Unions: A Labor Day Discussion
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Mon Sep 05, 2016 at 10:32:50 AM EST

This is a revision of an article which I posted on my personal board and also on Dailykos. I had an interesting discussion on a discussion board concerning Unions. I tried to piece it together into a cohesive article. I have a couple of observations before getting into it. My current position in relationship with Unions is I am a Union Dock Worker (Teamster). I was laid-off from October 2008 to August 2012. It was during this time I wrote the original article. Laid off workers may sign up for “on call”, so that if the dock needs more workers, they have the flexibility to call in some of the laid-off guys. On-call can range from none to seven days a week. Typically management aims for two days a week or fewer, as three days means full benefits to the on-call worker for that week. Some of the specific issues addressed are somewhat dated as they were in the context of Ohio Senate Bill 5, which took away Union rights of public employees and was defeated in a citizen’s veto, but the arguments themselves did not go away and they will come back again. Plus, of all the states which passed anti-union legislation this year, Ohio was the only one to allow a citizen’s veto and so the arguments apply elsewhere even if not here so much for now. So, without further ado, the question was asked “why should I care if Unions are outlawed? I have never been in a Union and I am doing fine.”

Pretty much everything you enjoy as a worker has been fought for and won by Unions. 40 hour work week. Time and a half for overtime. Your wages have been moved up even if you don't have a Union because non-union employers have to keep up or they won't have employees. In Carnegie's steel mills, workers worked twelve-hour days 12 days in a row, on the thirteenth day worked 24 hours and then got their one day off. All for $0.25/hr and no overtime. To think that now that we have such great conditions, unions are no longer necessary is a mistake.

While we often key on pay, safe working conditions are an important contribution which Unions have made. A couple of years ago, my Dock Manager informed me that I had to work ten straight hours without a break. My Union provides a place to dispute such bullying on the part of management. Collective bargaining levels the playing field.

While I am sure that those who are non-union have "merited" their pay and raises (I am also sure that what they got is not as much as what they merited), I think that the common claim that Union members do not merit their pay or benefits is not correct. Contracts are negotiated based on how well the company is doing. In the context of Issue 2 in Ohio, Ads are constantly harping that "great" teachers are always suffering at the unfair hands of "tenured" teachers. "Great" teachers get fired while that lazy, phone-it-in tenured guy just goes on and on. What makes this false is the reason for seniority rights is to protect longer-serving workers from arbitrary firing in order to replace them with lower-payed junior people. "Great" is nowhere in the equation. A friend of mine was working (non-union) at a local Hospital. As she approached her 25th anniversary, her manager invented a reason to fire her. 25 years of merit and, more importantly, her 25 years of pension all lost. She is just one person and unable to stand against a multi-Billion dollar a year corporation.

Another reason it is false is why are proponents of the bill so interested in "firing" teachers? The reason is it is in their plan to cut pay and benefits and fire teachers and do not want anybody to stand up against them. So, when they talk about "rewarding great teachers" what they mean is lower seniority teachers will get to keep their jobs with lower pay, far larger classroom size, fewer supplies and fewer benefits.

I have keyed on teachers, but this also affects Police and Firefighters whose safety equipment and staffing will be unilaterally decided based solely on budget considerations.

One person objected to my defending Unions saying Unions are, “Symptomatic of the kinds of behavior human beings will sink to left unchecked.  Unchecked because they know full well that unions effectively put up an impenetrable legal shield which makes it difficult to weed out the crap”.  

This is wrong. Though you seem to believe that Unions encourage bad behavior, I know that when people on the dock are caught stealing, there is no "impenetrable legal shield". There are steps so that one is not railroaded (because management is not incapable of planting stuff on people to get rid of them), and that he has a Union steward with him at all times (Weingarten Rights), but in the end, the ones caught stealing are driven away from the dock in a police cruiser and the fellow workers are happy that the thief has been caught. In your utopia, who "checks" management? Not Unions, because you wish to get rid of Unions. Not Government because you wish to get rid of government regulations. So let's just trust our business superiors to be morally and ethically superior as well? Once you have gotten rid of every worker protection, what will protect the workers?

