Misery Needs Company, Part Deux: Scapegoating Unions

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.

10 thoughts on “Misery Needs Company, Part Deux: Scapegoating Unions

  1. Hmm. For starters, I don’t think JR implied that unions were to blame for the financial state we’re in; merely that they may be untenable under current circumstances (JR, if that’s a mischaracterization of your stance, I apologize for reading quickly). I find that the hard point to address. Because of the way we have let things develop with relative power balances between highly profitable corporations vs. government, it may be the case that public sector union benefits are currently untenable. Governments are broke. They can’t afford to fix bridges and roads without federal handouts, which are being severely curtailed. Are non-crumbling bridges and roads of greater value to the greater number than adequate benefit packages for the few? I’m going to say yes, in a purely utilitarian, loss-of-life-and-limb, brutally mathematical accounting of things.

    But. Does that mean that unions are wrong-headed and should be fought? No. I think it instead betrays the lack of success resulting from our skewed priorities in the run-up to this moment. The existence of a situation where a country with crumbling infrastructure hosts spectacularly profitable corporations who behave as though their success owes nothing to the public infrastructure that supported their rise is preposterous. If corporations had been taxed and regulated adequately, if they had been forced to account for their employees’ well-being, since that well-being is the wellspring of their success, we would be in a much better place. Creating legal entities – persons – whose organizing mandate is to maximize profit, and allowing them to do as they pleased, reducing federal and often local tax obligations because they create jobs – almost guarantees that this situation would arise.

    But the fact that unions aren’t to blame, and that corporate interests and lack of sufficient governmental regulation and taxation are (in my opinion) at fault for current shortfalls, doesn’t make public-sector unions – although they are desirable and, frankly, right – more affordable. Do they represent an important correction to our national priorities? Yes. Are they the workers’ best weapon to ensure that human needs rise above corporate needs? I’d say so, yes. Can we afford not to have them? No. Does the dismantling of unions in the face of corporate gains, the simultaneous incremental collapse of public infrastructure, and the reluctance of Congress to correct the priorities that have led us to this precipice betray something deeply wrong in our country? Fuck yes.

    But can we afford to pay for union benefits? Maybe not.

  2. Samir, you are asking an empirical question: are luxurious union contracts contributing in a significant way to our economic problems.

    If you’d investigated this, you’d have found that the answer is a resounding “yes”, and this is true both in the private and public sectors. Union benefits and pensions were a big part of the auto-industry’s structural financial problems.

    Europe is also collapsing, partly under the weight of it’s obligations to union contracts. You may think that the two week vacation or slim benefits packages are “ridiculous” but the more generous versions are crippling economies across the West. And as satisfying as it is to target grotesque corporate compensation packages, the amounts of money involved are minuscule compared to union pension obligations.


    1. Daniel, this is b.s. First of all, Europe’s troubles have more to do with the single-currency Euro than they do to spoiled-rotten workers. Our economy is not technically in a recession: GDP is growing. Our business and government leaders are pleading poverty simply as an excuse to impoverish workers and grind us down further. And sadly, they’ll always have useful stooges among the working classes to help them.

      1. No one said anything about workers being spoiled, and the bulk of opinion in economics tells against your analysis. Certainly, generous benefits and pensions are not the only force responsible for the current situation, in both the private and public sectors, but they are an important part. Certainly, they were a part of GM’s troubles, and we know that they are a major problem in Germany as well.

        We can discuss this civilly without calling “BS” and referring to people who are trying to make ends meet as “stooges.”

  3. Samir,

    Thanks for taking the time to post on this important topic. I very much appreciate your discourse. I took great pains to be clear in my post that I wasn’t attacking anyone and I hope that it’s clear.

    Your prose two questions as a result, and I’d like to clarify my position on them:

    1. Do workers have the right to organize? I never implied otherwise, and I am in general not against it at all. I do think it’s important to put a couple of things in perspective:

    “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.”

    This sounds nice, but belies the reality that greater than 50% of unionized workers work for the government. They don’t work for “the man.” There’s a world of difference. I’ve never seen the profit imperative of the us govt crush a worker.

    2. Are unions responsible for the “nationwide budgetary crises, etc.” Again, I never said that they were, and I don’t think that they are. Each union argument with a company (or more likely a government) is distinct and discrete.

    I have read that you are unhappy with something going on at CUNY. I don’t presume to know the details of that, nor that I presume that you aren’t right to be upset.

    It’s less a matter of blaming unions, and more a matter of unions garnering support for their cause, and as you accurately state, unions are losing favor. There was a recent study that shows that public support for them is at the lowest that it’s been in some time.

    In your defense of unions, you enter a red herring into the argument, the financial crisis. It’s typical to see people who are upset introduce red herrings. I certainly understand your frustration with that issue, but it’s a totally different topic. It doesn’t affect union worker unit labor cost, and is only relevant to the broader discussion of why we have a crunch now at a more national level, and is not what I implied, nor is it what we were discussing.

    In terms of inequality, I understand your frustration there. I’d recommend that you do some research on inflation.

    In terms of being upset, I totally get it. I am not advising that you tone down the ad hominem attacks because I haven’t been there, but rather, because I have. It didn’t help me, and it doesn’t help you.

    I get being upset. My grandfaher was a decorated police officer, and I remain very proud of his contributions. Another good friend of mine is paralyzed from the waist down, after serving on the joint terrorist task force, nypd and fbi. Years ago, when he started, he pulled a bullet out of his own stomach, bleeding on Webster avenue. So I get upset when I see you post pictures of protestors dangling donuts in front of police. So I do understand these emotions.

    Nobody is blaming the unions for the financial crisis. You are only fooling yourself if you think that is what I, or others are saying. Here are some of the real reasons that unions have become less popular:

    1. More than half work for government.
    2. There all in comp and benefits are much better than private workers
    3. The Boeing decision cost a lot of American jobs.

    Last, but not least, for me, is card check. I can’t begin to tell you how against it I am. Legalized intimidation? This was a terrible idea. You may not agree, but most Americans do.

    Not all of us “servile, brainwashed” private workers think that we are the ones that are brainwashed.

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