Why We Love and Hate Unions

Businesses hate unions. They tend to keep profit at reasonable levels. Many people hate unions because they see them as corrupt and unreasonably demanding. I love them and hate them, for the above reasons.

Conservative groups tend to see unions as automatically corrupt, interested only in getting unrealistic concessions from employers, and extorting laws from government for unsavory purposes. Groups such as the Teamsters, ACORN, and SEIU, are automatically considered enemies of America. The fact that unions spent a large sum helping to elect Barack Obama, $60.7-million, is considered proof of their perfidy, although unlimited funds from corporations (now defined as “people”, which really means “the boss”—how many laborers do suppose determine where corporate election support will go?) can kick in as many millions as they want to, thanks to a recent outrageous ideological Supreme Court decision.

While unions contributed large sums to the election in 2008, the largest sector contributions came from single-issue and ideological organizations: “Americans For [fill in something suitably patriotic, say, ‘Sensible Taxes’, which usually means ideologically conservative and Republican]”. The unions hoped for a president who would understand the importance of the working middle class. Whether that happened is still up for debate.

Union corruption:

Unions have historically provided a fertile setting for corruption. The reason, some think, is that with thousands of members whose dues are automatically collected from payroll, large sums of union money were involved, and rarely accounted for well enough. Such a setting brings out the worst in many people. Union crooks saw it as an invitation for theft.

Not that unions were the only thugs on the scene. More than one attempt to organize has been destroyed by hired goons, who were rarely deterred by the idea of murdering whoever happened to be there. These goons were criminals hired by criminal bosses to defeat efforts to attain a decent wage. They were not exactly upstanding citizens.

In the early 20th century many people saw an ideal in socialism, which offered power and equality through organization, and this infatuation included some union members and leaders. It was obvious that individual workers had no power, but they did have power if they were organized, and this meshed with the socialist ideal. With the rise of Soviet socialism and all its evils, most enthusiasm dropped away, but the country even today, especially the conservative right, become heated at the very word, apparently believing that organizing workers will lead directly to enslavement by worldwide communism. They’re still fighting the Cold War, and haven’t heard that it ended in 1989. How they can imagine this outcome after the total collapse of the Soviet Union defies reason.

Union corruption seems to have weathered the era of Mafia control and big crime, but corruption has not gone away, and never will. Every corrupt official should be pursued, prosecuted, and punished, regardless of who they are. You can check union sites online to see how that’s going.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to step back for perspective. Big union crooks earned all the hatred we have for them. Their crimes caused untold suffering. But consider the worst of the financial crimes they committed compared to the well-respected nice bankers of Wall Street. Those noble gentlemen, they of the $20-million annual bonus, caused worldwide catastrophe that basically affects everyone on the planet, and is costing hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars.

We hate the sleazeball thug who mugs someone for $100. But who is worse, this thug, the union mob boss who makes off with maybe $100-million, or the benighted Wall Street banker who ruined people by the millions, and loses maybe $100-billion of our retirement savings? The union crook’s cost is a million times higher than the mugger’s, and the banker’s crimes are a hundred times worse than the union crook’s. We hate them all, but the crime of the small-time crook pales in comparison to the union crook, and the union crook’s crime pales in comparison to the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street.

We should be angry about all of them, and insist that they should all be appropriately punished. But the prisons are so full of ordinary crooks we don’t have room for more. We have the largest percentage of our population in prison of any country in the world. More than apartheid South Africa, more than the Soviet Union. This says something about justice and equality in the US. The uber-crook union bosses are largely history, but not a single one of the Wall Street geniuses has even been indicted.

The entire purpose of a union is to serve the needs of its members. Consider your local teachers’ union. If a teacher is subject to some sort of discipline, or simply fired, by the school administration, it is the duty of the union to see to it that the administration behaves properly. It is not, and should not be, the purpose of the union to be sure the teacher keeps his or her job regardless of circumstances. But I have witnessed (at a distance) a school principal who wanted to fire a teacher because she didn’t go to church. She did go to church, but it wasn’t his church, therefore it wasn’t good enough, not to mention the pesky fact that attendance at Sunday services has nothing whatever to do with the ability to teach. In a just world, it’s the principal who should have been fired, or better yet, pilloried in the town square.

So you can easily see why the union is important. Such instances are exasperating and far too common.

Consider also the element of professionalism in the building trades. Frankly, I’d rather have the electrical work in my house done by someone who has had to pass the tests for journeyman electrician, even if it costs more. I’ve seen electrical work that wasn’t, and it can be scary.

Old timers remember the UAW, United Auto Workers, and the periodic strikes and havoc they created post-WWII. It seemed to some that auto workers got pretty good pay, and had good bennies. They did. It was the unions that won it for them. And that was the most affluent period in American history, for everyone, including the bosses. The auto workers didn’t just have a good job, they had a great job. Nobody had to flip hamburgers on weekends to make ends meet. If a wife so chose, she could afford to stay at home to manage the house and raise the kids. That’s not the case any more, and the decline of the unions is part of the reason.

We’re all aware of the Wisconsin governor’s plan to emasculate the unions. He says it’s purely to balance the budget, but nobody in Wisconsin or anyplace else buys that lie. What he wants to do, he and a lot of other Republicans supported by Big Business, is to establish conditions that would allow the moneyed powers to maximize profit at the expense of workers, public and private. That basically amounts to soaking the poor—again, still more. Such a subterfuge is not hard to see through. Virtually identical efforts are underway in several states, and few if any of them have bothered to consult with union leaders, let alone union members. Unions have clearly signaled their willingness to do their share to improve fiscal health, as well as their unwillingness to become the whipping boys of the Republican Party.

The entire union-killing effort is misguided. Experience tells us that the best economic period we have experienced was when unions were their most powerful. The slow economic decline of wages and benefits paralleled the decline in union membership and the gradual erosion of working families’ spending power. In combination with the exorbitant transfer of wealth to those who least need it, the stagnation of tax revenue and a bit of fiddling with the markets by the Wall Street geniuses put us in our present fix. The answer is to increase income and therefore tax revenue, not decrease it by trashing unions.

Emasculating unions will do nothing to address budget crises. Nor is it intended to by the Republicans who are trying to force these bills through. The point is to transfer yet more power and money to the moneyed class. Then, with a bit of fairy dust, but without adjustment of the present tax breaks for the obscenely rich, workers with less money will somehow pay more tax, and all will be well. I don’t think so.

The unions should be left alone, and union-busting efforts diverted into building income, and therefore tax revenue, for everyone.

Update, 10 March 2011: The Wisconsin GOP detached the wage issues from their odious union bill, allowing them to pass it without having the Democrats there to make a quorum. But what this actually does is destroy the fiction that this bill was being undertaken in order to deal with the budget deficit. It’s a power play, pure and simple, and now very obvious.


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