Posted by: JDM..... | December 12, 2012

The Right to Work…..

What’s the difference between the Company store, and the Union job….?…

I have never belonged to a union, so I may lack the necessary bias to feel upset about the passage of “Right to work” legislation by the Michigan Legislature on Tuesday. Then again, perhaps for the same reason, I might have exactly the right bias to say “good, it’s about time!”

The news item telling of the vote noted the action makes Michigan the 24th state to take a jaundiced eye at the practice of enforcing payment of union dues by non-members simply because the union claims it negotiates on a worker’s behalf. From my youngest days in the workforce…and I started sweeping the floors and washing the windows of a local Five and Dime for a buck an hour at the age of fourteen…I always thought that was like paying the hallway bully not to beat me up.

I took a year off between my sophomore year and my junior year of college to figure out what I wanted to do with my life besides nurse hangovers and flunk cake courses, so I looked for a job. I landed a retail “Assistant Manager” job, which meant I got to do the same thing I had done when I was fourteen, but I had to wear a necktie.

There was another difference. I’d held a wide variety of jobs as a teenager. I served snacks and burgers at the local swimming pool concession stand, worked in a drug store, a bubble gum factory, and industrial battery factory, and more. But I had never before had some character out of a bad cartoon look down his nose at me in an employee break room and tell me I had two weeks to sign up for the union or take a hike. I didn’t wait two weeks. I took a hike while he was still talking. Once I confirmed with my supervisor that I did in fact have to do what the man said, I made the hike official.

The irony of a bunch of guys waving the American flag fighting to restrict another man’s “Right to Work” has never failed to amaze me.

My path didn’t put me in the sights of union organizers or enforcers much after those years, but they were always nearby. For example, I sold commercial printing for a few years and sometimes found myself bidding on jobs where it was required that I utilize only unionized printing plants to do the work if it wasn’t done in-house.

Frankly, I never found much value in paying a middle man to basically take a cut for standing between me and my objective, regardless of how much value he tried to convince me I was receiving.

The irony of a bunch of guys waving the American flag fighting to restrict another man’s “Right to Work” has never failed to amaze me, and whenever I have made remarks about unionism that lacked the distinct sound of pursed lips kissing, while in the presence of card carrying union members, I acquired little or no information but a great deal of anger and name calling.

This is not to say I believe unions serve no purpose. They do, and they were a natural development of the growing pains our economic and social environments experienced during the formative years of the Industrial Age. We now have a body of law and a culture that is intolerant of the conditions and norms of the nineteenth century. In fact, I believe the pendulum principle applies there as it does whenever radical change takes place, and unions have gained far more than what might be called “fair”. While jokes are not fact, they strike us as funny precisely because they always include a certain amount of truth. The overstatement of a guy getting paid $50 an hour to sit in a chair all night reading a comic book while the machine he is responsible for hums away comes to mind. That, of course, minimizes the training needed to run such a machine, and more, but doesn’t exaggerate one bit the impact unions have had on the cost to American blue collar industry.

I used to wonder sometimes why I had bothered to spend all of that time chasing a college degree when it was the guys in the mills and factories who had the camps on the lake, the boats, and the dressed out cars. Now, just in my area alone, there are a dozen mills and manufacturing facilities that sit abandoned and deteriorating, have been torn down, or converted into offices, low income housing, or mini-malls. Did unions cause this? Of course not. But their dogged insistence on expanding the decent wage and safety concepts into everything but the keys to the executive washroom certainly didn’t help keep those plants open and the jobs on native soil.

With the catastrophic implosion of the American automobile industry in recent years, I find it incredulous, therefore, that the unions of the Rust Belt still think their demands and grunting are relevant.

I think “negotiating” is a valuable and salable service. The big money to be made in the “consulting” field suggests that those paying out those dollars find it worth their while. On the other hand, consultants have never maneuvered themselves into a position to dictate who their clients hire, how much to pay them, and more. Serving as a go-between for management and the labor force can be beneficial to both, but not in a them-against-us atmosphere, and not when the negotiator essentially extorts compliance from both sides. At that point, the activity becomes an “industry” with a focal point of self interest in its own right.

