Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Unions Forever?

I don't subscribe to that apparent left-wing narrative that "all unions are always good always." Unions, like any large human organization, are just as capable of serious and fatal flaws as they are to obsolecence.

But the "union thuggery" narrative used so often by the far-right wing, despite contrary evidence, is a national one. It further erodes the credibility of real conservatives who associate with madness like this and refreshes in my mind what is at stake in Madison.

Don't fool yourself, this is all about political power, political marketing and credibility. Ending the right to collectively bargain has very little to do with actually balancing a budget. Because budgets have to do with revenues and expenditures; you don't balance those two things by significantly cutting revenues while reducing tiny amounts of expenditures and granting massive subsidies or giveaways to political allies.

In essence, the Republican runs on a platform of fiscal responsiblity, then institutes fiscally irresponsible legislation while cloaking it in some larger, more emotional national narrative. If they actually win, all the better. If they lose, they get to harvest the support that comes from intellectually incurious individuals on their "side" who see other Americans as less than Americans. Partisan political hackery at its finest.

As for the unions and their sympathizers, I can only hope this serves as a wake-up call to revitalize local and state-level activism. I hope it serves as a moment when these unions and activists become more politically savvy. (The ironic "union thug" t-shirt is a fantastic idea that needs to be replicated.) I hope this is the moment they begin to bring unions back from the brink of outdated-ness that they are fast approaching. There is some serious antipathy towards unions in this country, and for real reasons. These folks should start to see that, and not just base their support on something because all the cool liberals are doing it.

And they shouldn't couch this one event in terms of "losing" and "winning." Just because the GOP gets their legislation now doesn't mean that policy can't change later. You just have to remain vigilant and involved. If you fail to acheive your objectives here, you have to reevaluate and try again later. Once you do acheive your objectives, you must always seek to improve them. In a representative republic, we don't just get to enjoy one legislative battle and then luxuriously never revisit the issue.

Because, when it comes to unions, there is an awful lot of self-improvement that could take place.

I'm from the South, so it ain't like I've had a lot of experience with unions, even though I was in one for a year. A public employees union at that. Despite even active participation in said union, I am at a loss to figure out what that union did for me as a worker. Or for any of my co-workers, for that matter. I am at a loss to figure out what value that union added to the local area, whose public schools had experienced decades of decline and neglect.

Apparently, I was paying dues so some national-level union administrators could have snazzy lunches with congressfolk, and some local-level union administrators could throw cookouts. I also guess that, if anything had happened to me, the union might appoint some local and well connected lawyer to my case, if I didn't have the wherewithal to get one on my own. They could have just called the union I was in "legal troubles insurance." That's how membership was sold to me, after all. Though I never could find out how that would have worked. I also didn't quite trust the track record, since the union watched as 5,000+ employees were summarily dismissed once upon a time, and not one thing could be done about it.

This is all in spite of the fact that I knew some very spirited and sincere individuals who worked for that union. But that's to be expected. After all, I am from the South, and we've got a lot of spirited and sincere people here. Whatever civic or private organizations we create, there are going to be those people - just like there will be bad people. That's just the nature of things.

Despite the fact that I'm a "liberal,"* I'm a Southern liberal, and we tend to focus more on race than collective bargaining. To collectively bargain, after all, you have to accept some semblance of equality in the collective. And corporate interests didn't even have to divide us down here before we were conquered, we generally handled that for them ahead of time.

* (Roughly defined, by both "liberals" and "conservatives" as "anyone who doesn't agree with the most right-wing utopian thought processes.")


Dante said...

"Ending the right to collectively bargain has very little to do with actually balancing a budget. Because budgets have to do with revenues and expenditures;"

So we pay these public employees with what then? Fairy dust? Pocket lint? Ending the ability to collectively bargain has everything to do with balancing a budget. The way pay works for public sector employees, costs are very fixed and predictable. Every time a collective bargaining agreement rears its ugly head, those predictable costs are out the window. Ending collective bargaining puts the budgeting of public sector employees firmly back in control of those who manage the rest of the state's budget.

Note that I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm just saying there is a very real balance consideration that is tied directly to the ability of public sector employees to collectively bargain. Money being foolishly spent elsewhere doesn't change that.

My personal view on union negotiation is very basic: Any group should have the ability to meet peaceably and negotiate their work situation; however, negotiation is a two-way street. The employer should have just as much right to fire the group if they so desire.

