Reader JR left an interesting comment yesterday, responding to my post ‘Misery Needs Company: The American Worker’s Hostility Toward Unions.’ Rather than excerpt it here and respond piecemeal, I’m going to just write a few thoughts prompted by it. (Please do read the comment in full.)
There are, I think, two points that are being conflated in the debate over unions and unionizing: Should workers have the right to unionize? That is, form collective bargaining units? Second, are current union contracts–whether private or public sector–the reason for nationwide budgetary crunches and economic crisis? (Someone could conceivably answer ‘yes’ to both. Alternatively, one could say ‘no’ to the first, and then find the situation described by the second especially problematic.)
To address the first, it is uncontroversial for me that workers organize themselves into collective units. It is the only way they can represent themselves as a united entity to an immensely more powerful unit, their employers. The balance of power is acutely tipped in favor of the employer; workers have to join together if they are to flourish in the workplace. Otherwise, the profit imperative crushes them. The idea that a workplace is a better place when the weaker party, the worker, is left to fend for himself alone against an entity that can regulate him, fire him on arbitrary grounds, control every single minute of his workday, is immensely unappealing to me. The workplace is where the US Constitution does not exist; the employer can crack down on the employee’s privacy, his freedom of speech; the list goes on. If workers do not present a united front, they have little chance of ensuring the elevation of their interests in the priorities of their employers. As it stands, most American workers are overworked, with the worst benefits, vacation packages and family leave benefits in the industrialized first world. Perhaps this has something to do with the shrinking percentage of unions in the private sector. Perhaps.
Unions are not perfect: their leadership has been corrupt at times, they have often defended the indefensible (as in police unions defending corrupt cops). But none of that will ever, ever change my conviction that when one massively strong and rich entity faces a weaker, fragmented entity, the weaker will lose, again and again. The workers’ only hope lies in unionizing. That is the reason for my mystification by the fact that American workers somehow cannot make the connection that the reason for their horrible vacation packages–2 weeks? Are you kidding me?–their ludicrous family leave benefits, and shrinking aspirations for upward mobility might have something to do with the fact that they did not have the means to negotiate collectively for better contracts.
Coming to the second point. Are union contracts to blame for the budgetary crunches nationwide? In a nation where income inequality is at its worst levels ever, when this nation has been fighting two catastrophically expensive disastrous wars, when corporate malfeasance is at an all-time high, when the financial crisis of 2008 has yet to see any of its criminals booked, this seems like a strange charge to lay against unions. It might be that union contracts need revisiting just because given the financial bottom-line, something has to give. But given what we know about CEO paychecks, about the extension of tax-cuts for the super-rich, about the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and Capitol Hill, the idea that unions are to be singled out and demonized strikes me as yet another instance of scapegoating the weakest political entity available.
JR suggests in his comment too, that my language has been strong and the rhetoric overheated. Well, I suggest that if the exploitation of this nation by its political and corporate class is examined closely, the only reaction one can, and should, feel is anger. Which might then be reflected in the language employed to make political points. I often write the way I do because I do genuinely feel a rage about the imbalance of power that exists, about the financial power that has corrupted this great nation’s government, and turned it into a corporate handmaiden. Bear in mind too, again, the balance of power. Those that have declared wars can actually bring about people’s deaths; those that have made millions jobless can immiserate them and their families; those that speak glibly of family values like Santorum contribute to the continuing marginalization of gay people (a marginalization that can result in their being denied rights, living shadow lives and sometimes being subjected to violence). Protesters can dangle all the donuts they want in front of police; the ones that get to do some head-cracking and arresting are the cops.
I respect JR’s views because I see in them an intuition about unions that many people share; the sad state of unions in this country tells me that I’m in the minority in this one. But I think if the blame for the financial mess is to be assigned, starting with the unions is a mistake.