The recently-sparked but age-old debate in regards to unions has always played out a bit like a scene from Monty Python's classic film, The Life of Brian, where the Romans could easily be substituted for Unions. John Cleese's memorable line at the end of that scene pretty much sums up exactly how many union debates typically end: "Okay, well, apart from the eight-hour work day, and the forty-hour work week, weekends, sick days, vacation days, paid leave, maternity leave, workplace safety regulations and health standards, social security, the minimum wage, pensions, worker insurance plans and benefits, child labor laws, the retirement age, unemployment insurance, disability pay, overtime pay, laws regarding discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and the downfall of the Polish Communist Party... what have the unions ever done for us!?"
Some of you have surely come into this article presuming where I stand on unions, but liberal, centrist, or conservative, you're probably guessing wrong. With the union debate, I'm more in the middle of the road than some of you may presume. I do believe the unions have given workers a tremendous number of benefits to be thankful for, and I'm wholly confident that if we dismantle the unions, or if we strip them of the tools they need for affecting change, corporations would quickly engage in the sort of vile practices that provided the necessity for labor unions in the first place. However, having said that, here's where my thoughts on unions are going to stray from the presumptions you may have had if you're familiar with my column. I do believe we need union reform in the United States. Unions have gone beyond their required roles in representing labor in this country, to the point where they've started showing signs of detrimentality toward consumers, and even workers in some cases. I'm sure some of my liberal friends are going to turn purple after reading that, and might call me a traitor to the progressive movement, but please, read on.
I wholeheartedly believe that unions need to benefit two groups, and two groups only. The first group are workers, who need to be championed when greed is as important to capitalism as profit margins are to corporations. The second group are consumers, who need to be protected from that same greed. But at times, unions do go a bit too far in their efforts, to the point where benefits for individuals equal quality loss for everyone else. A great example of this can be found in teacher unions. Unions prevent tenured teachers from being fired, or even penalised, for poor job performance. This means a bad teacher can't be fired and replaced with a good teacher, an act which would improve the quality of the education of the students. Who benefits from such a rule? The individual bad teacher certainly does, and the union does as well via union fees. But the students in that bad teacher's class room? The school, and the school district as a whole? The nation, which is losing a few dozen future workers who would otherwise be better educated, and thusly more equipped for global economic competition?
I believe there needs to be a fair balance between the benefits unions offer the workers they represent, versus the output of the quality of the returns we gain from said workers. The shift in the quality of their working conditions should equate, roughly evenly, with a shift in the quality of their work. There are, of course, limitations to this theory. I wouldn't expect a nurse getting better wages to heal the sick by snapping her fingers, or a firefighter to extinguish a blaze through strange powers of telekinesis. I would, however, expect that the nurse and the firefighter are to be excellently-trained in their jobs, and should they fail to meet adequate and fair standards for job output, they would be terminated and replaced by professionals that can meet those standards, regardless of tenure or their standing with a union. At the risk of sounding bureaucratic, or even "socialist" to some wayward "thinkers," it might benefit everyone if there were a Consumer's Union, that being a Federally- funded, citizen-controlled organization of consumers that championed legislation that kept unions in check, ensuring that unions benefit workers, but workers benefit the people.
I feel I need to urgently stress the importance of labor unions once again. Corporations are required by law to maximize their profits for their shareholders by whatever means are necessary. If this means lowering safety standards, conditions, and compensation for their workers, and lowering product and manufacturing quality for their consumers, then so be it. And history has shown us time and time again that without unions, Federal regulations, and government agencies working hand-in-hand to the benefit of workers and consumers, big business will always take advantage of workers and consumers. Some naively, or perhaps even ignorantly, believe that free markets will regulate themselves, but there is so much evidence against this theory that it stands as absurd, to the point where stating it calls into question a person's credentials for serious discourse. I like to point toward Upton Sinclair's classic novel The Jungle as an abject lesson in what big business has been shown to do when left unchecked. If you'd like a more recent example of big business gone bad, look at the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, which happened roughly one year ago, or BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf last summer, which began with an explosion not long after the aforementioned mine disaster. Big business doesn't regulate itself, and will take advantage of workers and consumers whenever, wherever, and however possible. For this reason and many others, unions are absolutely vital in any capitalist society. But as I've illustrated earlier, this isn't to say unions can't do harm if they themselves are left unchecked.
It's pretty obvious why big business is battling unions, but the real reason why the GOP and the Tea Party are so vehemently fighting them may be slightly less obvious to the more casual observers amongst us. The real reason why the conservative movement is attempting to launch their union-busting campaign has nothing to do with workers, consumers, or even taxpayers, as much as they like to pretend otherwise. It's actually about politics. I know... shocking, isn't it? Unions largely contribute to Democrat candidates, and rarely, if ever, contribute to Republican candidates. Several of the biggest Democratic contributors are, in fact, unions. Therefore, if you break up the unions, or in the very least dissolve their financial strength, you in turn weaken Democrats in elections all across the nation. Conservatives are going after the unions for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is."
Unions have done a tremendous amount of good for workers and consumers in the United States, and around the world for that matter. Our global economy, as tattered as it may be right now, would never have boomed as it had in the past if it weren't for unions. But while some people believe the glory days of unions are well behind us, I believe their best work has yet to come to fruition. Better compensation, stronger health benefits, a living minimum wage, representation for workers in several industries, improved workplace health and safety standards, more dynamic anti-discrimination practices, and countless other fruits of union labor are still on the horizon for the American worker. I do believe the unions need modifications to stay fair and prevent bloating, but the same can be said for just about anything, can't it? So while some people think we need to rid ourselves of the unions, I say we need to reform them and get them back on the proper course. That doesn't mean stripping them down, or moving them about, or limiting their strength to the benefit of Republican political candidates, either. It means fixing them by any means necessary, and putting the unions back to work for both workers and consumers again.