Here are three examples I can think of where PAGE (GA teachers union) has helped an individual I know:

-Provided legal representation to a teacher who had a student accuse her of hitting that student.

-A teacher can use sick days towards retirement if they wish to retire early. A teacher recently did this and the school board asked for medical documentation for her absences. They also started paying her retirement wages instead of her full-time wages for the sick days and sent a letter telling her medical benefits were being terminated. PAGE called the school district to politely remind them that their actions were in clear violation of state law.

-A music teacher in a school district in south Georgia was asked to resign since her position would no longer be available the next school year. After consulting with PAGE, the teacher realized the school district was basically trying to screw her out of unemployment benefits. She also learned that this same school district was doing this to all of the employees they planned to lay off the next year. The teacher made the school district terminate her so she could receive unemployment benefits while looking for new work.

You'll note that in none of those examples do collective bargaining come into play. In PAGE's case, their most important role I can see is as an employee advocate.

alli said...

You need to look at the 5,000 foot view.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Good examples, Dante. It sounds like PAGE is an actual, working professional union that does demonstrable things for their members.

As it comes to collective bargaining, I think we've discussed this before in relation to private-sector unions - I don't think it is the fault of collective bargaining as much as it is the lack of skill when it comes to negotiating with them. That's your budgetary problem right there.

I think it is an administrative failure if your negotiator is unable to facilitate a plan where public sector unions are reasonably paid within a sound budget. Politicians who want to end the negotiation practice wholesale are admitting failure. This is part of their jobs, just like structuring their government contracts to private business. I don't see any moves to end that practice.

That Walker includes no-bid contracts in the same budget that strips the power of public service unions to collectively bargain tells me just about all I need to know about his priorities. He doesn't care one whit about a balanced budget. He cares about using public dollars to reward friends and punish opponents.

alli said...

The public sector unions in Wisconsin agreed to concessions. They agreed to pay more into their pensions and pay more for their health care plans. This wasn't enough for Walker.

Walker has been paid big bucks by David and Charles Koch to bust these unions. They're going to do this state by state. It's not about the damn budget, it's about destroying the public sector unions.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

That's a pretty fair article, Alli, espeically as it accepts the obsolecense of unions in their current form, and the utter fragmentation of the American left. It think it goes a little far polishing the image of unions in days past, and the thought puzzle of "what if" the unions had been powerful in the 80's and 90's is a little utopian. Unions had their chances in the 80's and 90's, and their leadership failed to involve or evolve.

But what to do about it? There may never again be a "monolithic left" as the author seems to desire. That doesn't mean progress-prone change cannot come to this country. There's a reason I think people need to get involved in their local and state political parties. If you want to change the way things are done, nationally, you have to change the way things are done locally.

Thomas said...

Maybe some historical, albeit first-hand and second-hand perspectives via my Pa's words from peri-WWII era experiences and a bit of my own:

Unions CAN be thuggery and all about the bosses and mass idiocy. My Pa, at work at a post-WWII Bell Aircraft plant in Buffalo got seriously day made a bet with a co-worker at 9 am that he could shut down the plant by noon by saying one thing to just one person--a union rep loudmouth who got off on union ruckus-making. The bet made, he & his buddy went together to the loudmouth, where Pa whispered "Wildcat strike at noon." The plant emptied at noon and Pa brought home some treats from the bet. He much appreciated the unions, but saw them go south (sorry, Southerners) with thuggery and loss of goals & vision for workers as well as excuses for poor quality product, part of the decline in American manufacturing.

My grandpa lost vision in one eye from an industrial accident and got dropped from the disability, no sick pay, no union in the 1920's to protect him or family from the dangerous conditions at the mill.

My own union experience was with two professional unions in 2 workplaces, NY State and Maine, the state nursing association's bargaining units. We fought and won--not raises or benefits, but better nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and an end to mandated overtime (shown in research to drastically increase incidence of medication errors to patients). We had to fight off attempts by 1199 (AFL?) to grab the contract and the rep rights. Non-prof unions are more about power and big salaries to corp-like execs, it seems to me.

Hey, I was a member of Teamsters for summer jobs driving delivery trucks in Buffalo (sorry, no stories of beers with Jimmy H., rest his soul).