Posts Tagged ‘Legitimacy of labor unions’

The purpose of labor unions

September 3, 2013

I linked to this article by David Macaray in a previous post, but I like it so much I want to highlight it.

A union official I correspond with (the International Vice-President of a West Coast labor union) recently shared an interesting anecdote. He said that whenever he meets someone for the first time and they casually ask what he does for a living, he answers by saying he’s a “workers’ rights activist.”

Because people are, typically, intrigued by his reply and want to hear more, he goes on to explain that his job consists of doing things like making sure retired workers get their pensions, meeting with management to clear up wage or hours disputes, helping laid-off employees get unemployment benefits, representing employees who feel they’ve been unfairly reprimanded, and discussing with company officials such on-the-job issues as bullying and sexual harassment.

Almost invariably, people express their approval of what he does for a living. They respond by saying things like, “Wow, what a cool job,” or “I didn’t even know jobs like that existed,” or “Hey, we need more people doing stuff like that.” But when he ends the conversation by telling them he works for a labor union, he gets a totally different response.

People are stunned.  They appear shocked or confused.  According to this fellow, some people actually exhibit hostility at hearing he’s a union officer, believing they’ve been unfairly tricked into momentarily respecting a person they would otherwise have nothing but contempt for.  Such is the warped perception of labor unions.

When I was a rep, I used a slightly different approach with union-haters.  After listening to their tiresome litany of complaints (i.e., unions are corrupt, they go on strike too much, their economic gains are eaten up by monthly dues, they’re undemocratic, etc.), I would respond with this: “Say what you will about unions, but name another institution that’s solely dedicated to the welfare of working people. Name me one.  Just one.”  Of course, no one could name any because there aren’t any.

Not the President of the United States, not the Congress, not the Church, not the Chamber of Commerce, not Facebook, not the American Legion, the Elks or the Moose, not charities or philanthropic groups. Only us. The only institution solely dedicated to the welfare of working people are labor unions.  And if you can’t understand that, you can’t understand anything.

via CounterPunch.

Click on Our Sad, Misunderstood Labor Unions for David Macaray’s full article.

Do labor unions have a right to exist?

March 24, 2011

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.
==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I get into arguments with people I know about whether labor unions ought to exist.

Some have had bad experiences with labor unions – with unions that were too weak to do anything for their members, or unions that abused their power.  Some say there once was a need for labor unions, but the need no longer exists because laws and government regulations will protect workers.

I agree that unions and union members have done bad things, from the hard-hat construction union members who beat up anti-war demonstrators in the 1970s to the prison guards union which worked against legalization of medical marijuana in last year’s California referendum.

But banks, the police and other institutions in society have abused their power, too, and no reasonable person proposes that they be abolished – only that they perform their proper duties.

We take for granted that people who get income from investing their wealth have a right to unite into corporations and act as if they were a single person.  But we don’t take for granted that people who get income from the labor of the hands and brains have a right to form unions and act in unity.

And as for workers trusting government to protect their rights – laws are not self-enacting; neither are they self-enforcing.  I have a legal right not to be forced to work overtime without pay.  But as a lone individual, I lack the power to force a big business to respect that right, unless I have money to hire lawyers and time to wait – maybe years – for a decision.  I recall an age discrimination lawsuit against Xerox Corp. which dragged on for years, and some of the plaintiffs died in the meantime.

How the laws are written, and how much the regulators enforce them, depends upon the attitude of the party in power, and the attitude of the party in power depends on what social and economic institutions have the most influence.

It is true that today’s labor unions are politically weak, but that his not an argument for making them weaker still.  During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, I was a member of an extremely weak union, the Newspaper Guild.  Each contract negotiation was about what we would give up, not what we would gain.  But still – we had a contract.  The company might impose its policy, but it was contractually obligated to follow that policy.  There was something standing between the individual and absolute power.  We weren’t subject to being fired because somebody took a personal dislike to any of us.

I reported on business and the economy for the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester for 20 years.  As things started to go bad in the local economy in the 1980s and worsened in the 1990s, I found a pervasive atmosphere of fear.  Most people were afraid to say anything on the record that would be contrary to their employers – or potential employers.  The only people who were unafraid to speak as free Americans were retirees, the self-employed (sometimes), tenured college professors and labor union members.