Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Join the Union!

        I’ve been thinking about my grandfather a lot this past week, as I’ve watched the country wrestle with the questions raised in Wisconsin as Gov. Scott Walker seeks legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for public union employees. I wish I could hear my grandfather’s take on events.

        My grandfather was a staunch Republican, a fan of Ronald Reagan and a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of guy. He believed government shouldn’t buy what it couldn’t afford, and was deeply suspicious of government “giveaways,” particularly programs that he thought promoted dependence.

        He was also a union man, through and through. A small businessman, he ran a union shop, and was proud to be a member of the printer’s union. His advice on almost any subject was to “join the union,” so much so that it got to be a running joke in his old age.

        I am not certain how he reconciled those two things, because I was in my early 20s when he died and did not yet have the wisdom to see that they needed reconciling. Our political arguments (and there were many, because Grandpa taught me to love a good political argument) were mostly about his commitment to self-reliance and my youthful enthusiasm for using government to fix what is wrong in the world. As I’ve watched events unfold in Wisconsin and elsewhere, though, I’ve been thinking more about that question, and I think I have an idea of how being a Republican union man might have made perfect sense to my grandfather.

        Unions level the playing field. They help balance the vast differentials in power that occur when one side has all the cards -- money, influence, desperately needed jobs to offer or take away. Unions are the only way the working class can play the one card they have -- the fact that without their toil, everything the company’s owners have built is worthless. Unions brought us the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, disability insurance for those injured on the job, and industrial safety standards so there would be fewer injuries. In other words, unions made it possible for hard-working people to gain a toehold and build better lives for themselves. The union movement gave them bootstraps to pull themselves up with.

        Sadly, unions do not always champion such righteous causes. Sometimes they stand in the way of needed change, and become champions of mediocrity, defending the jobs of people who probably deserve to lose them. They have sometimes carried an “us vs. them” mentality into a world where there’s now a much bigger “them” out there than company management. Public employees’ unions have sometimes championed the good of their members at the expense of the good of the people.

        Alas, that’s the problem with human organizations -- they are never perfect. But getting rid of the unions is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It favors those who already have power and influence, and if you think *that* doesn’t lead to greater problems than flawed unions, you need to read up on 19th century American history. Be sure you place yourself firmly in the working class, unless your last name is Rockefeller or you come from a long line of Boston Brahmins. I doubt you’ll come away wishing the world were the way it was before the labor movement.

        I think we need *more* unions, not fewer. I listen to my professional friends talk about working 60 hours a week while being paid for 40, because they are afraid they will lose their jobs if they don’t. I hear them griping about the loss of benefits they feel powerless to stop. I hear about paid vacation time that “expires” because management refuses to approve vacations, again and again, because there’s too much work to get done. I read constantly about CEOs and upper management who collect multi-million dollar bonuses on top of their multi-million dollar salaries, while talking about “shared sacrifices” and insisting workers making $50,000 a year pay the cost of their health care.

        These are just the kinds of corporate greed and individual powerlessness that unions empower workers to address, fairly and equitably, through collective bargaining. Unions force companies to share the benefits of their success with workers as well as shareholders. So I say, let’s have more unions, not fewer. Let’s have unions for engineers and accountants, as well as assembly line workers and electricians. Let’s force those with money and influence to sit down at the table and figure out how to fairly and equitably share out the pie. Let’s work on fixing union short-sightedness and greed, instead of simply handing the whole pie to those who are already getting the biggest piece of it.

        I sympathize with the frustrations of those who have come up against immovable unions, and spent too much time defending against ridiculous grievances. There’s no doubt that we need to keep working on better ways to maintain a balance between the needs of employers and employed. But if an occasional shift in the balance of power towards the employed is the price we pay for keeping a place at the table for those who otherwise have little influence or voice, I’m willing to live with the union system’s flaws. I guess that makes me a “union man” through and through. I think my grandfather would be pleased.