Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In Union, There Is Strength

I don't think I have to tell you where I stand on the issues unraveling in Wisconsin.
I am a union man. My father was union, blue-collar, working class. I'm union, in fact, three unions. "You don't get me, I'm part of the union," as the song goes.
There's a logic here that goes beyond greed (I'll get back to that in a minute). In early American history, companies were small. Certainly, none were of the size of the conglomeratic multinational corporations that control this nation today.
In early American history, it was likely that a line worker in a factory knew his boss. He may even have socialized with him on occasion, in church or some community function. Owners were in touch with their workers. They saw first hand the abject poverty many of them lived in. Many, if not most, acted appropriately.
Some did not, of cours, else how would Dickens have made a career, British or not?
As corporations agglomerated and grew disproportionately to their communities, there really was nothing to stand in their way. The "company store" of song was very real: a corporation would hire entire towns, situate them in the company's thralls, pay them next to nothing, provide next to zero benefits, and then overcharge them for buying food.
Enter unions. As unions gathered strength in numbers, they were able to force companies to deal with the plight of their workers. In union, in unity, came strength. If the union advised its members to strike, they did. Usually, they'd win concessions that genuinely improved the lot, not just of their members, but of workers across the land.
You see, when you're the 800 lb gorilla in the room, people notice what you're up to. And when the 800 lb gorilla has to share more bananas to the troops of chimps who gather those bananas, other smaller gorillas realize they'll have to pony up or lose workers and therefore efficiencies and revenues.
Even if those gorillas aren't unionized.
A curious event happened in the 1980s, one that was a long time coming, but still surprising.
PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, went out on strike.
They struck the single biggest silverback in the world: the US government. Of course, they broke a law doing it (most unions give up the right to strike with regards to public service employees.)
Ironically, they did this because they felt they would have the support of the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan a) whom they endorsed and b) who was himself a former union president (the Screen Actors Guild).
Not so lucky: he promptly decertified them, effectively disbanding the union and firing the strikers.
That was the deathknell for unions in America. Nevermind that our manufacturing base had been eroding steadily if slowly (and was about to accelerate rapidly ni the wake of the mergers and acquisition bubble of the 80s). Nevermind that unions themselves had become pockets of corruption in many cases, greedy criminals running them, like Jimmy Hoffa.
The ill-advised PATCO strike probably was the single body blow that brought unions to their knees. If the government could fire them, then anyone would give it a try. And they did. And they succeeded, if only by filing bankruptcy (which is where the merger craze comes in) and dissolving the collective bargaining agreements as contracts null and void in the bankruptcy. Workers became mere creditors of the company, in effect.
But today, this week, this month, this year, we're starting to see the backlash of unions and union-minded people. The budget cuts that municipalities and states have been placing in effect has caused workers to shout "Basta!" and take to the streets. In Wisconsin, even the unions exempt from Governor Walker's edicts have stood shoulder to shoulder with their union peers.
In union comes strength. The firefighters remember the words of Pastor Reinhold Niebur: "Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love."
Or to put it more prosaic terms, if they can screw with you, they can screw with me, so I stand with you now.