I disagree with Hightower.

What you will find here is: a centrist's view of current events;
a collection of thoughts, arguments, and observations
that I have found appealing and/or amusing over the years;
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Friday, December 14, 2012

Unions - some thoughts

If people who work hard for a living can't make a decent life, then we have lost America.

I agree with the following analysis by Abraham Lincoln: Italicised parts are implied.  

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. (Therefore) Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. (Which is not to deny that) Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights."  Abraham Lincoln – POTUS – 1861-65

Except for a short stint before college I have never been in a union.  But I support them because I think that they are the only way for the working people to get a big enough share of the fruits of their labor to raise a family.  Notice I avoid the word "fair" since I agree with Tom (who writes here) that fair is way too subjective to have any real meaning.  I wold add that, like FDR, I am not as enthusiastic about public employee unions.  The conflict of interest of the elected managers is too great.

I would even support the use of state power to assist the unions, because I believe that the disparity between the lower middle class and the upper middle class is becoming dangerous in this country.  It is not a classic rich vs poor.  The disparity is between the poor working class and the well to do knowledge class.

There are many of us who make (or made) a living with our minds and are doing very well in this new world.  If the disparity becomes too great it will produce instability.  This situation cannot continue in a nation which is fundamentally democratic and has even a large minority of poor people.  So how do you require the knowledge workers to grant the working class a greater share what they produce?  I see three ways to do that.

1.  Take it in taxation and mail them checks.
2.  Provide a broad array of free services – free education, medicare, and SS so that the obligations of the middle class are reduced.
3.   Have stronger unions.

I prefer a combination of 2 and 3.

I do have one problem with unions and that is this whole business of being required to join (or just pay) in order to work.  I see the validity of the argument that if you don’t pay, then you are a free rider and that is not fair.  But I find the argument that you have to join an organization that you may not agree with and pay for the things that it does in order to work there to be pretty offensive as well.  Huge amounts of that money go to the support of one political party.  If you oppose that party, then you are being forced to financially support something you are against.  Is there no reconciliation of this?  Is it not possible to just have the union contract apply only to union members and everyone else deals with management on their own?

Anyway, let me finish my note on unions with my real nightmare.

With the rise of multinationals and states and nations competing to attract industry (capital) the coin of the realm in which those deals are made is labor.  I find that very scary.  One can imagine this new world rising to be much like that of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America in which the states and the industrial leaders treated the workers as less than chattel. In that earlier environment there was the very powerful and overarching organization that was fundamentally controlled by the people:  the United States of America.  It eventually gave the people some leverage.  But in this larger world environment that same US will be just another one of the competitors.  The world itself is not fundamentally controlled by the people. This time there is no international entity that the people of the world can turn to for support.  

Throw into that mix the fact that some players and nations who are new to the whole capitalism game have no reason to respect the traditional rules which were made by those who are now their competitors.  Why should they be respectful of patents and copyrights made by those who happen to have gotten into the game first.  Then there is the possible rise of state capitalism where an entire nation might function as some corporate-state unit with people playing the roles of ants in a colony.  

Now there's a brave new world, so to speak.


  1. “Is it not possible to just have the union contract apply only to union members and everyone else deals with management on their own?” Interesting question. This “solution” could be agreed to in any labor contract yet I am not aware of any contract where it does exist. I expect that the Unions would reject this out of hand. I also expect that management would reject it as well.

    I am imagining a company that has such an agreement in place. An exceptional employee (and Union member) is competing for a promotion with another Union member with greater seniority. Since the Union agreement gives preference to members with seniority the exceptional employee drops out of the Union, deals with management directly, and gets the promotion. Perhaps even re-joining the Union later if it is strategically advantageous.

    We could change the scenario so that the exceptional employee was not initially a Union and gets the promotion. There would seem to be no problem except that the competing Union member does not receive his/her union benefit of promotion by seniority, which he/she paid for with Union dues.

    We could change the scenario so that the exceptional Union member remains in the Union, and a less qualified Union employee with seniority gets the promotion. In which case everyone loses except the promoted Union employee and the seniority base promotion mindset.