Another person wrote, I can understand the impetus to unionize fungible workers who can be taken advantage of because the nature of their work is such that there isn't a metric by which one worker is better than the next, outside of their willingness to put up with managerial abuses. However, with teachers, there is a quality difference, so good teachers should be able to, individually, negotiate a market rate for their services. Some teachers are better than others. Certain things like the apportionment of school resources is by necessity a collective process, but in any workplace, you have to work together to figure out if Area A needs more resources, will it be Area B, C or D that gets less?

Teachers are free to go to private or Charter Schools with their services. I still think, however, that the stereotype of all those excellent teachers unrecognized and crushed by the Unions is false. It may not be totally false, because we all know senior people who game the system and people with integrity who are frustrated by the system, (but getting rid of Unions will not fix that) but it is greatly exaggerated.

One person gave the standard “Unions are no longer needed” argument: Unions served a purpose back in the day to get workplace safety regulations and minimum wages imposed, but we have those now (and I've worked for more than one employer who saw minimum wage as "I don't need to pay any more than" - those are the kinds of jobs one ought to be holding while one works to acquire skills one can trade for more money). Are unions still necessary, or are regulatory agencies filling the need?

Don't look now, but those who want to destroy Unions are also getting rid of all government regulations, including minimum wage (They already have a below minimum wage for what you described). Recent pronouncements by the pro-business politicians include getting rid of NLRB (which is supposed to enforce Labor laws); minimum wage is unconstitutional as well as child labor laws. Indeed, any legislation regulating business is unconstitutional. You cannot assume that once the Unions and regulation are gone, management will continue to protect worker's rights or their safety.

Concerning the rights of minors to work, while stories abound from those who are trying to get rid of the child labor laws of children who are proud to contribute to their family the reasons for wanting to hire children more likely are 1) Children are cheaper. 2) Children are more easily intimidated 3) Children are disposable and 4) we will hire children rather than their parents. In 2012, when presidential candidate Gingrich floated an idea to have school children janitor their own schools, a key part of what he said was it was to get rid of the Union Janitors and hire kids from the school to clean up. He did not even try to pretend his idea was not really to fire the adults and destroy the Union.

Were children hired, I would absolutely want both Unions and Federal regulations to make sure they are not enslaved and oppressed and placed in unsafe working conditions. Those who wish to get rid of child labor laws also wish to get rid of Unions and federal regulations. They are not targeting child labor laws because they plan on continuing to voluntarily keep them.

Someone wrote, As for firing with seniority, I may be showing a generational gap here, but I really don't see what's wrong with letting a worker go when you decide that the quality differential between them and a less-experienced worker isn't worth the pay differential. The employer gets what it pays for, so why is it wrong for them to decide they don't need experience? Again, that might be the generational gap or it might be that I've always worked in situations where I knew my employment is only as secure as my worth to my employer, and I've never had a paid day off in my life.

Everybody knows that paying less is cheaper than paying more. You are working with an assumption that the company gets what it pays for, when in reality, they get more than they pay for. Why shouldn't they just use people and throw them away? I guess that's true but why would you want that? How did Randian brutality become our cultural dogma? Has not the worker invested anything? Part of the Contract, written or otherwise, is that the employee is investing something as well - something more than 40 hours for which paid-in-full comes on Friday. The common wisdom today that the employee's only return on investment is fully accomplished by payday is false. The employee has committed himself to the company. He has committed himself to the company's success. The bitter old guy in the office who has been there a century has a century of himself in that company. He may be in some "filler" position because they don't know what else to do with the guy and he refuses to retire, but the company still makes more off him than they pay him. On its end, the company promises more than just pay. To have the company seeing their contract with the employee as utterly satisfied once the guy gets paid is not good business (my company has breached its contract with me not only in pay but in refusing to pay into the pensions they agreed to pay into).

In the case of my friend I mentioned before, a pension was part of the contract and after 25 years of my friend keeping her end of the contract, the business reneged by firing her in a way which lost her pension. Saved the company a boatload of money so makes business sense, right? Similarly, a friend of mine worked at a shop where a man was killed in an industrial accident. Management called their stooge into the office and told him to plant drugs in the dead man's car before the police arrived. Fake that he was a doper to try to get rid of expenses associated with being responsible for a man’s death. Unions exist to represent and protect workers from such self-serving unilateral actions by management.

