06 September 2010

Labor Day!

My son marched in the parade in Detroit. I went down to the Laborfest on our riverside. Thought about my short tenure as a member of the International Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Workers (railroad track hand) and my wife who walked the line in Chicago when she was part of the teacher's union thirty years ago.

Today, both unions and their respect have dwindled. My current home state of Michigan is among the most unionized in the country, 18%. In 1970, over 33% of the country was organized. Right now, we are debating a "right to work" law, which from what I can tell will make unions less powerful. These laws have been put in place over a number of years, following provisions of the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.

There are costs and benefits to be had one way or the other, but there is no doubt that "right to work laws" could also be accurately called "right not to join a union" laws. Since 'right to work' is a phrase much like 'right to life,' meaning it has a bias in the name, I suggest you ponder an overview from our friends at Wikipedia rather than let me explain it all.

That's because, as you might have detected, I am somewhat biased myself toward Labor. I grew up in a management household, you should know. Dad was a suit at the old B&O railroad for nine years, and for the Grand Trunk for five more, and then a consultant for railroad management for thirteen. But he grew up in the Depression, and mom was a telephone operator for a while, and in our house Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis and Samuel Gompers and A. Philip Randolf were admirable. We may have been management, but we respected Labor.

That respect is gone, tarnished by corruption yes, but mostly by our current entrepreneurial, Ayn Rand saturated, neo-Gilded Age climate. Yes, it shot itself in the foot in many ways, but corporate power has grown while Labor has shrunk. And as corporate power has grown and their influence has grown with it, so has our respect for corporate power, almost fawning. When the banks that fund them boiled over we ran to resupply them with money and called them "too big to fail," but as unions have shrunk with outsourcing and downsizing we have not run to sustain them, though the well being of thousands of average citizens, people more like you and me than those in the mahogany paneled penthouses of the banks, climbed down the ladder. In a sense they were the rungs on which the entrepreneurs climbed up.

Sorry for the rant. But there is an aroma of injustice in all this that I cannot wave away. If we believe the market is like gravity, implacable and amoral, then why hobble unions, which after all are only organizing one of the raw materials of business? If regulating business is bad, why is regulating unions OK? Aren't they part of the market as much as any MBA?

The basic principle from which I operate is that power=money. One is a form of the other. Corporations are in business to make money. Fine. And they use that money to obtain power, be it political or personal. Unions are in the business of using power to get money. By organizing workers in workplaces they use power to get more money in the form of wages and health benefits and so on. That too should be fine.

But it's not. No doubt, unions over reached in their demands. But it is more urban legend than truth that union demands put the auto industry out of business. Everyone agrees that high demands by unions drove companies to outsourcing, right? Why do we not think that the enormous salaries paid to the favored few in Wall Street, their over reaching confidence in their knowledge and skill, drove us to the edge of another Depression.

Maybe we do, but the laws proposed to weaken them have themselves been weakened. Screams from the cashmere crowd sent legislators scurrying to salve their wounds. But when it came time to extending unemployment to those who cannot eat, we hesitated because it cost too much. And to help the unemployed we now want to weaken unions with 'right to work' laws.

This all sounds a little unfair to me. What's good for the boss is good for the worker, I say. Democracy and freedom need fairness. This recession is not being fair at all. And dealing with that, in my pink little head, is what government should be about.

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