My Take On Unions….

At the heart, this is what unions fought for.

At the heart, this is what unions fought for.

No. This has nothing to do with the Civil versions.

I’m talking the history of labor unions.

In my school district, there is a clash between the will of the Union on one side and the desires of the School Board on the other. Like it or not, the notion of unions is quickly going to become one of those things you don’t talk about at the dinner table: Politics, Religion, Sex, and Unions.

However, the animosity toward unions isn’t anything new. In their infancy, unions were viewed from a strictly Puritanical way. When the Lowell, Massachusetts girls went on strike in 1833, one factory owner commented that it was “An amizonian [sic] display” where “a spirit of evil omen has prevailed.” By the time America watched the largest unions form, during the Gilded Age, unions were seen as a threat to American values: capitalism and democracy. Today, unions are seen as either politicized or protecting workers who have no right to be protected.

Perception of unions hasn't changed from their onset

Perception of unions hasn’t changed from their onset

When unions first came to a head in the United States, there is no doubt that workers were exploited. Slave wages, atrocious working conditions, brutal hours, child labor, health and safety issues amounted to a work environment ripe for disease, death, and poverty. Despite this, thousands flocked to America for the hope and chance at becoming something more than a dirt farmer from Europe.

Something else came with these immigrants. Something that seems to have disappeared over time. With opposing viewpoints in print– see The Jungle and How the Other Half Lives versus Horatio Alger’s popular rags to riches stories–and maybe despite these, migrants labored hard for their pennies. Sadly, some couldn’t even earn pennies. If they had the misfortune of finding themselves in Carnegie’s Homestead mills, they earned company scrip redeemable only in Carnegie owned stores and for rent on Carnegie owned housing.

Still, these workers toiled. They worked harder than any of us could ever imagine. And for this labor, unions formed.

People recognized that these workers deserved more for their labor. More in wages. More free hours for themselves. More time to recuperate for the next days work in the mills, mines and factories. Unions fought for the eight-hour work day. Unions fought for higher wages. They fought to end child labor and worker’s rights. They cleaned up the factories. They brought in safety. Unions got presidents like Teddy Roosevelt to acknowledge the need to regulate corrupt businesses.

The politicization of unions occurred shortly after World War II where government-employee unions gained strength.

Like most unions, government-employee ones were also vilified. Their history is one rife with animosity, from the citizens to governors to presidents. Case in point: the 1919 Boston police union strike. President Woodrow Wilson said of the strike that it was “an intolerable crime against civilization.” When Governor Calvin Coolidge broke the strike, he was lauded by the people of Boston and he commented that “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” These are both Democrats and Republicans respectively firing away at the rights of government-employee unions.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the great liberal, the president whose administration brought in big government and its far-reaching hand into all aspects of our lives even warned against a growing government-employee union. In 1937, FDR commented that public employees had no right to collective bargaining, nor did they have the right to strike. He went so far as to say that unions in the government-employee sector were tantamount to revolution–

Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. (Letter from FDR to Luther Steward, President of the National Federation of Federal Employees)

Since 1937, government-employee unions have gained traction in both membership and in political clout. The American Federation of Teachers, whose public policy is to discourage striking, admits on their website that from 1968–after the New York Teacher’s strike–to 1978 there were over three hundred strikes by teachers affiliated with the AFT. The purpose of the these strikes? To wield more political power over the local and state government and governing bodies of the school districts. The crux of these strikes was not better conditions for education but the rights to collective bargaining, the very thing that FDR warned against. We’ve had other strikes–Air Traffic Control/PATCO in the early 1980s–and what we see is a pattern of highs and lows, and what we are experiencing is a low in the economy when public unions are most vulnerable.

What makes these public unions vulnerable are their very clients. 

Why unions fail

Why unions fail

We’ve entered a phase in our history where the entitlement generation is now employed. Parents see teachers who use the classroom as a place to either proselytize their political views or as a place to get easy pay, summers off, and a great retirement at the cost of the private citizen. What they do not see are the other hard-working teachers who resent the entitlement generation. There are plenty of teachers who find it appalling that the union protects the sloths, incompetent, or general toxic teacher. 

The other issue at hand is the fact that President Obama is seemingly comfortable living in the front pocket of unions. In 2009, he signed Executive Order 13522 and for the most part the order went unnoticed. In a complete reversal of the Democrat party ideal set forth by FDR, Obama has brought government-employee unions not only into the forefront, but given them a chair at the decision-making table. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in April 2010, by and large Americans have a declining view of the bureaucracy that is our government (ironic that in 2010, the one agency that gained the most trust was the IRS… let’s see what those numbers do now).

At its heart, EO 13522 is supposed to help make a 

 A nonadversarial forum for managers, employees, and employees’ union representatives to discuss Government operations will promote satisfactory labor relations and improve the productivity and effectiveness of the Federal Government. (EO 13522)

Honestly, when does a union do anything to make work harder for its members? What we will find is that EO 13522 gets more government workers in the agencies that Americans don’t trust to do an effective job to do less. Entitlement has its benefits. 

Unions started out with great intentions, especially when its workers deserved what the unions fought for. Unfortunately for the unions themselves, their membership, for the most part sees union membership as a means to keep their job whether they deserve it or not. In lean times, the private sector will rebel against what they see as people suckling at the teat of the people they are supposed to serve. This is one of those times. 

If unions want to succeed and move forward they need to better police their own constituents and, though highly doubtful, pull back from the politicization of their organizations. 

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One thought on “My Take On Unions….

  1. Well written article, on how unions basically have outlived their usefulness and how they actually will become a nuissance and a liability unless they call a halt to allowing themselves being manipulated for political purposes.

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