writing.
Vol-E said…
What puzzles me most is why do voters approve laws, such as anti-union statutes, that are not in their best interests?

Here's a good piece in Salon, where Noam Chomsky explains it pretty well. In a nutshell, the system in this country has always worked so that one specific segment of society gets a benefit, but it's engineered to be at the expense of another segment of society. Chomsky describes labor unions in Canada focusing on getting healthcare for everyone, while in the US, unions got it for employees at specific companies or industries. Busing benefited some black kids in urban areas but it displaced white kids in the same urban areas. So it's set up to pit two equally disadvantaged groups against one another, so that their differences become greatly magnified and they cannot work together. Link:

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