Fighting for Their Share of the Pi

[OK, I had to tie this post to Pi day somehow…]

Since I wrote yesterday’s review of “The Cradle Will Rock, I’ve had unions on the brain. This comes from ripping the 1994 cast album of Cradle, and recording the vinyl of the 1964 Cradle revival (which I listened to as I recorded it), and the listening to both again this morning to check the quality of the rips. As I’ve been working, my iPod has been on shuffle of lightly played music… and thus, Cradle has continued to play. It’s now lunchtime, and as this has been rattling in my brain all morning, I’ve come to some realizations… primarily that the problems we attribute to unions are, for the most part, not the fault of the unions. There are one or two valid complaints, which I’ll mention at the end.

For example, people complain about the great benefits that union workers have that other people do not, and how these are bankrupting the companies and governments that agreed to give them. They blame the union for this, without forgetting the real culprit: the companies and government agencies that made the agreement when it didn’t make business sense. The union was just doing what unions are supposed to do: fight in the interest of their members. Businesses are supposed to be the ones making the financially prudent business decisions, and they abrogated that responsibility. But politcians never blame them for that—perhaps out of fear for the loss of contributions from those very businesses.

People blame the unions for the pension problems. But pension problems exist even with non-unionized workforces. Some of the most egregious cases in the news of late (cough, Bell, cough) are politicians, who do not have a union. Again, the problems are businesses making bad business decisions in the first place, and having a desire to impose instead of discuss. This desire to impose—the “my way or the highway”—is a major problem in both politics and business, where no one seems to be able to negotiate anymore. Hint: Negotiation means each side gives a little, and finds a middle ground. It is not each side just sticking to their position and having a game of chicken until someone blinks.

People blame the unions for strikes. But the power of a union has always been its people banding together, for people are the only tool the union has. It doesn’t own the plants. It doesn’t make the work. All it has is the skilled labor. Similarly, people blame the unions for all the intricate work rules that create so many stories, forgetting that those rules came into place because of business owners who attempted to skirt the union provisions to create classes of workers paid less or with lower benefits.

What has created many of these problems is greed. Yes, there is union greed, but a union can be as greedy as they want and get nowhere, if management doesn’t agree to their demands. Yet we never blame management for doing that. In fact, we often don’t blame big business for where their greed gets us. As has been pointed out by others, many of the executives who created our financial mess haven’t gone to jail, and still draw hefty salaries. Many of the politicians who relaxed the regulations haven’t been held accountable; in fact, there are movements to make regulations even laxer so that big business can supposedly correct the problems on its own. Politicians that abuse the pension rules still get their pensions. It seems we can’t attack the powerful and the wealthy, so our only recourse is to go after those who were just hardworking middle and lower class individuals (for the most part, and yes, there are exceptions).

I think, for many lower and middle class individuals, the hatred of unions actually boils down to jealousy. Not being union members, we wish we had the good negotiated salaries and benefits that the union workers had. Since we don’t, we don’t feel they should have them either. They should be brought down to our level. We couch this jealousy in other terms, of course, talking about the impact on business or government. The business owners hate the unions because they remind them of their bad decisions: in good times, they ignored prudent business practices and accepted inflated demands. When the times changed, they were now stuck with their bad deals.

Many businesses have never learned what some smart companies did: Treat your employees right and with respect from day 0, and you won’t have to deal with unions because your employees will never feel the need to band together.

Are unions perfect? No. Although unions should be able to advise their members regarding candidates, they should not be able to contribute to political campaigns. That turns them into groups using money to influence management, and that’s wrong. Dues are likely far too high for union members due to that; there should be caps on union dues so that they can only go to true union functions: negotiating, and taking care of members. There should also be caps on the salaries of union leaders — unions are supposed to represent their workers, and should be of the same class (a simple rule that a salary of a union leader can be no more than the average salary of the members of the union would probably be a good start there).