While it may be generational (the idea that old people just need to be sent away on ice floes makes less sense the older you get), the idea of pensions will become more important to you as you get older. I would suggest that the definition of a job needs to expand beyond 40hrs work for 40hrs pay. The employee/employer relationship is far more complex.

I do not follow the idea is that inflexibility is some Union invention. Yeah, I understand that management thinks that just stopping payment into pension funds as they agreed in the contract is a great money saver and the Union's inflexibility stands in the way. When the Unions are fighting the cost-cutting ideas of management which target the workers while their pay is increased, the Union is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The assumption that breaking Unions will help when a family loses the bread-winner just doesn't make sense. Ideally, Unions fight so that workers families will not be destitute should that happen.

Someone wrote, But if you were paying people to do a job, wouldn't it be in your best interest to pay the productive workers more than those who are sitting around twiddling their thumbs?

As for the twiddling their thumbs bit, while not denying that some people game their jobs - something which would take place whether there is a Union or not - everybody thinks they are the hardest worker on the floor. Everybody thinks they put in an honest day. Ultimately, there is exactly and only one person at your company over whom you need to have concern.

Here on the dock, (at the time of the original writing. They have hired people since then and my age has increased) I am third from the bottom in seniority. Doesn't matter that I am 58 years old, doesn't matter that my first Union job was in 1977 or my first job in 1969. Some people above me phone it in every day and I run circles around them. That is none of my business. Some senior people are incredibly beat up by their years here and need people to take up their slack. I do so because I am a human being and it doesn't matter that perhaps when it’s my turn to have infirmity some young guy will just not believe that I don't just die already. Some people think that “senior” means they can order me to make the popcorn or the coffee. Sometimes I do sometimes I don't, but what's wrong with making coffee? I drink it.

Some senior guys work 7 12- hour days each week, while people are on layoff. One could look at that and decide that's kinda selfish of them, but it is their right to work whenever it is offered and their decision is none of my business. Were I in a position to be offered overtime, I would choose based on whatever I make my decisions on and it's nobody else's business but mine how I decide on legitimately offered choices (management cannot skip a senior guy to offer me anything).

I'm sorry you've been in positions where you were the only person in the whole company who did anything with any quality, but really, that is what the company paid you to do. To allow judging things which is not your concern and jealousy of coworkers to spoil your satisfaction in a job you did well, while easy to do, is really not the best way to go.

Management, knowing that a divided workforce is easier to take advantage of than a united workforce, makes sure that you are watching that worker who is none of your business to watch. “My hands are tied” they tell you “because of this Union”, when in reality, their hands are not as tied as they say.

One gentleman, who was president of a college, agreed with that and said as president he had no problems getting rid of bad professors, either he proactively denied them tenure, or if they were tenured he either convinced them to leave, or he went through due process and fired them. [Note: As a College president, Tenure held no problems for him to get rid of “bad” teachers. It just took effort which he put forth. Most managers who complain about their hands being tied by the Union are really either 1) too lazy to go through an obvious and spelled-out due process, in other words: to do their jobs or 2) cooperating with the Union for their own reasons.]

Every contract between Union and management gives management the authority to make workplace rules not covered in the contract, to schedule workplace resources based on market needs and to enforce discipline for employee breaches. The Union, for their part, represents the worker and ensures that these authorizations are exercised fairly and consistently and, yes, sometimes it just asks for leniency based on the big soft mushy heart of management. Management is not paralyzed by the big out-of-control Union.

I was talking to my plant manager in Dallas and he pointed out some goofball who did less than me, with less quality than I had but who was making the top rate just like I did and wondered why the Union could not do something about him. I said that if he wished to hand the enforcement of the contract over to Union discretion, I'm sure we could put that in the next contract. End of conversation.

