Skip to content

The Old-Timey Goodness of Labor Unions

2010 September 19
by Andi Greco


Ignore him at your own risk

Labor unions are like George Michael: everyone likes them in theory, but now that they’ve aged a little, they are getting some terrible PR. Drunk on its excesses, onanistically self-righteous, the modern labor union is its own worst enemy — at least, that’s what most media would have you believe.

The labor-related stories that make news are mostly negative, particularly if one reads right-wing press like the New York Post — which I do, because free copies of it float around my workplace like bats in the eaves. We hear about union bigs who are investigated for bribery and corruption. Teachers’ unions resist new methods of assessing teacher effectiveness and holding teachers accountable. The perpetual story is how the MTA is raising bus and train fares because employees in the Transport Workers Union are not willing to give up any of their benefits or scheduled raises.

MTA CEO Jay Walder

Last month, MTA CEO Jay Walder took the unusual step of asking his employees in the TWU local 100 to accept a two-year wage freeze. He has already cut administrative and nonunion wages and laid off 2,500 people. Remember, it is Walder’s job to keep the transit system running (semi-)smoothly, which necessitates working with the powerful TWU. (A transit strike, as we all learned in 2005, is an ugly thing.) His concession was unusual, forced by the severity of the recession, and earned him plenty of blowback from the local. Still, Post oped columnist Nicole Gelinas was not satisfied because “he’s taken $300 million from workers versus $2.1 billion from riders and taxpayers.” That disparity would have made a lot more sense if she had noted that the $300 million loss was shared by a few thousand transit workers, while the $2 billion was spread among millions of New Yorkers, including the more than seven million who ride the subway on a daily basis. (Across the spectrum, in the left-leaning Daily News, the popular-outrage story was that Walder had been confronted about his own $350K annual salary and refused to take a pay cut.)

What’s missing from this conversation is any defense of the union’s existence, or even an implication that it does something good. No one is writing that skilled blue-collar workers like those represented by the TWU should earn a living wage and receive decent benefits — that perhaps this is an idea worth protecting, even in a recession.

In the morass of anti-labor news stories, it is easy to lose sight of what can and does happen when the free market sets its own limits. A hundred years ago, while the US was still adjusting to a city-based manufacturing economy, it was normal for seamstresses and factory workers to work in squalor. Our current crop of unions grew out of that dirt. At the turn of the century, unions were sometimes all that stood between the working man and the slavelike conditions of the Industrial Revolution.

My first exposure to the concept of labor unions came from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel set in the nineteen-teens. When I was twelve or so, my grandmother gave me an already well-loved copy that she got at a library sale. It is still one of my favorite books. This is one of many scenes I could relate to you from memory:

[Francie’s father] took the slice of bread and turned it over. The Union sticker was on that piece. “Good bread, well made by Union bakers.” He pulled the sticker off. A thought struck him. “The Union label on my apron!”
“It’s right here, sewn in the seam. I’ll iron it out.”
“That label is like an ornament,” he explained, “like a rose that you wear. Look at my Waiters’ Union button.” The pale green-and-white button was fastened in his lapel. He polished it with his sleeve. “Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big, they said, that they could sell the waiting concession. Then I joined the Union. Your mother shouldn’t begrudge the dues. The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.”
“Yes, Papa.” By now Francie was ironing away. She loved to hear him talk.

The idealism of those times seems naive now. The thing is, the “bosses” today have the same motivation that they did back then: inflating their bottom line.

I have some personal history with organized labor. Both of my grandfathers were transit workers whose union membership brought them a decent wage and a pension. (My mother’s father is a member of the TWU local 100.) My family is solidly blue-collar up through their generation — you couldn’t call us “middle class” until my parents started working — but my grandparents didn’t have to worry about feeding their kids the way that my great-grandparents did. Both of my parents also went to college. Their parents’ union wages didn’t pay for that; my mom worked hard to pay her way through school, and my dad got into all-scholarship Cooper Union. It’s worth noting, however, that both of them felt that they could go to college, which wasn’t the usual route in their families. They did not have the “trapped” mindset of people who grow up in poverty.

