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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.

Public Discourse

19 Mar

Two-people-talking-logo

Today’s episode of Ira Glass’ “This American Life” contained two fabulous acts.

The first is a very good piece. I highly recommend that you listen. It’s a rescue story full of second thoughts and bizarre coincidences.

And the second act is even better. It’s about public discourse and why it’s important. In the story, professors at a liberal arts college must make public arguments about why their disciplines are preferable to others, and most worthwhile to have with you if you get stuck on a life raft. These public presentations have been going on for years, and it’s become a contest. The student audience votes for the winner. And at every contest, there’s a naysayer — one speaker who argues that the audience vote for no one.

Every year, one of the professors has won. And every year, much like our political races, the players become more performance than substance, more attention-getting than true to themselves. They use stunts, props, comedy, sexual innuendo and any number of distractions and off-point tactics to gain popularity and win the audience vote. Sound familiar?

In the episode, this year the naysayer wins — for the first time — because he encourages the students to vote for no one. None of the performers get the vote.

A man at the gas station yesterday told me he liked my American flag bumper sticker. Besides just being a flag, it says, “THINK,” across the top of the flag. To me, this bumper sticker is the epitome of being American. It’s why we are all here in the first place. Freedom of speech, religion, press. The ability to make up our own minds and voice our thoughts. A chance to vote and be active participants in a democracy.

Empty rhetoric has become so important in American life. It’s not a good thing. Most of what we hear from our leaders is crap. Most of what the people around us say about public policy — our coworkers, friends and family, and even ourselves — is not based on a lot of thought process. It resonates from pure opinion — usually someone else’s — loudly spewed opinion that we heard on whatever talk radio or supposedly news program. We’re good at mouthing back someone else’s words. Where are ours?

It is overly simplified and sound bite-ish. It’s oratorical, it’s designed — and maybe scientifically tested through polling — to leave an impression, a very specific impression. There’s very little substance behind it. In a word, it’s fake and it’s manipulative. It’s stupid.

What would happen if we only voted for those candidates who actually make cogent and substantive arguments? Not just the ones who convince us through persuasion and emotion. The ones who really say something. Ignore the political parties and just vote for the people who are thinking.

Beyond our failure to create an environment where candidates actually prove a point, we are reticent to get into conversations with one another about politics and policy matters. There’s no discourse in our discourse. It’s one-way. A friend was recently lamenting about this on Facebook.

Why won’t we have conversations with friends, family co-workers, about things that are controversial, about topics that are difficult?

We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to disagree with people that we have daily relationships with. We don’t want to make our lives more difficult.

I think that another reason for this fear is that we don’t know much about what we say. We don’t know enough, and we need to know more. And we need to be less afraid. And we need to have less of a need to be entertained and more of a need to know.

We are Americans, living in a country where our ancestors came here because this was supposed to be a place where you can think and speak your mind. Where you can engage in public discourse that has meaning and impact. Will you? Will I?