The Union Debate

5 Apr

Today’s issue of The New York Times had an interesting editorial about “union-bashing” by governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, etc. Such a hotly political topic. People are on one side or the other. Is there an in between? Bear with me as I work through this.

I’ll admit that I’m outright conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, I’m the daughter of a union president. I believe that there are situations when unions have served a purpose and still do. My father’s union was for construction workers, guys that worked hard but didn’t have the inclination or communications expertise to independently negotiate their wages and benefits. So the union did it for them.

When my dad was president, he didn’t get any of the supposed perks of so-called union bosses. I used to work for someone who talked about the power of union leaders. This makes me laugh every time I remember it. I believe that my former employer spent too much time watching 1940s movies.

Not that there aren’t situations when union leaders don’t abuse power — I’m sure there are. Power can corrupt — we’ve seen plenty of cases in business as of late. But for the most part, union bosses are pretty regular guys. I grew up in a squarely lower middle-class family. We didn’t have a pool, fancy vacations or designer clothes. We lived in half-doubles for much of my growing up. We were neither rich nor poor. We had enough.

Because of my background, the merit of unions gets more foggy for me when the working situations are professional and not construction or old school trade-oriented. Additionally, I’ve had my own personal experiences with unions as a manager, having supervised union members working in state government. I’ve seen instances  where people pretty much did nothing or whatever they wanted because they knew their job was protected. So my “on the other hand” is that I can see the downsides to unions. But in all honesty my experience the downsides are more theoretical than actual.

It’s pretty clear that unions do have benefits that are beyond what most people could hope for. I can have a pretty spirited argument about the need to right-size health care and retirement packages. But it seems to me that unions have also been quite willing to negotiate with management on the thorny issues. There’ve been many concessions made since the recession.

In America, we are in a quandary. There’s a part of the American psyche that’s stubbornly individualistic. Those pointing to unions as communists in the early days of labor tapped into this uniquely American trait. If you organize, then you are part of a group and lose your individualism, says this logic. Kind of like the Borg.

Yet there’s another part of our American way that does barn-raising, community action, neighborhood watches, and the like. Grassroots, word-of-mouth and trending are all about group effort — and results. We’ve never been above this.

When individuals have money, they can use it to gain power. They do this through funding campaigns, paying lobbyists and launching public relations campaigns that shape opinion. What percentage of the population can pony up these resources?

When individuals don’t have big money — and face it, this is most of us — they can take action themselves because in America the playing field is probably more equal than anywhere in the world. Here, we are motivated and some of us have time to strive for change.

But let’s be realistic — the playing field is not entirely equal. So another practical thing to do, in the absence of money to gain power, is to form a group to make something happen. To represent ourselves, to lobby for fair working conditions and pay, and a standard of living that’s not rich but is respectable.

I’m not going to discuss any of the arguments around whether or not the unions are to blame for our budget issues, or whether the union-bashing is an effort to get rid of the Democratic party. Everyone has their own thoughts along these lines — and most of the time people just play back the rhetoric that they hear around them. Don’t get me started on that.

It seems to me that there’s a big difference between getting rid of unions altogether and disagreeing with the benefits they’ve negotiated for their members and the collective bargaining process. I have friends on both sides of the issue — friends I want to keep.

All I’ll say is that making tough decisions requires muddling through a certain level of complexity. Do we have the stomach, and the patience, for that? Is there time for that? Or is the supposed quick fix the way to get us to the future? We’ll see.

I’m still conflicted.

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