Unions Are No Longer a Constructive Force

07/19/09

by John Eberhard

I think we must face the fact that unions are not only no longer needed in society, but they have passed over from being a constructive force to being a destructive force in society.

Unions came into being at a much different time in history. It was near the beginning of the industrial revolution. Some early industrialists, such as factory owners or mine owners, were abusing workers with long hours, low pay, and abusive or dangerous working conditions. Unions grew up and employed collective bargaining and the threat of the strike to wrest better working conditions and better pay out of “management.”

But let’s compare that time in history with now, and we will see that in many ways they are not the same. At the time of the birth of unions, most people worked the same job with the same company, or at least in the same industry, their whole lives. In many cities and towns dominated by a coal mine or a big factory, the mine or the factory was the only game in town. In other words, if conditions were abusive, there were no other options to go elsewhere for a job.

Compare that with now, where most people switch jobs repeatedly throughout their lives, and many people have two or three completely different careers during their lives. Most abusive and dangerous working conditions are banned by law. And let’s not forget the ready availability of attorneys to help you sue an employer should they do anything that breaks any of many employments laws with which they must comply.

I myself have worked quite a few jobs during my lifetime, mostly in the marketing field. Frankly, if any boss ever got abusive with me, or wouldn’t pay me what I felt I was worth, I’d start looking for another job, and I’ve never been out of work for more than two weeks at a time for my whole life.

I’m not necessarily saying that one should jump around from job to job, as I know some friends of mine who’ve worked at the same company for all or most of their careers. But what I am saying is that in the vast majority of cases today, no one is locked into a job working for one company and is unable to change to another one if the situation grows unpleasant or abusive. And the competition between companies for talent means that if you are good at your job and increase your worth throughout your career by getting better and faster and more knowledgeable, chances are you can find a job paying you what you are worth.

So in such an environment, is it possible that unions are no longer needed? Is it even possible that the pendulum has swung over to the other side and unions have begun to be a destructive force? Let’s examine that.

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, formerly largely a steel mill and auto factory town. When I was a kid, one of my parents’ friends worked for a local auto plant. He told us that the union had negotiated a contract whereby each employee had a daily quota of work to be done, and once that quota was done he was not permitted to do any additional work. In this case he told us that most of the guys could finish their work quota by noon each day. So after that, they were not permitted to do any more work, and so they would play cards the rest of the day, on the clock and being paid.

How could such an arrangement be good for anybody? That was back in the 1960s.

Do you remember how the Japanese car companies came in and starting cleaning the clock of the American auto makers? Well after that there was a lot of effort to improve the American auto companies to make them more competitive with the Japanese.

But where are those American auto companies today? They are all broke. And if they had filed bankruptcy, that would have relieved them of their onerous union contracts. Which is why President Obama has worked very hard to ensure that they wouldn’t file bankruptcy. It’s payback to the unions who supported him in the election. He even gave partial ownership of Chrysler to the unions, an unprecedented move.

Several years ago in Los Angeles there was a strike of grocery store employees. I remember hearing that these guys had the fattest, cushiest health care plans, even for part time employees, that you ever heard of. And I also remember hearing complaints from grocery checkers that you couldn’t support a family of four on what they pay a grocery checker.

At the time I thought to myself “You’re not supposed to be able to support a family of four on a grocery store checker salary! That job can be taught to someone in a day. It requires the same skillset as that required by a teenager working the counter at McDonalds.”

Now I’m not trying to demean a grocery store checker, although it probably sounds like I am. I know grocery stores value a good and honest checker. The point I am making is that as one gets married and starts having kids, you should be thinking about how you can move up to a higher paying job, by getting training and learning more skills. Not by artificially trying to enforce that a relatively low skillset job be paid more. In many cases unions have taken a relatively low or simple skillset job and artificially inflated the value of that job.

California is on the verge of bankruptcy. Public employee unions in the state have negotiated fat contracts whereby many of the public employees make substantially higher salaries than in the private sector, not to mention cushy benefits and pensions. A couple years ago Governor Schwarzenegger went up against these powerful unions in a special election and got his butt kicked.

I think it is fair to say that we have crossed that point where these unions have become a destructive force in America. Their time should be over. But instead the President is working to give them even more power.

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