As an addendum, I’m remembering two “Christian” arguments against Unions which were used at a Christian Theological Board I used to go to. I will take them one at a time:

1) How can a Christian participate in Union activity by calling off sick when they are not sick? (This was in reference to the Wisconsin protests a few years ago)

The first question puts it as a simple matter of morality anybody who calls off sick when they are not sick is lying and Jesus Christ is The Truth, so how can they be Christians and do that? This is an example of the “politization of morality”. When there is a “Union action” of this type, Christians rise up in moral outrage and yet the reason for it is the contract has already been breached by management. Contracts and US law allow for Union actions in response to contract breaches. It is one of the few ways which labor has to hold management’s feet to the fire and keep their word – and make no mistake, this right is under great attack by those who do not want their breaches of contracts (which they negotiated and signed) to have consequences. To present this as if legal responses are not allowed for the Christian in response to the deliberate breaking of contracts is an incredible stacking of the deck. The purpose ends up being that the one calling for contracts to be honored is painted anti-Christian while the ones breaking the contracts receive Christian support and apologetics.

2) The reason why Unions are anti-Christian is because Christians should all give up all their rights and trust God.

While it is very easy to just call hypocrisy, I have to note that no one in this war on workers would turn to the Koch brothers and tell them they should follow government regulations, treat their workers fairly, pay them a living wage, take care of the environment, stop using unethical business practices and trust God. Again, one side is getting a free pass, while another has the weight of anti-Christian thrown on them.

But the “just give up your rights” has further problems. We see in Acts that Paul demanded his rights when called for. While there may be a time where God wills that you be oppressed, I do not see any warrant to theologically demand that other people just give up rights and pay and benefits just because someone is demanding it of them.

In other contexts, like say some guy is pointing a gun at someone demanding his wallet, we would see it as stealing not the victim’s opportunity to give up rights and trust God. It may be a company is in trouble and sacrifices must be made. Unions are not blind to that. I have given up 15% of my pay and though they did not ask me first the company just stopped paying into my pension. The Upper management, on the other hand, have not given up pay or benefits. It is not un- or anti-Christian to expect that sacrifices be shared. There is something manifestly wrong with the drive to take away pay and benefits in order to serve the greed of the CEO.

Ultimately, while unions can be abused and corrupted, they can be approached as a matter of justice. A Christian can work within Unions seeking biblical morality and justice for the oppressed. Union membership is not automatically greed and wishing to get away with criminal or immoral behavior.

I wonder, but already know, why management corruption does not get brought up. My manager can tell me to work without a break; management can fire somebody to eliminate her pension and we at best tsk, tsk because we see it as his job to be this unethical but if someone were to stand up to that, people want to point out that he isn’t perfect and at times only out for himself, you know.


Labor Day is the day Christian Devotionals recite that story of the laborer being asked what he is doing and he responds "Me and Wren are building a great Cathedral to the Glory of God" to make the point that Christian laborers ought to be content with their jobs and their pay and be the best worker out there. Somehow, the devotionals never get around to telling Management any moral story about how they should treat their workers with respect or pay them well.

by Xulon on Thu Oct 20, 2016 at 11:07:04 PM EST
I ran into a person whose "Christian ministry" was to teach homeless people how to keep their jobs.  That person was teaching them to accept whatever abuse (YES, including physical AND EVEN -dare I say it- SEXUAL) came their way, in the hope that something better might (magically) come along.

When I suggested that the problems with keeping employment wasn't "bad work ethic" and "bad attitudes" or "lack of ambition", but the greed and abusive attitude of the employers, the person started getting angry.  When I pointed out the physical scar left on my face from one such employer that I'd worked for (too poor and scared of homelessness to look elsewhere until after that incident), the person went ballistic - raging because I'd dared suggest the oh-so-holy business owners of being the problem.  "They were the good people who God had blessed, dont'cha know?" (Who made nice big donations, and I think also made the 'ministry' look more successful than I think it really was)?

The fact is, science backs me up on that one, and the treatment meted out to the victims of that person was based on the same old failed ideology that has driven the treatment of poor people in this country and others - the false doctrine that it was personal failings (rather than economic issues and greed of the rich) that was the cause of the misery.  (You'll hear it preached if you listen, even in the faces of the poor: "It's YOUR sins that make you suffer, and only (religion) can change that!"  Often that's followed by a demand that one joins that church if the church gives you any assistance, plus a commitment to give tithes, offerings, and love gifts from then on (and if it's half of your income, too bad!).

