Friday, December 19, 2014

Biggest Stories of 2014: Labor Unions, Lost in the 21st Century

As the governor of Wisconsin recently demonstrated, running against labor unions is good for the bottom line.
In “Citizen Koch,” a documentary about the Koch brothers, these two concerned citizens loathe labor unions as demons from the darkest pits of hell and they make clear their money sent to the governor of Wisconsin to defeat his recall and to win re election is drawn from the well of their contempt for labor unions.

          Full disclosure: Mad Dog’s grandfather was an ardent union man.  He suffered for his union and one of his favorite quips was that a bayonet is a weapon with a worker on either end. The real struggle in the world, from grandfather’s point of view, had little to do with nations but with classes: workers vs bosses.
           Anyone who has read Howard Zinn knows how ruthlessly captains of industry have fought unions and how they bought all the politicians they needed to do this.
            Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ union and Maggie Thatcher broke coal unions and virtually every union she could get her hands on. And it wasn’t just the owners and barons of industry who thanked them: They were hailed by the general public for their efforts.
         But, even Mad Dog’s own father, looking at a strike by professional football players said, “I’m all for the workers. But these guys aren’t workers. They’re millionaires fighting with billionaires.”
         There are some unions which simply fail to win public support.
         On a recent trip to France, Mad Dog heard many stories, from many sources about the evils of unions.  When the lock workers, who operate the forty odd locks along the Seine went on strike, it meant the barge captains and workers could not haul their loads on the river; it meant the cruise boats and restaurant boats and all their workers could not go to work.  When pilots for Air France go on strike, thousands of people sleeping on floors of airports become easy converts to the Koch brothers’ point of view.
            There was once a time when a strike by one set of workers triggered sympathy strikes from other workers; no longer—the workers who are idled by another worker’s strike resent the loss of pay. They see no brotherhood with other workers; all they care about is how much they have been inconvenienced.
           When Market Basket employees went on strike, the customers were not much inconvenienced: They could shop at some other store. The farmers who relied on Market Basket were hurt, but there were not all that  many farmers.
            Union workers can strike without alienating the public at large when they are in manufacturing, when the company they work for produces a product for which there are competitors. If the workers hold up production, then the company suffers, but not the general public. That puts the workers in a good position to pressure the owners without losing public support.
             But in the 21st century increasingly, most workers do not produce a product in a competitive environment;  air traffic controllers, airline pilots, city garbage collectors, river lock operators, city school teachers are in the service economy and often in positions where the strikes they impose create widespread resentment and public antipathy. Members of these unions have shot themselves, not just in the foot, but considerably higher up, and the unions have hemorrhaged crucial public support.

          Union rules, it must be admitted, have too often  thwarted the mission of the companies they work for: when a hospital needs to clean out operating rooms quickly but the housekeepers’ union refuses to allow workers to get the job done in 30 minutes (which is what it takes in non union hospitals) but insists on 60 minutes so only half the number of surgeries can get done daily, that hurts the hospital, and ultimately, if the hospital goes into the red, it hurts the workers.

Unions exist to defend the rights of the workers, but when they forget that the mission of the employer is also important and, ultimately, important for the worker, they wind up hurting everyone, workers included. When a union stage hand has to move a chair on a set rather than allowing an actor to simply pick it up and place it down in a better spot, the definition of work and who can do it reaches absurd proportions.

          Unions have, over decades, done far more good for this country than harm. Safety at the workplace, a fair wage for a day’s work, the emergence of a strong, stable middle class all owe much to union strength.  Structured working groups of workers have identified inefficiencies in production, which would never have reached the managers had the institutionalized system of worker in-put not been forced by the unions—so cars, airplane engines and a whole range of things have been produced better as a result of unions. Even the five day work week, not to mention overtime, has meant workers can actually have enough time to shop, recreate and, by their spending, drive the economy.
      But, philosophically, Americans love to hate groups, and Americans love to believe they can make it on their own. We do not like to think about the idea Elizabeth Warren has emphasized: We are all using stuff made by others,  from roads to education. We are all interdependent. The hard driving capitalist wants to think he is special and he deserves all the money he’s made because he’s worked harder and smarter. Admitting we are all in this together and that even when we excel, we have stood on the shoulders of others to do this--well, that's something we find hard to swallow.

       The welfare queen, that mythical woman who lived the high life without working, by simply exploiting the welfare system remains a fixture in the American mind. When uneducated or less educated people exploit the system, they are reviled. When someone who has graduated from Harvard summa cum laude succeeds, well, he’s earned it. But he didn’t go to Harvard on his own dime. When two engineers invent Google or Microsoft or Apple or Facebook, well they are simply the cream rising to the top. And there is some truth to that. But cream cannot form in a vacuum. You need a pot.

          Mad Dog has no solution to offer, and likely all of the above is well known to union leaders, academics, politicians and corporate boards. It is a rare day when the little guys can win in this environment. The Market Basket story was the exception which proved the rule: Here, an avaricious goon of a corporate oligarch tried to wrest half of the cash reserve of the company for his own bank account, with, predictably, the acquiescence of a board of directors.  But he was opposed by the “good Arthur” who said the money belonged to the workers, to the corporation, and, ultimately to the customers, before it belonged to any stock holders. This was a new idea, that a company has more than a single raison d’etre: That is it exists, yes to make money for the shareholders, but it has other obligationsm  to its workers, to its customers, to American society, to all those who make its continued viability a success.

          Capitalists have successfully argued that the only thing which should matter for every company listed on the NYSE is to generate profit and return for investors. This position has the virtue of simplicity and clarity.  It is an idea which should be dissected and butchered and hung out to dry.

          For Mad Dog’s money, the Market Basket story was the story of the year.
          Long live King Arthur (T).

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