Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day Thoughts about Labor Unions

Labor unions were at their peak in the years following WWII.  A little less that 50% of the workforce was unionized back then.  Today it’s around 10% nation wide, with wide variation from state to state.  Some part of the decline is their own fault.  Overly aggressive demands for higher pay and benefits combined with stringently inflexible work rules reached their zenith at the same time that a recovering world economy opened up opportunities for industry to invest where labor was cheaper and less demanding.  The trend was abetted by civil rights legislation that enabled industrial employment in states that were vehemently anti-union to a population that had been chained to the field.  To put it another way, the New South was built on cheaper, non-union labor.

Labor’s strategy sometimes seemed to defy common sense.  I recall several strikes at a tractor factory in my home town in the 1960s.  The factory was owned by a company teetering on the edge of failure, and the strikes did what was needed to push them over.  Auto worker strikes in Detroit boosted pay and benefits beyond what bumbling, slow moving management could afford.  Even today, Washingtonians have witnessed recent strikes against Boeing by a recalcitrant, pugnacious machinists union that have brought them close to losing everything.  I suspect that the union grossly overestimated the competency of management, but that’s another issue.  In any case, the Cold War style of brinksmanship negotiating was a failure.

Having said that, you have seen testimonies to what organized labor has accomplished for ordinary Americans: the eight hour day, five day week, paid vacation, sick leave, safer work places, and so much more.  We owe a lot to the courage of those who were willing to put their jobs on the line to get decent pay and working conditions.  We are now seeing strikes and hard nosed negotiating for other things.  Teachers in a neighboring city are on strike partly for pay, which they deserve, but even more for adequate classroom supplies, texts, and the funds needed for learning to take place.  The union representing our local firefighters negotiated hard all the way through arbitration.  For what?  For the equipment and training needed to keep our community safe.  Here and there are examples of organizing where workers are most mistreated: hotel housekeeping, fast food, big box retailing, etc.  It hasn’t been very successful, but it has shined the light of public awareness into dark places in desperate need of illumination.

I still hear old codgers grumbling in their morning coffee groups about the unbridled power of big labor and how they hate unions.  There isn’t any big labor anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time.  It may be that big labor played a big role in its own demise, but the price now being paid for the lack of responsible union representation is growth in employment at the lowest possible level of compensation, stagnation of wages, and the enormous gap between the top and everyone else.  It may be time for unions to make a comeback, but in a more sophisticated and responsible way.

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