My father and I used to have vehement arguments over unions and unionism. He had watched as his father had taken part in the Union Wars of the early 20th Century and had fought for the right of the worker to have a say in his job and future. He had also had to take jobs while in high school and be the bread winner for his entire family while his father was out on strike. He always said that my grandfather had died a man disillusioned with unions and unionism, but it always came across to me more as resentment on the part of my father that he’d had to sacrifice some of his youth working while his father was either on the picket line or sitting at home, waiting for the company to offer a decent wage package. My father always saw himself as a business man – his heroes were always those who were in proprietary positions – and he identified with ownership much more than with employee status. His argument was that unions held too much power and were in it only for the people who ran the unions, not for the workers they supposedly represented; he felt that if a person put in the money and effort to create a profitable company, he should have the right to say what happened inside that company.
I, on the other hand, had grown up working in jobs that paid little, had no benefits, and where the employee was merely a number. I was told, on more than one occasion, that if I didn’t like the working conditions or the pay, I was welcome to leave and they could “train a monkey” to do my job. My response to this, which resulted in my immediate dismissal a couple of times, was that, if they could train a monkey to do it then why were they wasting money paying a human who could think and reason?
While I admitted that, in some cases, such as the Teamsters, unions had been taken over by self-interested and sometimes criminal parties, and that, in some cases, unions had acquired too much power, but had done so only in defense of managers who were intransigent in their mistreatment of the workers.
As soon as I could, after graduating high school, I began working in a shop represented by United Steel Workers and the AFL-CIO, and proudly carried my union card with me at all times. Over the years, I have worked in and out of union shops, in open shops and closed, and have even turned down a union organizer’s job that would have been on of the most exciting careers I could have had. I even lost a low-level management job after I refused to “get on the team” (as it is put to me) and convince the employees in my department that they didn’t need a union. Another time, I was fired from a job for no other reason that someone had come up to me and asked me if I knew how to start organizational procedures. I had answered them that I did but that I would not discuss it while on the clock or on the premises of the business. All of this has given me the opportunity to observe the current state of unions and unionism from both inside and out.
I have become increasingly appalled over the past 20 years as I have watched, first Reagan, then the two Bushes not-so-subtly demolish the rights of workers to organize and to be fairly represented by a union of their choice. I have railed in anger over each new erosion of worker’s rights and seethed when I witnessed a “boss” commit some wrong against a worker who had no choice but to accept it.
Likewise, I greet the new administration with the hope that these injuries will be properly addressed and that the Free Choice bill that has languished in Congress will be passed, finally giving the workers the ability to take a voice in their own careers.
But, with this said, in considering the plight of the workers today, I must also point a very damning finger of blame at the workers themselves. While “Management” and “Proprietors” have their share of responsibility in the decline and near-death of unions in this country, much of the blame must be put upon those who are card-carrying union members, for union members have contributed in a large part to the suicide of their organizations and it is time they were held accountable for it.
How this has happened is comparable to the same answer one gets when they ask how this country came to be in the state (whatever state that may be) it is in.
A couple of personal examples:
The last union shop I worked in was represented by a local chapter of the UFCW -- the United Food and Commercial Workers International. It is a large chapter, boasting membership in the thousands. Yet, the contract accepted by the leadership of this chapter contained concessions that, quite frankly, were draconian in their scope and the membership, as far as I could tell, was not supportive of it. Rumors were constant about how the union leaders were in collusion with management. Still, whenever I talked to one of these people, I would say, “Why don’t you run for position then and fight for the members?”
Invariably, I would be met with an answer of, “Oh! I don’t have time for that!” Before this, when I first got into education, I went, on my very first day, to see the union representative, who, in this case, happened to be the local president. I immediately offered my membership and was accepted. This was an EA – Education Association – of course and, as such, as automatically affiliated with both the Ohio Education Association and the National Educational Association, giving it a huge membership and quite a lot of clout.
At the time I entered the union, we were in contract negotiations and, not long after I became a full member, a contract was offered for ratification. Being a good standing member, I attended the meeting.
I was absolutely flabbergasted! Here, in a system with more than 200 classroom staff members, meeting to ratify a contract that would govern their next three years of employment, were a total, counting the chapter officials and myself, a total of six – yes, SIX – people who would vote to accept or reject the contract! Only three percent of the eligible employees could find time enough to take charge of their own destinies – or cared enough to find the time.
After this meeting, I went to others and asked why they had not been there. I pressed them beyond their dismissing statements of not having time or having another engagement, and, in the end, nearly every one of them finally admitted that they had not attended because, to sum it up, “That’s why I joined the union: so they would handle that sort of thing and I wouldn’t have t bother with it.”
In other words, they were telling me that they simply wanted someone to act, not as their representative, but as their protector, assuring them employment and wages and benefits while they went off and did whatever suited them, ignoring their own responsibility.
These same people, as you doubtless know, are the same ones who cried foul when the contract contained items that were against their wishes. They didn’t want a union, they wanted a babysitter.