L. Neil Smith's
Number 264, March 21, 2004

"Mind Your Own Damned Business"

Three Strikes
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

This month, a certain industrial business in my town is gearing up to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The celebrations will be subdued, however, because business isn't what it used to be and the company is struggling. Adding insult to injury, many of the company's employees are currently out on strike, and we can expect whatever celebrations there may still be to be marred by protest signs and shouting workers.

Another area manufacturer has had financial problems as well, and there have been rumors of relocating the work to Mexico. At a time when the employees should be coming together and asking how they can best help the business to once again become profitable, union members are instead threatening a strike if their demands for wage and benefit increases aren't met. Whether or not some workable compromise can be reached remains to be seen.

Last year, a company not far from here saw its work dramatically changing with the widespread use of computers. At the same time, its basic supplies were increasing in cost. The company management was frank with employees: the business might yet survive and most if not all of the workers could keep their jobs, but some compromises would have to be made including some cuts in benefits. Meanwhile, investments could be made in updated infrastructure. The workers — all members of a union — refused to even consider the proposition and instead went out on strike. Unable to bear the costs of either a prolonged shut-down or to meet worker demands, the owners regretfully closed their longtime business.

Some hundred years ago, unions were a godsend to most workers. In many industries, employees were expected to work 10 and 12 hours a day, six days a week. Their wages were low; the work conditions often unsafe at best. A number of the most unskilled workers were children, many of elementary school age. Although "primitive" unions consisting of craftsmen of a particular trade weren't uncommon since the earliest days of the country, it wasn't until the 1820's or so that they began considering the advantage of some sort of "federation" of unions to address some of these problems. After the unsuccessful Knights of Labor, however, it wasn't until the late 1800's that lasting unions were formed.

Despite robust membership numbers, the unions still had some way to go before they would see their efforts succeed. For example, aprominent American socialist (Eugene Debs) led a strike against the Pullman Company in 1894, and a large group of railroad workers went on strike in support of the action. But the federal government intervened, and many of the strikers were either "starved out" or ended up blacklisted. Never-the-less, unionization continued, and the 1911 tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company (about 150 died in a fire there because the exit doors were locked) rallied much of the public behind the idea of reform in the workplace.

By 1938, workers saw the Fair Labor Standards Act become law. It established a 40 hour work week, a minimum wage, and prohibited much child labor. In 1942, the Fair Employment Act mandated a policy of non-discrimination in employment. These and other reforms, an important result of union activity, were successful enough that unions began flexing their muscle by literally forcing workers into membership and with an overt involvement in politics. That, in turn, saw the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which provided that companies could unionize only after an employee vote; that employers did not have to negotiate with unions; and that unions be forbidden from contributing to political campaigns.

Today, unions remain prevalent in certain industries. But with federal law and federal agencies — for good or for ill — overseeing worker welfare and ensuring minimum wages, unions have largely lost their original reason for being. So many unions have responded by stretching their purpose above and beyond what in many cases one might consider reasonable.

Under the guise of "protecting workers' jobs," I am personally aware of several instances of assault committed by union members against supervisory staff that saw little if any action taken against the offending employee. Under the guise of "protecting workers' jobs," I also know that, in at least some manufacturing facilities, union members are prohibited from learning to do anything but their own job. That means that those who finish their work early, or who are enjoying a light load at the time, can't help those on the other side of the assembly line who might be overwhelmed. Under the guise of "protecting workers' jobs," quotas are established so that workers who meet them can't be disciplined. Unfortunately, workers are frequently forbidden from exceeding quota so, once they're done making 52 widgets or 100 gadgets, they spend the rest of their eight-hour shift playing pinochle (lest you wonder, yes, the pinochle games are an actual example to which I was once witness).

One local union, in negotiations with an employer that was well into the red, was publicly thanked by the employer after the negotiations were concluded. We were told that the union members had been cognizant that budgets were strained and that cuts needed to be made, and that they were willing to do something about it. And so did they agree to a short-term wage freeze? Did they offer to pay some small portion of their benefits costs on a temporary basis? Or did they suggest some sort of a hiring moratorium? No, they agreed (are you ready?) to accept a lower percentage raise than they had originally demanded. And they're being thanked for continuing to bleed the employer dry, albeit at a slower rate!

The union mentality, while once a legitimately protective force toward people who genuinely needed some protection, has changed. Unions are now all too frequently the sword that threatens employers into meeting demands they can ill afford. Worse, there are times when the demands are wholly unreasonable given present circumstances, and yet they're non-negotiable anyway. Unions, it seems, have become less about getting workers what they deserve (a reasonably safe work environment, a living wage, a limited workday) and much more about getting workers everything they can. And when they can't, somehow it's the bankrupt employer who's blamed.

It's no real surprise, then, that unions almost universally back the Democratic Party. It is, after all, the Democrats who are most likely to sponsor and support various entitlement programs. Being a Democrat is apparently much like being a union member - you're not in it to get what you deserve from the government (protection of our national borders, for example), but rather to get everything you can. And, of course, the Democrat politicians will continue to "negotiate" with the taxpayer for still more money most of us can't afford to pay for programs virtually none of us would actually need if the government stayed uninvolved (the Social Security boondoggle comes immediately to mind).

Back on the local level, such one-sided "negotiations" show exactly how things are working with that company soon to be 100 years old. The workers know the company can't afford an expansive wage or benefits package right now. They must certainly know that the company can also ill afford the ongoing strike. And yet the signs remain on the sidewalks, and the strikers have brought lawn furniture so they can be comfortable while they watch the business struggle to live to be 101.

Whether we're talking about a union or the Union, it seems to me we need to grasp one salient fact: payouts beyond what are reasonable and deserved will see the giveaways stop sooner rather than later. And under such circumstances, both unions and Unions are bound eventually to fail. In the interim before the ultimate failure, we see left in the wake a series of dead or dying businesses; an exodus from American to overseas manufacturing; and wide-eyed unemployed people - many of them union members - who can't for the life of them figure out what went wrong.

NOTE: I got much of the information concerning early unions from a social studies teaching site document entitled "The Labor Union Movement in America."

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