    I have explored this concept in the past because I too have a negative reaction to forced Union membership or, worse, forced Union dues payment without membership. I am of the opinion that having 2 distinct employee populations operating by 2 distinct sets of rules is probably not viable.

    Note: While exempt and non-exempt employees can correctly be viewed as different employee populations I think the difference is minimal compared to Union and non-Union.

    p.s. excellent post and I will be posting additional comments.

  2. WRT - Supporting state power to assist unions.

    First - Full disclosure - I believe that Union influence on a Company has both good and bad impacts for both the employees and the Company. On balance I think (in today’s environment) the negatives edge out the positives. I will save the reasoning and details for another longer post. That does not mean I am anti Union.

    Second – I will agree that wage disparity is a concern. I probably consider it less acute that Wayne, but I will agree it is a serious concern. Wage disparities develop for real and VALID reasons. Valid reasons do not necessarily mean wage disparity is a good/bad thing. I will attempt to share my thoughts on that subject in a future post.

    Back to the title “state power to assist unions” on this post. I would not support state assistance to Unions as they exist today, BUT here is what I would support.

    A STATE SUPPORTED requirement that employees have a right, in every organization, to a full speaking membership presence at all management level meetings and binding voting representation at the supreme decision making body in the Organization. Here is how I see it working:

    1. Employees (we could do away with the term labor) would elect their representative(s) at large or by delimiters they establish. Their choice.
    2. Dues of any sort would be prohibited by statute and no additional organization of employees is implied or allowed. Their common bond would be as employees and Company Associates.
    3. Election of Representatives would be on Company time with regular pay to employees during the time spent in electing their Representative(s).
    4. Employees would have the right to have a/an (not multiple) Representative present at all management meeting. The Representative would have full speaking membership privileges equal to those of other attendees and would be considered a member of the management team..
    5. Representatives would receive their regular pay while attending management meetings.
    6. Any expenses incurred by the Representative connected with attending management meeting would be reimbursed by the Company. (Travel, lodging, food, etc.)
    7. At all meetings of the Supreme decision making group in the Company the Representative would have a binding vote just like everyone else at the table.
    8. The employee Representatives could report, to the employees, all items discussed in all management meetings as appropriate. Inappropriate would have to be defined: for example items that are - personal, involve personnel, classified, detrimental if given to a competitor, etc. If the classification of an item is disputed the Company would have the final say, but the Representative would have the right to report that there are disputed items.

    Benefits as I see them would be:

    9. All appropriate happenings in the Company would be transparent.
    10. No Union dues.
    11. Employee Representatives would “know” what decisions have been made, who made the decisions, why the decisions were made, and the circumstances that factored into the decision making. All of which could be communicated to the employees by the Representative.
    12. Employees, through their Representative, would be a part of Company management both “de facto” and “de jure”. No us and them.
    13. The right to strike or advocate a work slowdown would be unnecessary and not permitted, not to mention nonsensical since employees would be part of the process and decision making.

  3. WRT Income disparity between the “poor working class and the well to do knowledge class”.

    Assuming that none of us are to the “from each to each” stage here are my thoughts.

    First, I like “reality based income disparity” (RBID). It is an incentive and a very good one at that. It makes people get up off the couch and go to work. By reality based I am referring to things that differential one individual or group from another and make them more valuable to an employer or more productive and successful if they work for themselves. That would include things such as a better education, working more hours, skill levels, the rarity of particular skill sets, physical attributes, aptitude for a particular task, and shear genius at what an individual does.

    I would argue that free enterprise and the private sector do indeed maintain a RBID. The Public sector much less so. I think the statistics will support the statement that compensation (job to job) in the public sector far exceeds that in the private sector. That is the income disparity that concerns me the most. While the disparity has multiple causes I think public sector unions have contributed in a major way and I have difficulty seeing them as part of the solution.

    My proposed solution to reducing the disparity between the public and private sector would be to require that remuneration in the public sector be anchored to remuneration in the private sector for comparable services.