The sad thing is that I agree with Weber - religion could be a force for good and powerful in helping to change the status quo.  At least in this dominionist-dominated hellhole, that is very unlikely.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Oct 31, 2016 at 01:04:18 AM EST

when I moved from Dallas to Ohio was in this area of the employer/employee relationship. In Dallas, there is that big prosperity=God's Blessing element, even among people who theologically oppose any Prosperity Gospel. Just like there is a strong Dominionist/Libertarian element, even among people who theologically oppose the Theonomist Movement. "I'm not a Theonomist." one guy told me, "I just think that God's law is the wisest way to run a country." Here in Ohio, in the rust belt, there is more of the beaten-up resignation around employment. Everybody here knows that if you don't work you shouldn't eat, "so get a job, already". I moved here for a ministry which I knew did not include a salary but one of the Board members was in HR at a large employer in the area. He told me of a factory looking for machine operators for $6.35/hr. When I, a man with 25 years experience in operating machinery, told him I wouldn't go there and apply, he was appalled and brow-beat me in the name of Christ that I should "lower my bar". Because if you don't work you shouldn't eat. Here, I also have heard an anti-union apologetic along the lines of "My boss is the God-appointed authority over my life. Unions try to supplant that authority with another, the Union president, and so they are anti-Christian. In both cases, in the prosperity where without question wealth is God's blessing and salesmen are the true Christians because they smile a lot or in the oppression of scarce jobs and low wages but don't ever question what you are offered, management has wiggled its way to the front pew and get a free pass from the pulpit.

by Xulon on Mon Oct 31, 2016 at 04:25:00 PM EST
The big problem is that they don't know what that whole "don't work, don't eat" bullshit came from.  Back in the days before the love feast (or however it was called - something like that) had been changed to the Eucharist/Mass/"Lord's Supper" (in order to proselytize the largely Mithriast Roman army), there were people who were so certain that "Jesus" was going to return soon that they didn't work, and came rushing to the love feasts to partake - they more or less spent their lives in the church practicing holiness (being religious).  It was expected that everyone would contribute something if they could... including the Bible-pounders of the day.  So "No work, no eat" because the rule - it was meant for the overly holy and no earthly good types, not the unemployed, disabled, or those suffering because of corporate/rich greed.  They were trying to live off the largess of the other Christians, and people knew it.  (From the way it was put, I suspect they were also giving out big doses of "I'm holier than thou!")

The Good Christians of today translated that whole thing into "if you don't or can't work, you must STARVE" and use it to deny helping someone in need - doing just the opposite of one of the teachings of Yeshua (his real name in Aramaic but spelled in English) that we know he probably did say.  Funny how they do things like that - get things bass ackwards.  (Want to make one of them go ballistic?  Tell them how you treat the Other is more important than what you believe.)  They skip "Do unto others" and other teachings that have higher probability of actually being from Yeshua, while grabbing onto those things that are unlikely or from someone else.)

(Laugh) what you related rather reminds me of a Good Christian who commented when I'd graduated with my M.A. and was starting to look for a job: "McDonalds and Burger King are hiring.  If you aren't willing to work there, you just don't want to work and need to SHUT UP!".  He was dead serious (also filthy rich, he'd inherited his home, his chain of stores, and his wealth from his parents).  He also knew I have physical limitations that make standing still on concrete almost impossible, but that to him meant that I had hidden sin somewhere or I was faking it, because I was one of those horrible "Libruls".  Liberals, no matter how little they were paid, were still overpaid in his book.  We all needed to "learn a lesson" and he said so.

I wasn't too sympathetic when he thought he might have to close one of his stores because he wasn't making enough profit (his words) and was crying and seeking sympathy for it (some months after his "McDonalds" statement).  Or when he was facing having some of his inheritance taken away because there were some irregularities in the transfer of the wealth (he was vague about why they were 'after' him).

I run into that (the attitudes you described) all the time - and worse, the fallout.  After the crash in 2008, I ran into a lot of homeless people who'd been fired from their job, but their boss told them that if they'd return at half wages and no benefits, they could keep working (he pocketed the difference).  Some were forced to train their replacements from overseas - who went back to their country along with the plant (and in a couple of cases, they were told that if their tools were still there by the next day, the tools would leave too).  That didn't set well.  

I don't like going around the public in this county because of those attitudes, which you encounter almost everywhere.  I'm told that the counties around here are better, but only a little better - by colleagues and friends who live there.

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