Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Do Unions Speak For Workers Or Silence Them?

There is a live version of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel that includes a refrain not found in the studio version. “After changes upon changes we are more or less the same.” I view this version as descriptive of personal reality. The rabbis of blessed memory used to say that it is easier to move a mountain than it is to change a single character trait. This resonates with my personal experience with my personal struggles for self improvement. It also resonates strongly with my reading of history, with its endless cycle of making mistakes and forgetting what one has learned.

My cousin and I seldom vote alike. We seldom fail to differ on any political question that might enter our conversation. But he has an encyclopedic recall of family history that sheds light on our nation’s history that sheds much light on our history as a nation.

There is one story that he has retold with awe many times. In it he describes how my grandfather of blessed memory used to be assigned by the company bosses to make sure that the workers in the town voted Republican. At that time in that part of Pennsylvania, ballot secrecy was not to be taken for granted. My uncle and a number of workers in the town felt that supporting the Democrats might get them a better deal. They launched a local Democratic Party and lobbied successfully for ballot secrecy and other reforms.

My mother supplemented this historical narrative with reverent recollections of Franklin Roosevelt, whose portrait along with that of Franz Josef the Second graced my grandfather’s living room. Karl Marx would have viewed my grandfather’s choice of portraits as an “irreconcilable contradiction”. My grandfather was not a Marxist so he really didn’t care.

Last week, I was talking with a new part timer who just started at my place of work. During the week he works in a hospital in the pharmacy department. It is a union position. I immediately recognised Local 1199 which represents health care workers. For a couple of minutes he and I both expressed appreciation of the good contract negotiated on behalf of its workers by the union.

“Didn’t your union support Obama?” I asked

My coworker looked a bit sheepish. ‘Big time”. he replied.

I pointed out that his union dues were going to support and campaign for a candidate that he did not support.If he were to have made a campaign donation, it would have been to the McCain campaign. Most of his coworkers enthusiastically supported Obama. Peer pressure and social tension did not change my coworker’s opinion. He was however left with lingering resentment that his union dues went to support a candidate he opposed.

Union workers and everyone else enjoy ballot secrecy, but unions routinely make endorsements on behalf of their members that might well be opposed by a significant portion of their membership. The core of most big unions is a bureaucracy that does not work in the field they represent. They are full time executives with the entire day to shape an agenda and sell it to the union membership.

There is a good case for workers to be represented by a union, even though there are other ways to represent worker’s interests. Some unions get a good deal for their workers. The drawback to a unionised approach to worker management is its tendency to be adversarial, to regard business as an adversary rather than a source of a livelihood. Some unions will also defend an incompetent employee at all costs.The flip side is ruthless bosses who will stop at nothing to keep wages down, including the importation of illegal immigrants and threats to outsource work.

Unions should be introduced to a workplace only by a secret ballot. They should also not be able to force their membership to support candidates they might oppose. In a presidential election, a union should offer the possibility of checking off a contribution of either candidate or none at all. Once a company has decided to have union representation, its decisions should be binding only on the workplace and not on political contributions. My grandfather took a big step forward when he gained legal protection for ballot secrecy. The manner in which unions make contributions on behalf of all of their members is an erosion of hard won gains. Invoking the cause of worker’s representation does not justify taking away their rights. No union contract, however generous it might be justifies trading political freedom for sustenance.

Obscenely high corporate salaries and bonuses persist even though our economy is in a crisis. There is little doubt that corporate bosses band together to protect their gains. Workers should guard their own interests as well. Unions are one way to do this. Good will and good faith are essential in any management system whether or not it involves a union. Bad intentions can corrupt the most ingenious political system.

I believe that unions could be a part of the solution to America’s economic crisis. Workers uniting in defense of their interests need not do so in an adversarial way. But to win over a larger percentage of the American work force, unions need to reform as much as does management with its golden parachutes and corporate jets.

As it now stands, an evangelical Christian or religious Jew in a union must watch their dues go to support candidates that contradict their fundamental beliefs and values. Abortion and a ban on public money to private schools are an example of issues with which an individual in a union might differ with the platform of the union’s chosen candidate.

My grandfather and my uncle were part of a struggle and evolution of America’s tradition of democracy. Unions were a part of that struggle. It would be a sorrowful epitaph to their demise for unions to take away the freedom of the very workers they purport to represent. To trade our freedom for sustenance is little more than slavery. It is unworthy of a free nation.

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