I have never paid union dues. I have been a white collar worker most of my life, in jobs where there are no unions. But I have benefited greatly from unions.
One of my first jobs was delivering mail for a summer. That was too short a time to join the mail carriers’ union, but I was paid the good wage that they had won through collective bargaining. In college, I worked summers digging ditches and making truck deliveries. The small businesses I worked for did not have unionized workers, but I still benefited from unions. Decades of activism by organized workers had won the 40-hour week, the minimum wage, protection in case of accidents, health insurance and many other benefits. No matter where I worked, the history of collective bargaining by unionized workers made a big difference in my pay, hours and conditions.
Unions are not and never have been assemblies of angels. Many unions, notably the Teamsters, have a long history of corruption, especially by organized crime. Some union officials have lined their pockets, made backroom deals with bosses and rigged elections. In this way, unions are like businesses and governments: Occasionally they are dishonest and rip off their members, customers or voters.
But it would be difficult to argue that unions have been more corrupt than various governments, like Chicago’s, or than capitalist businesses, like many on Wall Street. Union leaders, even those whose organizations contain a million members, make only a fraction of what business tycoons take out of their companies. Union leaders and policies are created by the democratic action of their members, unlike the top-down decision-making of businesses. Unions are not perfect, but they represent average Americans much better than big business.
As grass-roots organizations, unions are feared by dictators. All of the world’s dictatorships, whether left or right, have banned free unions. The Nazis and the Communists, for all their rhetoric about representing workers, made unions into state-run transmission belts for government policy. The former dictatorships in Latin America and those in the Middle East which are being shaken today by revolt all made free union activity impossible.
Suddenly in 2011, the right of workers to bargain collectively with their employers is being threatened by state governments in the U.S. The Republican Party has never been comfortable with unions, because the GOP typically represent the interests of employers.
Billionaires fund Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. By beating down unions, big employers can gain even more power in the workplace. Even though Wisconsin workers have agreed to large pay cuts, Walker and Republican governors in Ohio and New Jersey are demanding an end to their right to collective bargaining.
Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis in 1968 to support the demands of municipal garbage workers for collective bargaining rights. They were working below the minimum wage with no benefits. This was a natural extension of his civil rights work. The right to organize and bargain as a group, rather than individually, is a crucial civil right in a democracy. Organized together, workers can bargain with employers on an equal footing. Only the threat of strikes by unionized workers forced employers to institute the eight-hour day, industry by industry, gradually during the early 20th century.
Our current recession has fomented a disastrous competition among Americans who are in economic pain. Although the attack on public service unions is funded by billionaires, its power comes from average Americans convinced that public employees cause budget deficits. Many public sector workers do receive very good benefits, especially health care.
The union-busters are encouraging economic envy; they want people to think, “I don’t get such good benefits, so nobody should.” In fact, the pay of public service employees is lower than private sector workers with similar qualifications.
The 19th century robber baron Jay Gould once said, “I can hire half the working class to shoot the other half.” He counted on ignorance and desperation to allow him to divide and conquer. That’s exactly what the anti-union politicians are counting on. They want people to believe that teachers are overpaid and that policemen’s pensions are too high. They want people to believe that knocking down middle-class public workers will benefit them.
If our economy is based on middle-class consumer spending, how will making middle-class jobs less appealing help us?
The only people who will benefit are the 21st-century robber barons who are funding the Republican Party.
Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at stevehochstadt.blogspot.com.
International Union of Operating Engineers Local 965