I’M LABORING OVER UNIONS

Note: On holidays, and other occasions as they strike us, we will divert from our normal rhyme and post opinion pieces.  Think of it as our two cents.

Monday, September 5th

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York.  For those of you who have never heard of it, 146 women either died in the fire or jumped to their deaths because they had no means of escape when the fire started.  You see, the managers had locked all of the stairwells and exits so the women were trapped in their workroom.  This incident, appalling even in the day of railroad barons and cigar-smoking tycoons, helped spawn the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, or ILGWU, as it is known.  If ever a situation warranted a union, this was it.

In 1932 my father graduated from high school and, because of the Depression, felt grateful to land his dream job – working for a newspaper.  The price of admission?  Joining the International Typographical Union.  He did so reluctantly, as he was not a big believer in unions, but a job was a job in those days and he could ill afford to turn it down.  Over the next 40 years, even when he was a newspaper owner and thus considered “management”, he paid his ITU dues.   When he decided to retire in the early 70’s he contacted the ITU to claim his retirement pension, only to be told that the pension funds had been “poorly invested”.  It didn’t take a genius to interpret their actions – the ITU had stolen my dad’s pension.   After all his years of contributions, his monthly annuity was a meager $75.

Fortunately, beginning in the mid-70’s federal and state employment laws began to emerge to protect workers.  Regulations were passed regarding everything from the minimum wage and pension reform to gender and race discrimination and equal access for those with disabilities.  The EEOC developed into a powerful and influential government agency. To some extent, labor unions were at the heart of getting these baseline entitlements passed and as a result, the workplace became a much fairer, albeit legal, environment.

At the same time, most American companies were defining their culture and values which invariably covered how employees were to be viewed and treated within the organization.  Were there still some rogue managers who treated people poorly?  Absolutely.  But now there were clear-cut procedures for employees to follow within their own company to seek resolution.  For those companies that practiced unfair or abusive treatment, employees could seek assistance in another venue – the American justice system.  And the EEOC assured protection from any sort of retaliation for doing just that.

So what is the role of unions today?  To gain better wage and benefit packages?  If so, one might say that they have overshot their target.  Companies with unionized workers state that union contracts have caused the price of products to skyrocket and have resulted in them becoming uncompetitive.  Auto manufacturers, once the bread and butter of the U.S. economy, cite that the union compensation packages result in an increased cost of $1500 per car.  In many of our traditional industries, we are seeing massive layoffs due to the complete closure of manufacturing plants and an increase in the number of companies moving jobs offshore.

If their role is to provide job security, they haven’t been terribly effective.  The fact of the matter is they can do nothing to stop corporations from moving factories and call centers to other countries.  This is partially due to a U.S. tax code that effectively rewards companies to move jobs offshore.  And partly we are now in a world where we have to compete with other countries that target some of our time-honored manufacturing bases.  That is globalization, whether we like it or not.  For those of us who have been stuck in a circular conversation with someone working in a call center in India, I acknowledge that it isn’t always a pleasant reality.  But it IS reality.

In the final analysis, unions have failed to recognize that the U.S. economy has changed and the skills needed for today’s workplace along with it.  The jobs that have been shipped overseas are most likely not coming back.  There ARE jobs available in the U.S., but they require a different skill set than in the past.  Are unions ready, willing and able to re-train their members so they can better assimilate into this new work environment?  Or have unions outlived their usefulness?

Finally, for those of you old enough to remember, the ILGWU used to have a catchy commercial on TV requesting us to “look for the union label”.  If you’ve never seen that label, it’s because all of our clothes are now made offshore.

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