For evidence that workers need some form of legal protection, look no further than two of the last groups waiting to enjoy it — domestic and agricultural workers. Their jobs have been notably exempted from most of the labor movement’s advances for the past hundred years, largely because, historically, they are not jobs held by white people. On August 3, the New York State Senate voted on a bill that would have granted farm workers the right to bargain collectively, to receive overtime pay, and to take one day of rest — one day! — per week. The bill did not pass. It took fifteen years of struggle just to get that bill to the floor.

Factory farm workers get screwed en masse, and nannies on an individual basis. Both are denied benefits — paid holidays, sick time, a minimum wage — and respect. These are the people who perform two of the most basic functions in our society: feeding us and raising our children. The necessity of this work does not make it necessary for employers to look past profit and soften their hearts. There is no moral regulation of the labor market unless there is legal regulation, and often, the best way to agitate for that regulation is by organizing.

In the past few years, as social services have been sucked dry of funding and private-sector jobs fall away, the only workers who seem able to protect themselves are union members. Perhaps there’s a hint of spite to the near-daily drubbing that teachers and MTA workers, in particular, take in the press: “Why should they get any clout, when the rest of us have to put up, shut up, and act grateful just to be employed?” Cops and healthcare workers are given more of a pass, perhaps because they defend us from bodily harm — something viscerally scarier than substandard schools or a longer wait on the platform. (Of course, an education deficit or a parent who spends an extra daily hour absent commuting will have long-term effects on the crime rate for future generations.) I would argue, however, that teachers’ unions, above all others, need to be powerful. Teaching, like raising children, is critically important work that is not directly financially productive.

As an employee of a union business — and that’s as specific as I’ll get here — I’ve seen how unionization plays out on a practical level. My colleagues make a good living wage; many of them are non-native English speakers and immigrants who would be easily exploited otherwise. At the same time, there are drawbacks. Some employees work the loopholes of the union rules to pad their paychecks. (Most do not do so.) Seniority is paramount, and how well someone does their job is almost irrelevant. In fact, it becomes something of a liability to stand out as a good worker. Doing extra work incurs the ire of one’s coworkers because of the concept of “past practice”: “If you do it, they’ll expect me to do it too.” Furthermore, no one wants to be promoted to supervisor, because managers are not part of the union and have zero job security.

These are relatively minor problems in the grand scheme of things. Business owners and managers may be irritated by their workers’ occasional cockiness, but that is better than an imbalance of power that tips the other way: a ruthless employer who can ruin someone’s livelihood at a whim. There’s an Aesop fable about a hound who is chasing a hare and can’t keep up. When a little snot-nosed goatherd makes fun of the hound, the hound replies, “Remember that I was only running for my dinner, but he was running for his life.”  The owners are running for their dinner; the workers are running for their lives. An owner loses $50K and tells his friends he had a bad week. A worker loses $50K and moves his kids into a homeless shelter.

– – –

I have a difficult time squaring the present anti-labor “mood” with the present reality: income inequality has reached a level not seen since 1928.  We live in a time when “socialist” is the dirtiest of words. (To some extent this is tied up in race: when the Glenn Beck contingent rails against “redistribution of wealth,” there are unsubtle implications about exactly who, they think, should not be on the receiving end.) Somehow, the Republican party has sold the working class on the idea that what’s good for business is good for employees. Bob Herbert neatly dismantled this falsehood in a recent New York Times op-ed:

Productivity tells the story. Increases in the productivity of American workers are supposed to go hand in hand with improvements in their standard of living. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. That’s how the economic pie expands, and we’re all supposed to have a fair share of that expansion.

Corporations have now said the hell with that. Economists believe the nation may have emerged, technically, from the recession early in the summer of 2009. As Professor Sum writes in a new study for the labor market center, this period of economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Worker productivity has increased dramatically, but the workers themselves have seen no gains from their increased production. It has all gone to corporate profits. This is unprecedented in the postwar years, and it is wrong.

In other words, the people at the top of the pyramid have no incentive to hire employees or raise wages if they know that they can just squeeze more productivity from their current employees: get them to work harder, for less money, or with no insurance coverage. Without laws to guarantee people fair compensation and a decent standard of living, the only people who get a “fair share of expansion” are those who are already rich. The middle class melts down into an ever-growing lower class. More of the lower class slips into poverty. This is exactly what is happening now.

