A lot of people would have you believe the current financial crises many states find themselves in are the fault of unions. Wisconsin and New Jersey have been the most aggressive in taking action, but anecdotal evidence abounds of men in the street blaming unions for everything from deficits to health care reform.
They forget that states operated under the same union contracts three to five years ago as they do now, and were rolling in money. It’s the financial crisis that put the states’ budgets in jeopardy; the unions are in the process of being scapegoated into picking up much of the tab.
Make no mistake: unions have brought much of this on themselves. They too often devote their energies protecting the least deserving. It can be virtually impossible to fire some people, as union contracts can make every employee’s faults the employer’s responsibility: drugs, alcohol, or sometimes just plain laziness. (It can also be pointed out here that employers signed none of these contracts at gunpoint.)
Unions also have traditionally taken too much of an adversarial position. When common sense argued for creating partnerships with management so that risks and rewards could be more equitably shared, too many unions chose to suck every dime out of a contract. Times changed, and now they find themselves in situations where management careers and fortunes can be made by firing workers, and it’s too late to strike the kinds of deals that could have prevented it.
In the midst of all this bashing, let’s not forget why we have unions in the first place. Do a little research into what working conditions were like a hundred years ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire happened exactly one hundred years ago on March 25. One hundred forty-seven garment workers died in a few minutes because the company locked the doors to the sweatshop and they couldn’t get out.
I’m 55 years old and remember a lot of men my grandfather’s age—including my paternal grandfather—who were missing fingers, many of them from industrial accidents. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. We’re all shocked at the safety violations that were ignored in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine last April, but I’ll bet miners before the time of the Molly Maguires would have thought they’d won the lottery to work in such conditions. Skyscrapers and bridges used to have “expected casualties” built into the plans and budgets. No more. We expect no one will die building something today.
Unions helped to make that so, along with stopping many arbitrary firing practices that could deny a worker the pensions he’d earned just before he was able to collect it.
Of course, most pensions are gone; we have 401 ( k ) plans and companies can’t understand why employees show so little loyalty. Break the unions now, and the chances for unskilled and semi-skilled labor to retain company-provided health insurance drop to nothing. In times of high unemployment and a potentially interchangeable work force, why provide any more benefits than necessary beyond the lowest wage you can get away with?
Unions are easy targets, but they’re straw men. No surer way exists to cripple the melding of the middle and working classes that made this country the force it became in the middle part of the 20th Century than to break them. Let’s not forget, the American Exceptionalism conservatives so loudly proclaim was not ordained by God. It was the by-product of hard work and the coming together of historic forces. We undue them at at our own risk.