Unions

I had an interesting discussion on another board concerning Unions. I tried to piece it together into a cohesive article. I have a couple of observations before getting into it. Because the original board is secular, my argumentation is largely secular, but not uninformed by my Christian convictions. I think that a theological foundation for my convictions can be found in my blog . Some of the specific issues addressed are somewhat dated as they were in the context of Ohio Senate Bill 5, which took away Union rights of public employees and was defeated in a citizen’s veto this past November, but the arguments themselves did not go away and they will come back again. Plus, of all the states which passed anti-union legislation this year, Ohio was the only one to allow a citizen’s veto and so the arguments apply elsewhere even if not here. So much. For now. So, without further ado, the question was asked “why should I care if Unions are legally hamstrung? I have never been in a Union and I am doing fine. It seems they have outgrown their usefulness.”

Pretty much everything you enjoy as a worker has been fought for and won by Unions. 40 hour work week. Time and a half for overtime. Your wages have been moved up even if you don’t have a Union because non-union employers have to keep up or they won’t have employees. In Carnegie’s steel mills, workers worked twelve hour days 12 days in a row, on the thirteenth day worked 24 hours and then got their one day off. All for $0.25/hr and no overtime. To think that now that we have such great conditions, unions are no longer necessary is a mistake.

While we often key on pay, safe working conditions are an important contribution which Unions have made. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, earlier this year my Dock Manager informed me that I had to work ten straight hours without a break. My Union provides a place to dispute such bullying on the part of management. Collective bargaining levels the playing field.

While I am sure that those who are non-union have “merited” their pay and raises (I am also sure that what they got is not as much as what they merited), I think that the common claim that Union members do not merit their pay or benefits is not correct. Contracts are negotiated based on how well the company is doing. In the context of Issue 2 in Ohio, Ads are constantly harping that “great” teachers are always suffering at the unfair hands of “tenured” teachers. “Great” teachers get fired while that lazy, phone-it-in tenured guy just goes on and on. What makes this false is the reason for seniority rights is to protect longer serving workers from arbitrary firing in order to replace them with lower-payed junior people. “Great” is nowhere in the equation. A friend of mine was working (non-union) at a local Hospital. As she approached her 25th anniversary, her manager invented a reason to fire her. 25 years of merit and, more importantly, her 25 years of pension all lost. She is just one person and unable to stand against a multi-Billion dollar a year corporation.

Another reason it is false is why are proponents of the bill so interested in “firing” teachers? The reason is it is in their plan to cut pay and benefits and fire teachers and do not want anybody to stand up against them. So, when they talk about “rewarding great teachers” what they mean is lower seniority teachers will get to keep their jobs with lower pay, far larger classroom size, fewer supplies and fewer benefits.

I have keyed on teachers, but this also affects Police and Firefighters whose safety equipment and staffing will be unilaterally decided based solely on budget considerations.

One person objected to my defending Unions saying Unions are, “Symptomatic of the kinds of behavior human beings will sink to left unchecked. Unchecked because they know full well that unions effectively put up an impenetrable legal shield which makes it difficult to weed out the crap”.

To which I replied, This is wrong. Though you seem to believe that Unions encourage bad behavior, I know that when people on the dock are caught stealing, there is no “impenetrable legal shield”. There are steps so that one is not railroaded (because management is not incapable of planting stuff on people to get rid of them), and that he has a Union steward with him at all times (Weingarten Rights), but in the end, the ones caught stealing are driven away from the dock in a police cruiser and the fellow workers are happy that the thief has been caught. In your utopia, who “checks” management? Not Unions, because you wish to get rid of Unions. Not Government because you wish to get rid of government regulations. So let’s just trust our morally superior business superiors? Once you have gotten rid of every worker protection, what will protect the workers?

Another person wrote, I can understand the impetus to unionize fungible workers who can be taken advantage of because the nature of their work is such that there isn’t a metric by which one worker is better than the next, outside of their willingness to put up with managerial abuses. However, with teachers, there is a quality difference, so good teachers should be able to, individually, negotiate a market rate for their services. Some teachers are better than others. Certain things like the apportionment of school resources is by necessity a collective process, but in any workplace, you have to work together to figure out if Area A needs more resources, will it be Area B, C or D that gets less?

