The Union Forever

I am forgiving by nature and upbringing. I place a high value on civility in public discourse. I basically believe in modern, Western, liberal ideals about governing through compromise. When it comes to organized labor though, I admit to being a rabid partisan. My family’s been union going back at least three generations. We didn’t get paid vacations, employer-provided health insurance, safe working conditions, time and a half for overtime, retirement plans, and 40 hour work weeks because employers nicely gave them to us. Workers took those things, after decades of blood and work and fear. To people who think “Well, the government protects those rights for us now”, no they fucking well do not–not unless someone feels secure enough in their job to report violations knowing they can’t be fired for doing so. OSHA and your state labor department do not vigorously wander the nation’s workplaces trying to ping wrongdoers. They can barely keep up with rare inspections and complaints as it is. In honor of my brave union brothers and sisters in Wisconsin, I’m reprinting part of a post I ran back in 2004.

I understand why employers don’t like dealing with unions. There’s a whole additional layer of bureaucracy and a tangle of labor laws dating back over a century. Even an honest union, which ours is, has to defend all its members sometimes, even the fuck-ups. (It doesn’t mean that no one can be fired, but it does mean that you have to have sound, well-documented reasons to do so. “He’s late a lot, he has a bad attitude, his work isn’t up to par” is too vague–“he’s been late four times this month, he had a conflict with a supervisor on Jan 20, and his error rate is way above acceptable” hits closer to the mark.) Most of all, union employees generally have to be paid better. If we think we’re really being treated unfairly, we can ALL strike and leave the employer scrambling to find someone who can do a half-assed acceptable job.

I can see disliking a specific union because it’s corrupt, or run by idiots, or collects dues without ever helping the workers. I will NEVER understand employees who dislike unions in general. Men and women died in the streets–literally, shot or beaten or trampled by horses–for the right to bargain collectively. Employers can scare any one worker into thinking s/he will be fired if they don’t work more hours for less pay, give up a health benefit, or accept substandard working conditions. It’s a lot tougher to convince fifty or a hundred or a thousand people that they can be replaced at a moment’s notice by hungry young workers who’ll do anything for the job.

Most of all, I don’t get the characterization of “the union” as this outside force that runs things. Unions are democratic bodies, their decisions generally made by simple majority vote. If you think things are being done poorly, you can vote against a measure, make a new motion, or run for office to try and change things. That voice in your own economic future is becoming less common in this country, and I hate to see yet more people lose that voice.


One thought on “The Union Forever

  1. Julya says:

    Where I live Unions are slightly different.
    We have very powerful unions, they have been around for centuries, and they have brought forth a lot of improvements and politicians.

    The difference I want to point out is that through that because of the politicians that grew up in unions the laws in our country has changed. There is a law called WOR.
    This law says that every company over 35 has to have a council consisting of employees from all levels in the company. They are called Ondernemings Raad (roughly the Company Council, but often translated as Works council). This council is a representation of the employees within the company and its size is depending on the size of the company. The council has a say on company policies, especially when these policies and regulations affect employees. They can be seriously blocking.

    The ideal situation is that the executive team of a company respects and trusts the Works Council. And uses it as an advisory council on internal matters (employee related). The ideal is that the council does not approach the executive team with hostility.

    Being a member of a union, I of course also put myself up for election for this council. And well, I was voted in. I’ve been part of the council for a good number of years now, and where I work the hostility is minimal 🙂
    Of course there is sometimes friction, especially in bad times, like the recent recession. A reorganisation is of course part of the things the council has a say on.

    On the whole, big companies can join groups within industry, they will work with unions to discuss primary and secundary employee benefits. This is usually a yearly thing, where the employers associations and unions come together to agree upon a guideline for employee’s benefits. This will include pay raise agreements, pensionplans and even the pension-age. This sometimes can lead to strikes when there is disagreement. I think this is the universal way of doing it, but the works-councils are there for every Dutch company. This means it is usually not possible to just fire someone, as everyone has employment protection. A company has to make a dossier on someone and has to prove they have good cause to fire a person, this is a lengthy process, it’s just not possible to fire someone quickly unless they have commited some serious crime.

    I’m not trying to defend the system we have, but explaining how we do it. If this is what you want, then I can tell you it needs time and a tolerant government to make it so, we have also fought for the way we do things, yet not like they do in France…those guys really know how to strike 🙂

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