Monday, March 30, 2015

Torn: Liberals and Labor Union Militancy

Woody Allen has a famous line:  "The crucial moral dilemma is you are walking by an icy river and you see a man drowning. Would you jump in to rescue him? Of course, in my case, I can't swim, so it's not an issue."

This is essentially the problem for liberals who see members of labor unions drowning in a sea of  icy indifference. Roughly 80% of the American public has no connection to labor unions and likely no real sympathy. John Q. Public, when he thinks of a union worker at all, thinks of that union worker only when he is inconvenienced by a strike or when he sees a picket line.  For the most part, most Americans walk across picket lines the way they walk by Salvation Army collectors on the street, eyes averted.

For my grandfather, who was born in the 19th century and who came to the United States for a better life, only to find he had to fight for that better life, the labor union was an unalloyed good.  Nothing the union did could be wrong. His morality had the clarity of the absolute. The workers were always right, and the owners were venal, selfless and at best indifferent to the suffering of the masses; at worse the owners were heartless, ruthless, destructive, little better than the slave owners of the antebellum South. 

In his day, women working in a shirt factory burned to death because the owners locked the doors to the work shop and a fire at Union Square killed scores of them, some leaping to their deaths to avoid the flames.

Union membership has declined precipitously and public sympathy for unions, always crucial for support of strikers, has evaporated.  Wisconsin voters supported their strike breaking governor and supported a "right to work" law, which is, in fact, a union busting law.

Workers Strike for The Boss They Trust
One exception to all this was the almost unique case of Market Basket, where union workers, believing one boss was good to them, struck to support him in opposition to his hideous cousin, who clearly intended to gut the company, take the money and run, leaving the workers, the stores, the customers to burn.  In what other case had workers actually struck  to support a boss?

The problem is, in the 21st century, the sons and grand daughters of the early 20th century union workers are now reaching management positions in multinational corporations and they find themselves having to fill in as strike breakers, when union workers go out on strike.

My own brother-in-law, a solid, liberal Democrat, worked his way up through the ranks of welders making airplane engines at GE.  The type of welding these guys do is nothing like Rosey the Riveter, but more like a college physics lab.  Once he reached a management level, he was respected and liked by his staff because he knew the job from the bottom up. But when they threatened strike, he knew he would have to stand in and do the jobs of his former mates, or lose all he had worked for. And he had kids in college.

To whom did he owe his greatest fealty: His co workers or his family?

When the nurses at a hospital where I had patients on the wards went out on strike, what was I to do? Cross the picket line and undermine the nurses, or leave my patients unattended in their beds? 

To whom did I owe my greatest allegiance?

These choices are not easy.

The Crime of Being Japanese American

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the American government responded by seeing the Japanese-Americans living in California as suspicious, as people of uncertain loyalties.  The American government rounded up American citizens whose only crime was having been born to people who had immigrated from Japan, and threw them into concentration camps.  

Would I have refused to obey the orders to transport those people to the camps if I had been a career Army officer? Would I have become the martyr, done the grand gesture, even though I knew it would not help prevent a single unjust imprisonment?

We are torn because there are good arguments on every side.  

My grandfather would have argued, I risked everything for the workers; you should do the same. But he did not have a mortgage or kids who were in college. His kids went to the almost free City College. But he would have said he still had rent to pay and risked eviction and starvation. He supported a family.  In his case, his co workers had no other choices and no social security or unemployment insurance or re training programs. 

It does seem today's workers have more options and when they lose their jobs, they are less desperate, but that may be only because memories are short or because we are not in the place of today's workers. Many liberals have moved up the socio- economic scale to, if not the ownership class, to the management class, but they look back over their shoulders and they remember where they came from. That can cause some agony. 

The truth is, when the government and big industry array themselves against the workers, the workers cannot hope to win.  Standing with the workers, as a manager would likely be a sacrificial lamb moment.  Nobody in authority would change his mind--they just fire you. What good does that do the workers?


  1. Mad Dog,
    Yes, that is always the dilemma -corporations have you over a barrel and they know it. It's only when middle management and other non union workers stand together as a group as well, to support the strikers, can their actions truly benefit their striking fellow workers. But how often does that happen.. It did with Market Basket where the supervisors and store managers were all part of the movement, thus all the workers succeeded and there were no sacrificial lambs... Many people believe the Market Basket employees were union workers, but they were not, and there is some thought this fact works against the argument for organized labor..i.e. look what they did without a union. Another way to look at it is, the MB case demonstrated what employees functioning as a united group, rather than as individuals, can accomplish and that is usually best done with unions. Of course MB employees also had the benefit of unprecedented customer loyalty and support..There are believers and then there are true believers-people like your grandfather and a few folks I have known, who would never, ever cross a picket have to admire their strength of conviction and courage...

  2. Maud,
    Once again, you are in command of details which eluded me. I assumed MB workers were unionized. They certainly behaved like union workers. Their case is, as far as I know, unique: Workers acting in behalf of one boss and against another boss, i.e. choosing sides in the board room. And yes, the managers and the workers were united, which unions or laws or owners ordinarily exclude. Management is part of ownership. Whew, that could argue against the whole idea of unions, at least as we have known them.

    Mad Dog