To which I replied, Teachers are free to go to private or Charter Schools with their services. I still think, however, that the stereotype of all those excellent teachers unrecognized and crushed by the Unions is false. If not false (we all know senior people who game the system and people with integrity who are frustrated by the system, but getting rid of Unions will not fix that) at least exaggerated for the emotional effect.

One person gave the standard “Unions are no longer needed” argument: Unions served a purpose back in the day to get workplace safety regulations and minimum wages imposed, but we have those now (and I’ve worked for more than one employer who saw minimum wage as “I don’t need to pay any more than” – those are the kinds of jobs one ought to be holding while one works to acquire skills one can trade for more money). Are unions still necessary, or are regulatory agencies filling the need?

I wrote, Don’t look now, but those who want to destroy Unions are also getting rid of all government regulations, including minimum wage (They already have a below minimum wage for what you described). Recent pronouncements by the pro-business politicians include getting rid of NLRB (which is supposed to enforce Labor laws), minimum wage is unconstitutional as well as child labor laws. Indeed, any legislation regulating business is unconstitutional. You cannot assume that once the Unions and regulation are gone, management will continue to protect worker’s rights or their safety.

Someone wrote, As for firing with seniority, I may be showing a generational gap here, but I really don’t see what’s wrong with letting a worker go when you decide that the quality differential between them and a less-experienced worker isn’t worth the pay differential. The employer gets what it pays for, so why is it wrong for them to decide they don’t need experience? Again, that might be the generational gap or it might be that I’ve always worked in situations where I knew my employment is only as secure as my worth to my employer, and I’ve never had a paid day off in my life.

I replied, Everybody knows that paying less is cheaper than paying more. You are working with an assumption that the company gets what it pays for, when in reality, they get more than they pay for. Why shouldn’t they just use people and throw them away? I guess that’s true but why would you want that? How did Randian brutality become our cultural dogma? Has not the worker invested anything? Part of the Contract, written or otherwise, is that the employee is investing something as well – something more than 40 hours for which paid-in-full comes on Friday. The common wisdom today that the employee’s only return on investment is fully accomplished by payday is false. The employee has committed himself to the company. He has committed himself to the company’s success. The bitter old guy in the office who has been there a century has a century of himself in that company. He may be in some “filler” position because they don’t know what else to do with the guy and he refuses to retire, but the company still makes more off him than they pay him. On its end the company promises more than just pay. To have the company seeing their contract with the employee as utterly expendable once the guy gets paid is not good business (As I’ve shared before, my company has breached its contract with me not only in pay but in refusing to pay into the pensions they agreed to pay into). In the case of my friend I mentioned before, a pension was part of the contract and after 25 years of my friend keeping her end of the contract, the business reneged by firing her in a way which lost her pension. Saved the company a boatload of money so makes business sense, right? Similarly, a friend of mine worked at a shop where a man was killed in an industrial accident. Management called their stooge into the office and told him to plant drugs in the dead man’s car before the police arrived. Fake that he was a doper to get rid of workman comp expenses. Who protects the worker from abuses?

While it may be generational (probably more your age, the idea that old people just need to be sent away on ice floes makes less sense the older you get), the idea of pensions will become more important to you as you get older. I would suggest that the definition of a job needs to expand beyond 40hrs work for 40hrs pay. The employee/employer relationship is far more complex.

Concerning the rights of minors to work, while stories abound from those who are trying to get rid of the child labor laws of children who are proud to contribute to their family the reasons for wanting to hire children more likely are 1) Children are cheaper. 2) Children are more easily intimidated 3) Children are disposable and 4) we will hire children rather than their parents. [Update: Recently, when Gingrich floated this, a key part of what he said was to get rid of the Union Janitors and hire kids from the school to clean up. He did not even try to pretend his idea was really to fire the adults and destroy the Union]

Were children hired, I would absolutely want both Unions and Federal regulations to make sure they are not enslaved and oppressed and placed in unsafe working conditions. Those who wish to get rid of child labor laws also wish to get rid of Unions and federal regulations. They are not targeting child labor laws because they plan on continuing to voluntarily keep them.

