Why Unions are Good for America

February 23, 2011

The Midwest is rife with labor protests right now as various Republican-dominated state legislatures try to take power away from unions. They are doing this, they say, for the Good of the People. Taking power from unions will balance budgets. Attract industry. We will live in a better place if we can just get rid of those awful unions.

Horseshit.

I am a proud union member, and I don’t understand why so many people have come to view unions with such disdain. That isn’t to say I don’t understand what Republican politicians have against them (we’ll get to that), but I don’t understand why the average working person has a problem with them.

If you are reading this, you probably know that before unions, work was dismal for the average American. Your employer, in general, did not care about you. You were paid as little as they could pay you and still have enough people to do the work. Safety was a non-concern. You were a cog. You were meat. You were disposable.

“So what?” you say (at least, if your are a Republican, this is probably what you say). This is America. Anyone can rise to the top. You just have to be willing to work for it.

I say again: Horseshit.

Certainly, it is conceivable that anyone can rise to a place of power with enough effort and enough luck (let us not forget luck, too many people fall into the trap of believing they deserve their luck). But everyone can’t. You can’t have a nation of CEOs and professional athletes. The world doesn’t work that way. Someone has to sell shoes and build roads and teach children. Someone has to do the things that actually allow us to exist as a society. This is why unions are good for the country.

Unions acknowledge that we are not all wealthy and powerful. That no matter what we do, we will never all be powerful and wealthy. But we are still human. We still have needs and dignity. If we band together we become powerful. We gain agency over our lives. Unions allow us to do this.

I don’t know if you are part of a union or not, but if you’re not, think about it for a minute.

Right now, your boss can fire you because he or she doesn’t like your shoes or your politics or because you drink Pepsi instead of Coke or for no reason at all. You could be the best worker at your job, but if the boss decides to fire you, there’s nothing you can do. Does this seem fair?

Right now, your company can tell you in the same presentation that the company had record profits this year, but that there is no money for raises or bonuses (I lived that one once upon a time). Does this seem fair?

You are still meat.

If you have any doubt about how much top level executives value you, go look at the labor they use overseas. Go look at how children are enslaved so products can be a few cents cheaper in America. The only difference between you and those children is luck. You were born in a country where, thanks largely to unions, there are laws that prevent companies from abusing there employees in quite such an egregious way.

Something you’ll notice if you look around the world is that countries where the workers receive the best treatment are the countries where the workers have the most power. Call me a socialist, but it’s true. You will also notice, if you look closely, that where labor is legitimately powerful, the standard of living tends to be very high (go take a look at co-determination and where it’s practiced).

What I am saying, in so many words is this: Unions are not the problem. Labor is not the problem. Greed is the problem. Corporate and political corruption are the problem. No one can work hard enough to “deserve” the kind of wealth the people in charge accumulate. You want to talk about hard work? Fine. Let’s talk about my father.

My father was dirt poor when he was growing up. For a long time, they did not have plumbing. At dinner, sometimes, they started with the youngest (he was the fourth child of nine) and if there was food left when the pot got you, you got to eat. My dad has dyslexia, but it wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late to do much good. But he worked hard. He worked in a factory (with a union). The company made forgings. It was hot, dirty, awful work. There were times when he worked 12 hour days six or seven days a week for months. He worked first shift. He worked second shift. He worked third shift. He did whatever was asked of him. Eventually, he did get a promotion. He left the union and became part of management. He retired after 30+ years working for the same company. The point of this story is not whether or not the union did my dad any good (though, undoubtedly it did). The point is that my dad is not a millionaire. He and my mom are very comfortable. They don’t want for anything, but they are not obscenely wealthy. However, if it is really true that all it takes is hard work, as so many Republicans want to claim, they should own a tropical island. So where is it?

The way unions and labor are being portrayed by conservatives is simply wrong. I’m not saying unions are perfect. Corruption happens everywhere, but the solution is not to take power from the workers and give it to the often extremely corrupt and greedy CEOs and politicians. Labor needs more power than it has. If employees were given more say in how a company is run and how workers are treated, then we would be a better nation. A stronger nation.

If the current trend continues and workers continue to lose power and wealth continues to concentrate at the top, it will become harder and harder to get anywhere, no matter how hard you work. Stories like that of my parents will become a thing of the past (without a union, it’s doubtful my dad could have afforded to stay at what would have been a painfully low paying job long enough to get a promotion). People will work until they drop dead – never having had the chance to save a dime – while a select few who were lucky enough to be born into the right circumstances live absurd and opulent lifestyles. This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not an America I want to live in.

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