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.