The Old Gray Unions, They Ain’t What They Used to Be
By Ken K. Gourdin
There’s an old song whose refrain is, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be many long years ago.” I wonder if the same hasn’t become true of many unions. And I say this as someone whose grandfather was proud to be a union man in an era in which unions were ubiquitous and indispensible to ensuring their members’ physical and economic welfare. He came of age as a worker in an era and in industries in which unions were crucial in ensuring not only fair pay and benefits for their workers, but also safe working conditions. He started his working life as a coal miner and finished it as a steelworker, two jobs in which safe working conditions should receive absolute priority, and a large part of a union’s role was to ensure that this did happen. (After all, the importance of profits notwithstanding, no coal will get mined and no steel will get milled if all of the coal miners and steelworkers have been injured or killed).
The modern industrial and regulatory state is much different now than it was during my grandfather’s working life. Back then, there was no Mine Safety and Health Administration or Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure safe and secure working conditions, and there were few federal laws to ensure workers received fair pay and benefits. Then, it was the unions which fulfilled that role. There is, of course, room to debate whether these regulatory authorities in their modern form have outstripped the mandates they first were given and have moved well beyond common-sense safety, security, and fairness regulations. But back when the agencies were first formed, I’m sure their formation was cheered by miners, steelworkers, and workers in other industries.
Are there ever occasions in which unions prevent employers from taking unfair advantage of their employees? Probably. But such occurrences are far rarer today than in times past. My own experience with unions is limited, and has occurred from the outside looking in. I was working as a non-union customer service representative for UPS in 1997 when drivers and package handlers represented by the Teamsters Union went on strike. It was an interesting time, to be sure. Anyone with previous experience on the operations side of the business was pressed into service in place of striking workers. My customer service supervisor received a call from California: “Pack your bags and bring your uniform. We need drivers.”
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that many phone calls we received during that time went something like this. Me: “Thank you for calling UPS. My name is Ken. How may I help you today?” Customer: “I’d like to track [locate] a package.” While I might have asked for a tracking number under other circumstances, customer interactions during the strike were much different. “Where was it shipped from?” I might ask. “Los Angeles,” the customer might reply. “And what is its destination?” I might then ask. “New York,” the customer might then reply. Whereupon I would respond, “Well, it’s probably somewhere between Los Angeles and New York then.” While packages normally were scanned at each point in their journey to note their progress so that recipients might know when to expect delivery, the sharp decrease in available personnel shifted the priority from scanning packages to moving them through the system as quickly possible—which, because of the strike, was much slower than normal.
The ultimate remedy for one who is dissatisfied with the pay, benefits, or working conditions which prevail at any given place of employment when those conditions are unlikely to change is, of course, to seek alternate employment. I don’t wish to understate the difficulties inherent in such a course, given the fact that a scarcity of jobs and a surfeit of available potential employees mean that the current employment picture decidedly is an employer’s market. Still, difficulties notwithstanding, seeking alternate employment is always an option.
The Teamsters’ strike against UPS was hailed as a landmark success for the labor movement by many of the movement’s movers and shakers. However, while I was unable to verify this claim, I heard that the union’s leadership would not allow membership to vote on the proposal management put on the table for most of the strike’s duration even though the rank-and-file overwhelmingly supported it, and that the strike was resolved when the union essentially agreed to the proposal which management had on the table virtually the entire time. These things make me wonder whether organized labor’s raison d’etre has become less about the welfare of union workers than it is about the welfare of the unions themselves (and of their brass). There certainly is no shortage of stories of union brass glutting themselves on the resources provided by the rank-and-file.
There are 24 right-to-work states in the United States. What does right-to-work mean? It means that a prospective employee cannot be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. Union backers argue that this creates a situation where freeloading occurs, in which non-union employees receive benefits which the union has negotiated with employers. Is this fair? Perhaps not. On the other hand, it’s not as though unions have never done (and would never do) anything with the dues paid by rank-and-file members with which those members would disagree. Should someone be forced monetarily to support an organization when contributions are used in ways with which the contributor disagrees? Many would argue that he should not.
Suppose you’re an ardent union supporter in a state like Michigan or Wisconsin, states which have recently adopted right-to-work legislation. Suppose I’m a recent transplant from a longtime right-to-work state like Utah, and you wish to convince me of the benefits of belonging to, and supporting, a union. Let me give you some advice: a Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling, the-world-as-we-know-it-is-ending approach isn’t likely to work with me. And when I see so many union members clashing violently in physical confrontations with right-to-work supporters, and when I hear union supporters implying further violence is imminent by telling me that “there will be blood” after right-to-work legislation is adopted, I’m not persuaded. If you think your position is better, make your case. If you think I’ll be missing out on all kinds of benefits if I work in a right-to-work state, if I don’t join the union, or if I don’t pay my union dues, negotiate with me; persuade me. Isn’t that what union leadership is supposed to do on behalf of rank-and-file members?
Sure, you can try to persuade me that not having a job period is better than having a job in a right-to-work state or having a non-union job. You can try to persuade me that not getting a paycheck period is better than getting one in a right-to-work state or from a non-union job. You can try to persuade me that my employer giving me a paycheck and benefits in a right-to-work state is simply his way of “throwing me a bone” to compensate for the alleged fact that my pay and benefits would be much better if I belonged to a union or if I worked in a pro-union state. You can try to persuade me that unions driving employers (see Hostess) and entire industries (see the U.S. steel and automobile industries) into the ground is a good thing.
Good luck with that. If my grandfather saw what the unions he was so proud of have become and what they’ve done to the employers they’ve opposed and the industries they claim to support, he’d be spinning in his grave.