    One last note - I will also accept the “Provide a broad array of free services” suggestion from Wayne’s original post. Not on the disparity argument, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

  4. I would like to add here that I very much regret the expression "free services" for the middle class. I slipped into something I don't like. I intended to say "government provided services". Also the assistance must fall mostly to the lower middle class because the upper middle class is going to have to help pay for it.

    1. We have read enough of your blogs to know that you know they are not "free". You are excused for a slight misspeak.

  5. Unions - a few more thoughts

    We owe a lot to Unions. 5 day work weeks, 8 hour work days, paid vacations, overtime, improved working conditions, and many other benefits for the working class. Many of the benefits gained in the past, but continually protected by Unions today

    While I admit that I would feel uncomfortable in a world without Unions I do have some concerns.

    Here are a few:
    1. Unionization may create an unnecessary “Us vs. Them” mentality within an organization.
    2. In efforts to continually deliver new and more benefits for their members (a microcosm of Congress) Unions may negotiate wage and benefit packages that are detrimental to the survival of the organization: American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hostess, Camden Police Department, various California cities, GM, Chrysler (twice), and the American steel industry to name a few.
    3. Unions may insist on wage and benefit increases when there has been no comparable increase in worker productivity. Without growing the pie (increased productivity) the $ to pay for wage increases has to be reflected in the cost of the Companies products or services. If the Company sells yachts the rich pay for the increase. If the Company sells socks the money comes from a different demographic altogether.
    4. Union contracts often require pay raises based on time on the job. For example an automatic pay bump every 6 months of .XX/hr. This is OK if the employee has become more productive. It is not OK when they have not.
    5. In a Union shop individuals are prohibited from negotiating with management independent of the Union. This applies to non Union workers (in a Union shop) as well. Admittedly a plus for those who wish to abdicate their individual negotiation rights to the Union. This is, however, a major detriment to those who wish to negotiate on their own behalf or simply feel uncomfortable letting someone else do so.
    6. In a Union shop career advancement of exceptional employees may (is?) be retarded, usually through a seniority system.
    7. A promotion system that is heavily weighted to seniority is unlikely to consistently promote the most qualified candidate. This is not good for the Company as a whole and is certainly not good for qualified candidates (perhaps dues paying members) that are passed over.
    8. Unions often include provisions in their agreements that add significant extra cost to a Company’s operating cost. An example would be a requirement that no employee can work without a manager and Union Representative on site. Or no employee can perform a task, no matter how simple, that is not in the employee’s union negotiated job description. If this comment sounds trivial visit with anyone who has violated this tenet and found themselves the target of a Union “grievance”.
    9. Work stoppage – The power to strike is enormous. When presented with a choice between Union demands for wage/benefit increases that create an unsustainable business model or a strike that would result in sure loss of revenue and client base a Company may choose to accept the Union’s offers and hope they can adapt their business model. Sometime they cannot.
    10. Dues – the average Union worker pays approximately $1,000/year in dues per year. I also find it objectionable that a Company can be forced to collect Union dues through their payroll system.
    11. Dues may/are used for self serving (at least to the Union) political purposes.
    12. Terminations – Union contracts often make it extremely difficult to terminate poor performing or misbehaving employees.
    13. Non-Union members are often referred to in derogatory terms.

  6. In a post on December 20th I expressed a concern that Union actions may have a negative impact on the community at large. Here is an example

    The International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO (ILA) is threatening to go on strike next week closing ports in Georgia. An action that would have a far ranging impact not just on the local community, but to the US economy.

    According to this article ILA workers average $124,138/year which puts them in the top 2% of all US workers. The issue is container royalties or bluntly put– more money for Union workers. I find it difficult to see this as responsible behavior by the Union.


  7. WRT – “I would even support the use of state power to assist the unions”

    The NJ Senate has voted on a bill (S.2425) that would prevent non union workers from Hurricane Sandy Work (and other work as well).


    1. Is this an acceptable “use of state power” to further a reduce disparity agenda?
    2. What are your concerns for the non-union workers (and their families)that will/would not be working because they were turned away?