Labor unions are definitely flawed. However, without them, individual workers have limited ability to apply the necessary pressure to change the system and improve their standard of living. Corporations will not hesitate to bring the big guns to a fight.  All workers can do is bring the numbers.

To my mind, the final word on the necessity of legal protections for workers belongs to champion muckraker Eric Schlosser, at the close of “In the Strawberry Fields,” his 2003 essay about migrant farm workers:

We have been told for years to bow down before “the market.” We have placed our faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in its way. The market will drive wages down like water, until they reach the lowest possible level….No deity that men have ever worshiped is more ruthless and more hollow than the free market unchecked; there is no reason why shantytowns should not appear on the outskirts of every American city…. Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate, and cheap — a work force that is anything but free.

In the end, it’s about the most fundamental American value: freedom.

2 Responses
  1. jerseycityjoan permalink
    September 22, 2010

    I thank you for the time you took to write this. I have mixed feelings about what you say. Certainly American workers have not been rewarded for their contributions. The financial rewards that should accompany productivity gains were not passed on to workers even before the Great Recession. They certainly aren’t now.

    It seems to me and many others that many public service employees are over-rewarded relative to peers it the private sector because (1) they help campaign for politicians and (2) those in jobs like transit end up being paid off not to strike because even though striking is illegal, they do it anyway and the inconvenience to the public is so great.

    States across America have public service union retiree pensions and health care deficits that in my opinion will never be paid. In 20 or 30 years I expect the retirees will end up getting most of their pensions but not anywhere near the cost of the health plans outside of Medicare. And if with their pensions and Social Security they’re making about 100% of what they made while working, that is not unreasonable. In the end, the taxpayers will not do for the unions what is not done for them.

    I wish to see a resurgence of labor and for the average person to get more at work, not just treat water. I used to think that the unions would remind us all that it used to be the auto workers’ deals were regarded as a source of inspiration for what workers could attain; now companies consider the race to the bottom of Walmart as their shining example of squeeze and squeeze again. The vast unpaid sums and relative unfairness of public service employees’ deals have made me realize we can’t afford that particular idealism.

    What I would like to see is an general organization of workers that would represent all of Labor. Whenever we speak of Labor being represented, it’s always unions. With fewer than 10% of workers in a union nowadays. all workers are shortchanged when only unionized Labor has a voice.

    • Andrea Greco permalink
      October 9, 2010

      Joan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I actually agree with much of what you wrote; my article painted a rosier picture of unions than I thought it would when I set out, probably because of the nostalgia involved in thinking about my grandparents’ experience.
      I completely agree that, ideally, all workers should have a stronger voice in government. Labor laws that benefit all workers, like sick pay requirements and minimum wage increases, should be our first priority. However, as we’re currently seeing with regard to the nearly-dead sick leave bill in New York State, the current political climate is very hostile to labor concerns. The attitude is, “any job is better than no job at all,” which makes sense in a basic and short-term way — however, we are defining terms that will come back to bite us in the future. Our standards are low, concerning what an employer ‘owes’ it’s employees — even the ability to stay home when we’ve got the flu is seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. This is untenable. The way things are now, I wonder about non-organized employees’ ability to push for these kinds of changes.
      I would purport that union employees are not overrewarded; nonunion employees are underrewarded. (Some exceptions apply — there are some public employees in NYS, for example, who are infamous for exploiting disability programs.) Beyond “inspiring” employers in the private sector, union shops can set a very real standard for what employees accept. If someone can make $xyz wages as a cop, a private firm may need to approach those wages to recruit that person as a security guard. Unfortunately, as things stand now, people are so afraid of losing their jobs that they’ll accept whatever they can get.
      You make a good point about the unsustainable pensions and health care benefits that are paid to public employees. I think you are correct that many of these benefits will dry up in the years to come. My only response to that is that I would bet public money is spent on a thing or two less important than retirement benefits and health care. It’s like the argument for Obama’s healthcare reform: yes, it will cost something, but if we think of it as a priority — a necessity — we will find a way to pay for it.
      Basically, for all their flaws, I think we need unions to set the standard. Right now non-union workers look at union workers and think “why should they get all the breaks,” but my hope is that, when the economy starts to look up a little, they’ll start to think of it like “why should I accept less than that?”

Comments are closed.