Tuesday, March 1, 2011


If you've been reading these posts, you might be surprised to learn that I'm not a big union man. I've certainly had my problems with unions, and even when I've been a union member, I haven't cared to get involved.

When I was in college, I remember becoming frustrated with union workers trying to protect their own jobs from low-wage laborers like me. They were just so picky about what I was allowed to do. Of course, I understood it, too - or I do now, at least. As I say, they were just trying to protect their own livelihood.

And in later years, I saw people who really should have been fired given another chance, because unions stood up for them, insisting on strict compliance with the rules. In at least one case, it caused me a whole lot of grief. I certainly wasn't happy about that!

But as H. L. Mencken said (in a different context, I'm sure), "The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all."

Unions really can't pick and choose when to stand up for the rules. They have to stand up for scoundrels - indeed, it's usually scoundrels who need it - because otherwise these protections wouldn't be available for anyone.

So, I have to agree with Tom Toles about unions:
It's starting to look like labor unions share a trait with Democracy. Each is the worst possible form except for all the alternatives.

The litany of complaints and charges against unions is long and well-known. I could compile it blindfolded, and some of it from personal experience. Sure, everybody will grant unions the head-shaking to-be-sures about the important role they played way back when and whatnot, but look around NOW and all you see are the selfish system-gumming impediments to the sleek engines of modern global capitalism. Well look fast, because unions seem to on their last legs. And there HAS to be some better way to support workers' rights, assuming you still think they may even have such things as rights. And some better way to help ensure that the fruits of the economy get shared in some justifiable proportions. But do you happen to know of such a better way? Please share.

And how are we feeling now that we are staring, each of us our own autonomous individual self, into the front end of those sleek engines of modern global capitalism that have already sucked in and shredded all those slightly-less-agile-than-us unemployed? Those engines sure are making things ever cushier for the tiny few in the first-class cabin. Better check to see what's written on YOUR ticket.

There are plenty of problems with unions. I know that. But things would be far worse without them. Likewise, there are plenty of problems with democracy, too. But where's a better alternative?

Don't get me wrong. I'd probably rather work for a union, rather than non-union, shop - even at a job that wasn't unionized. The pay is usually better for everyone, since union wages frequently put a floor under management salaries, too. And the benefits are almost always better.

Of course, there are plenty of things I don't like about union shops. Frankly, unions tend to be best for the worst employees in a company and worst for the best employees in a company. That's a pain, it really is.

Still, for all their problems, we need unions. Without unions, there's absolutely no counter to management. Without unions, workers are at a huge, huge disadvantage. Sometimes, you don't even need to be unionized yourself, since just the threat of unions is useful.

The average worker in America was better off in the 1970s than he is today - than he was even before the current economic collapse. That's not entirely because of the decline of unions, no. But that's been a part of it.

Besides, this is more about politics than about unions. Even in Wisconsin, Republicans aren't trying to destroy all unions, and not even all public unions - only the ones that usually support Democrats. I'm just astonished that we're dumb enough to go along with this kind of thing. But I've been astonished by this for a long time.

In a way, it reminds me of slavery in the Deep South. Slavery was disastrous for lower class whites, but they were still some of its strongest supporters. Wealthy slave-owners were able to use the status issue - since, with slavery, poor white trash weren't at the absolute bottom - to get these people to fight and even to die for what was clearly in their own worst interests.

The wealthy have figured out that trick today, too. They keep the lower classes distracted with social issues like gay rights and abortion, and get the middle class angry about unions, of all things. That keeps them voting against their own best interests, since, once in power, Republicans work only for the wealthy.

It's really just incredible.

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