Friday, December 14, 2012

What's Eating Labor Unions?

Howard Zinn, One of Mad Dog's Heroes

I should begin by telling you where I am going with this:  I think labor unions are essential, healthy, a very positive social force. Without them or with their power substantially diminished all but the upper 1% are less free.

Like liberals and Democrats, labor unions have been negligent about marketing their message. Labor leaders have been guilty of a certain arrogance in believing their arguments are self evident, that they do not have to convince anybody their cause is just.

Consider some examples from Mad Dog's own family album--and this is a family, which whether or not  its members know it , owes a great deal to labor unions.  Let us consider some items...

1. Mad Dog has a son who worked as a medical student at two hospitals:  One had a union, which negotiated for an hour for its workers to clean up operating rooms between cases; the other hospital's maintenance crews were not unionized,  and cleaned up between cases in 30 minutes. The non unionized hospital could schedule 8 cases per OR per day; the unionized hospital could only do half as many. That, multiplied by twenty OR's, 5 days a week,  meant the difference in millions of dollars a year, the difference between a robust hospital balance sheet and red ink. And beyond that, the sight of cleaning crews standing around after 20 minutes, doing nothing,  made Mad Dog's son's blood boil and destroyed, in this gestating surgeon, all  sympathy. And Mad Dog, would have to echo his father: "I'm all for the workers--but these are not workers."

2.  In a movie about Marilyn Monroe, she is shown on set, and she moves a chair from one place to another, only to incur the wrath of the stage workers' union chief, who places the chair back in it's original spot, until a union stage hand can pick it up and carry it five feet to where Marilyn had placed it.  This may be fiction, but it is a scene which resonated with most Brits.
4.  State police officers in Massachusetts have filed grievances to be sure a unionized state trooper is paid to park his car at road construction sites to observe traffic go by, at union wages, when an entry level lower paid worker, non unionized or unionized, could stand out with his or her fluorescent yellow jacket and flag to wave at approaching cars.
5.  National Football League football players make millions of dollars a year and they are represented by a union. Are these millionaires really "workers?"  Or are we watching, now and then, millionaires argue with billionaires--in which case, who cares?
Most of  these instances are examples of  enforced inefficiency, stupidity and pissing contests, and they alienate the American public from labor unions. 
But then there is another type of problem, one of middle class people thinking they have been denied what they want because union workers have got cushy deals for their own workers. Middle class workers may feel offended to learn a teacher who has been identified/accused of being incompetent can be sent to a lounge and get paid for not teaching classes for a year.
A great town for a national nurses' convention is Chicago, but owing to union wages, prices for hotel rooms, convention space makes  Chicago unaffordable for nurses's conventions; these nurses are middle class workers who resent not being able to get what they want because a union got for other workers what those hotel workers wanted.

In these instances, the man in the street, who is not directly involved,  sees a union fighting with bosses and managers as an inconvenience to himself, rather than as a group of underdogs standing up for themselves, demanding their contribution to a productive nation be recognized and fairly compensated.

Arrayed against the unions is a powerful set of controlling forces, including the Koch brothers who congenitally loath anyone who is not rich, the Republican party, which is compromised of elected officials who are bought and paid for by those who hate unions--the bosses, the owners and the corporate CEO's,  who act as if paying fair wages is a threat to their stockholders rather than a benefit. And union wages should be seen as a benefit to all--a way of keeping an well trained work force happy and well fed.

What Mad Dog would argue:  Organized labor, believe me, we love you. But you are not making it easy to defend you. 
Go find yourself some phrase makers, some office on K street with an auditorium and an oval desk at the front.  
Do us all a favor:  Zip up your fly and shave, stop dragging your knuckles on the floor, and spend some time thinking about how you look and sound.


  1. Mad Dog, this seems like a 180 degree turn for you. Is that because you suddenly saw things through the eyes of you son or because you have come to recognize that very few things are totally good or totally bad but, rather, somewhere in between. There are important nuances to most things - and, unfortunately, they cannot be adequately addressed in a 30 second sound bite or even a few hundred words. I heard someone say yesterday that if you are on TV you only get 30 seconds but on the radio you can get a couple of minutes to present your thoughts. You are taking on a complicated issue here. It requires lots more time or blog space.

  2. Anonymous,

    That is, I had hoped, what a blog is for, to explore, without time limits or space limits things which are not well explored through sound bites.
    As it has turned out in practice, this has not happened often enough, at least on my blog.
    My grandfather was an absolutist about unions: The union is always right. He grew up when being in a union was a dangerous thing.
    But times change, and yes, I can see where unions have actually hurt themselves and the rest of us by unreasonable acts and stances. What bothers me most about any individual instance of a union bringing shame on itself is witnessing the effect that one instance has on a general public perception.
    Never give the Koch brothers ammunition.
    --Mad Dog