Union Delusions

I walked out to get a salad around lunchtime yesterday and something felt out of place. It was several blocks before I realized that the picket line was gone from in front of the Madison Hotel at 15th and M. I just closed my sixth week with the new job and they’ve been marching and chanting that entire time, plus who knows how long prior. These people were motivated – whatever the weather, from dawn until dark, they paced their block of righteousness chanting. Every time someone arrived to check in, they had to run a gauntlet of disapproving union members, booing and banging pots and pans together (no joke).

Madison, Madison. You’re so rude!
We don’t like your at-ti-tude!

What do we want? Mmmhmhmhm [inaudible]
When do we want it? Now!

At one point, intrigued and frustrated in equal measure, I stopped on my way back from a deli and questioned one of the people in line. All I got was a vague look and a snaggle-toothed grin. That was the same guy who got dragged off by police for laying his hands on someone trying to check in. The goal was clearly more about disrupting business thaneducating passers-by.

Admittedly, I’m a little suspicious of unions. I come from a General Motors family, several generations of Michigananders, and I’ve seen firsthand the impact of the decline of the automotive industry. There was a time when unions were not only good, but necessary. You can’t read The Jungle without feeling the compelling need to protect people from the danger of naked capitalism. There are also good reasons for unionizing public servants like police, firefighters and sanitation workers (and air traffic controllers, despite President Reagan) — interruption of certain vital services can be catastrophic.

Which brings into focus the issue going on in Wisconsin. For weeks, teachers have been fighting Governor Walker’s efforts to reduce their collective bargaining weight. I think teachers are valuable … I also think bus drivers and carpenters and check-out clerks at video stores are valuable (okay, nothing that keeps video stores open is valuable). When you consider that states can’t run deficits and have to start making cuts somewhere, what is it about teaching that means that your job is never going to be subject to cuts? How do layoffs make union members better off than taking a wage cut across the board? I mean that to be an honest question.

I can’t get away from the idea that a union is just a special interest group by another name. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, because everyone should have the right to promote their interests, but with unions, it seems impermissible to ever lose. Unions are driven by the same kinds of politics as are governments: what have you done for me lately? But they function within the fabric of a broader society, so while we have all kinds of romantic visions of union activists, blind support for them should be balanced by a full view of their impact on industry in the modern era. Programs like the “jobs bank” that the UAW enjoyed crashed the auto industry. I’ll see your Norma Rae and raise you Jimmy Hoffa.

Union advocacy is reasonable, until it kills the host. Case in point: the NFL players association. They’ve exercised the nuclear option in negotiations with ownership, moving to actually decertify their union. Ironically, that’s the strongest play they could make to ensure the power of their union. Ownership is intended to accept the power of the union just to keep their exception to U.S. antitrust laws. At issue is ownership’s insistence that they have to roll back a few of the gains made by the players association over the last decade, but the prospect of losing is going drive the union to crash the most popular sports league in the country. U.S. fans do not react well to battles between millionaires that leave them with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon.

I’d like to think that whatever disagreement prompted the strike in front of the Madison got worked out, but hell, maybe they just got tired. Maybe I missed some epic scene where strike-breakers showed up. Maybe DC finally got around to enforcing the various laws that should have taken it down sooner. I muse to myself, thtough, that it would be great if someone at the front of the line realized that they were using a destructive and dated method of holding on to labor gains. That packing up their signs and going home might have been the best thing they could do.

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2 Responses to Union Delusions

  1. Judson says:

    So recently I’ve been having a really tough time with this issue. On the one hand my personal experience with unions has been overwhelmingly negative in exactly the way that you describe, that they are essentially special interest groups whose main concern is their own continued existence, which leads to some very unfortunate unintended consequences. Sarah had the same experience from the inside – when she was working in adult education she was forced to be a part of the teacher’s union and had a front row seat to the idiocy and politics that came with it.

    On the other hand…

    That is, part of the reason unions exist at all is to keep corporations in check, and I wonder if we’ve swung too far in the other direction. Especially with the recent economic “recovery” where huge corporate profits have not translated to more jobs or higher salaries. Recently my 4th line manager had to stand up in front of the entire division and try to explain why our company’s profits and stock were at a record high, while our salary plan (bonus + raises) was lower than it was during the recession. Needless to say, it was not an easy conversation.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to have a job at all, and I certainly can’t complain about my standard of living. But the fact of the matter is that in the absence of unions the only real power I have over my wages is the ability to find another job. In the case of a jobless recovery I don’t even have that, which basically means bend over…

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