I do not follow the idea is that inflexibility is some Union invention. Yeah, I understand that management thinks that just stopping payment into pension funds as they agreed in the contract is a great money saver and the Union’s inflexibility stands in the way. When the Unions are fighting the cost-cutting ideas of management which target the workers while their pay remains the same or is increased, the Union is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The assumption that breaking Unions will help when a family loses the bread-winner just doesn’t make sense. Ideally, Unions fight so that workers families will not be destitute should that happen.

Someone wrote, But if you were paying people to do a job, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to pay the productive workers more than those who are sitting around twiddling their thumbs?

To which I replied, That, then, would be the management’s concern, not yours. As for the twiddling their thumbs bit, while not denying that people game their jobs, something which would take place whether there is a Union or not, everybody thinks they are the hardest worker on the floor. Everybody thinks they put in an honest day. Ultimately, there is exactly and only one person at your company over whom you need to have concern.

Here on the dock, I am third from the bottom in seniority. Doesn’t matter that I am 58 years old, doesn’t matter that my first Union job was in 1977 or my first job in 1969. Some people above me phone it in every day and I run circles around them, that is none of my business. Some senior people are incredibly beat up by their years here and need people to take up their slack. I do so because I am a human being and it doesn’t matter that perhaps when it’s my turn to have infirmity some young guy will just not believe that I don’t just die already. Some people think that “senior” means they can order me to make the popcorn or the coffee. Sometimes I do sometimes I don’t, but what’s wrong with making coffee? I drink it.

Some senior guys work 7 12- hour days each week, while I am on layoff. Kinda selfish of them, but it is their right to work whenever it is offered and their decision is none of my business. Were I in a position to be offered overtime, I would choose based on whatever I make my decisions on and it’s nobody else’s business but mine how I decide on legitimately offered choices (management cannot skip a senior guy to offer me anything). Last year, in one week I worked 104 hours. They kept offering overtime and for my reasons, I kept taking the overtime. Some senior guys, the same ones working 7 12-hour days each week, got their noses out of joint over that and I told them it was none of their business what hours, legitimately offered, I accept. If the choice gets to me, that means it has already gone through all the senior guys and they either said no or yes, as is their choice.

I’m sorry you’ve been in positions where you were the only person in the whole company who did anything with any quality, but really, that is what the company paid you to do. To allow judging things which is not your concern and jealousy of coworkers to spoil your satisfaction in a job you did well, while easy to do is really not the best way to go.

Management, knowing that a divided workforce is easier to take advantage of than a united workforce, makes sure that you are watching that worker who is none of your business to watch. “My hands are tied” they tell you “because of this Union”, when in reality, their hands are not as tied as they say.

One gentleman, who was president of a college agreed with that and said as president he had no problems getting rid of bad professors, either he proactively denied them tenure, or if they were tenured he either convinced them to leave, or he went through due process and fired them.

I wrote, I was talking to my plant manager in Dallas and he pointed out some goofball who did less than me, with less quality than I had but who was making the top rate just like I did and wondered why the Union could not do something about him. I said that if he wished to hand the enforcement of the contract over to Union discretion, I’m sure we could put that in the next contract. End of conversation.

Every contract between Union and management gives management the authority to make workplace rules not covered in the contract, to schedule workplace resources based on market needs and to enforce discipline for employee breaches. The Union, for their part, represents the worker and ensures that these authorizations are exercised fairly and consistently and, yes, sometimes it just asks for leniency based on the big soft mushy heart of management. Management is not paralyzed by the big out-of-control Union.

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5 Responses to Unions

  1. xulonjam says:

    I’m remembering two “Christian” arguments against Unions which were used at a Christian Board I used to go to:

    How can a Christian participate in Union activity by calling off sick when they are not sick?

    The reason why Unions are anti-Christian is because Christians should all give up all their rights and trust God.