It is time for the pendulum to swing back a bit. Not all the way. That would be a disaster. But far enough so that unions no longer hold near-dictatorial power in some areas, far enough so the unions can’t make the labor force an exclusive fraternity one must join for a cut of each paycheck in order to even work. As is often the case when the few take advantage of the opportunity to profit at the expense of the many, unions have in some ways become what they sought to eliminate.

Even lawyers don’t have the power or statutory “right” to demand fees from those they have helped even though they were not asked to do so. If the neighbor kid comes over and mows my lawn and then threatens to kill the grass if I don’t pay him, I’d have him prosecuted for trespass and criminal mischief. If somebody from AARP came to my door and threatened to cancel my retirement if I didn’t renew my subscription for another year of junk mail hawking prosthetics, retirement communities, and term insurance, I’d have to hurt him. I probably should anyway, just on principle.

If unions want to survive, they must adapt to the 21st century, and once again become relevant to the context of our times. At present, they are doing neither.


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  1. Hey, Frank! Thanks for reading my ponderings.

    Actually, I do know of and appreciate the things you point out. As I said, I see unions as a natural outgrowth of the metamorphosis from farmin’ n’ fishin’ to the Industrial Age, just as other institutions were natural developments from other transitions in history.

    My focus was on the negative, to be sure, but that doesn’t eliminate the positive or render it unimportant. In my opinion, unions are struggling to survive because they are looking aft instead of forward, Unions grew out of a need, but now they often search for needs to justify their continuing existence.

    “Piece of the pie?”

    The guy that sweeps the bakery floor doesn’t own the pie, or the oven either, and he doesn’t merit a swimming pool like the bakery owner has just because he thinks that’s “fair”. Defining the bakery owner as “greedy” because of their differences may on the other hand suggest avarice on the part of the one coveting the chair the boss’s ass sits in.

    We look at the exchange of goods and services in the context of today differently, I guess. When I exchanged my time and talents for money, my employer was entitled to the fruits of my labor and I was entitled to the agreed upon compensation. No more, no less, regardless of want or need. I worked for a group of six guys once, and I worked for a major corporation with a payroll of more than 75,000 people, and I didn’t see that formula any differently in either case.

    When we talk about dividing up economic “pies”, and “fair” shares, our differences arise in who gets to decide how and how much. If I hire a guy to paint my house for a given price, that’s the deal. He doesn’t own a piece of my “pie”, and I can’t screw him out of his just compensation. He doesn’t tell me when to eat lunch, and he is on my property.

    The early labor movement played rough because they were up against rough circumstances. Assuming a perpetual license to the mob mentality my seem like fun to those holding the bats, but expecting everyone else to play, too, simply moves the crown of oppression from one head to the other.

    I enjoy history, Frank, and always like to learn more about it, but seeing things differently doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t know something. Sometimes, it just means we see what we know from different perspectives.

    I hope you and yours are well and that you all enjoy a pleasant season, whatever you it is you may celebrate.

  2. You need a history course on labor unions and what they have done for all workers in America. Things like 40 hour weeks, 8 hour days, overtime pay, paid holidays, health insurance and other benefits are all a result of organized labor. People died for these benefits and to ensure that workers got a fair share of the pie when it was divided up.

    Unions are what saved this country from an angry revolution that would have pushed us into socialism, or worse, communism. The great depression saw 90 percent of the wealth concentrated in 10 percent of the people. That’s part of what caused the crash. And that’s also part of what caused our current melt-down. If safeguards (most instituted by FDR, that scourge of the moneyed class) were not in place, and if the government had not acted quickly, with large infusions of cash, we would have gone down that same road.

    Your story shows how a worker can reap the benefits of all that labor unions do, without paying a fair share, in either blood or dollars, for the benefits. We take so much for granted.

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