    I’ll take these one at a time. The question puts it as a simple matter of morality anybody who calls off sick when they are not sick is lying and Jesus Christ is The Truth, so how can they be Christians and do that? I had mentioned on another thread the “politization of morality” this is an example. When there is a “Union action” of this type, Christians rise up in moral outrage and yet the reason for it is the contract has already been breached by management. Contracts and US law allow for Union actions in response to contract breaches. It is one of the few ways which labor has to hold management’s feet to the fire and keep their word – and make no mistake, this right is under great attack by those who do not want their breaches of contracts (which they negotiated and signed) to have consequences. To present this as if legal responses are not allowed for the Christian in response to deliberate breaking of contracts is an incredible stacking of the deck. The purpose ends up being that the one calling for contracts to be honored is painted anti-Christian while the ones breaking the contracts deserve Christian support and apologetics.

  2. xulonjam says:

    Here is the second one. While it is very easy to just call hypocrisy, I have to note that none in this war on workers would turn to the Koch brothers and tell them they should follow government regulations, treat their workers fairly, pay them a living wage, take care of the environment and stop using unethical business practices and trust God. Again, one side is getting a free pass, while another has the weight of anti-Christian thrown on them.

    But the “just give up your rights” has further problems. We see in Acts that Paul demanded his rights when called for. While there may be a time where God wills that you be oppressed, I do not see any warrant to demand that other people just give up rights and pay and benefits just because someone is demanding it of them. In other contexts, like say some guy is holding a gun at someone demanding his wallet, we would see it as stealing not our opportunity to give up rights and trust God. It may be a company is in trouble and sacrifices must be made. Unions are not blind to that. I have given up 15% of my pay and though they did not ask me first the company just stopped paying into my pension. The Upper management, on the other hand have not given up pay or benefits. It is not un- or anti-Christian to expect sacrifices be shared. There is something manifestly wrong with the drive to take away pay and benefits in order to serve the greed of the CEO.

    Ultimately, while unions can be abused and corrupted, they can be approached as a matter of justice. A Christian can work within Unions seeking biblical morality and justice for the oppressed. Union membership is not automatically greed and wishing to get away with criminal or immoral behavior.

  3. Unions, Government and Management have all abused their power at one point or another. Their are factions in all the above groups that believe in an advisarial relationship where there doesn’t need to be one.

    Labor in America, Foster Rhea Dulles & Melvyn Dubofsky 1984, is an interesting book on unions, I can’t seem to find all that many that aren’t skewed drastically one way or another. I am told that the young members of the union doesn’t respect what their predecessors have done for them but the old timers don’t take the time to teach them at all. I guess this book is my way of trying to learn how things came about the way they are.

  4. xulonjam says:

    I am aware that Unions have corruption issues*, but the point still stands that without Unions, no one will protect the worker. The answer to that, I believe, is involvement not “screw the Union”. In my current experience, senior guys are comfortable and more than a little cozy with management. Junior guys are desperate and more than a little cozy with management. My current Union is the weakest I have ever been in, including when I was in the same union in 1992.

    * I wonder, but already know, why management corruption does not get brought up. My manager can tell me to work without a break; management can fire somebody to eliminate her pension and we at best tsk, tsk but if someone were to stand up to that, people want to point out that he isn’t perfect and at times only out for himself, you know.

  5. Their is an instance where the Union and Managment did manage to get along. I don’t know all the details but I do want to look into it better in the future.

    GM more or less called Toyota’s bluff that they could operate a factory more productively. To stack the deck in GM’s favor they had Toyota reopen a problem plant in California and had to hire the former employees. I don’t know how it happened but all parties, according to the story, coopperated and eventually becme productive. It is my understanding that Toyota used management practices preached by some American that couldn’t get U.S. companies to listen to him. The partnership was called NUMMI.

    When I was last hired the union representative did his part of the orientation and basically described the relationship with the company as a f*** fest, see who can f*** the other the hardest. If that is the general point of view it does nobody any good.

    My point of view is basically without a profitable company there is no one for the Union to negotiate with and nobody to pay the taxes to the Government. Their is a way that all three can can coexist profitably and that would benifit us the rank and file the best.

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