Friday, May 18, 2012
Reflections of a Union Man
Nearly twenty years ago I was a dues-paying union member for five months. The union in question was the Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers, which I joined after being hired for one semester to teach a journalism class at the community college.
Owing to the temporary nature of my position, I wasn’t required to join the union, but did so anyway. The dues weren’t much (neither was the pay) and I figured that since, a decade earlier, I had been in management when we had a union newsroom at the newspaper, I should check out the other side.
There wasn’t much to check out. No contract negotiations were going on at the time, so my only contact with the union came when I picked up my monthly paycheck and noticed the deduction. Over the five months, I think it came to fifty or sixty dollars. If memory serves, I made a little over four thousand for teaching the class.
Apparently the union got a report showing I had joined, because several of the more permanent faculty members thanked me during the semester for joining when I didn’t have to. That’s probably as close to union solidarity as I got.
When we had a union in the newsroom for four years (it was eventually voted out), a management consultant hired by the newspaper group used to come by from time to time to help the company deal with it. One of the things he used to say was that any company that had a union probably deserved it. He meant that by the 1980s, employees didn’t vote to join a union unless they felt the company was seriously neglecting or maltreating them.
That wasn’t the feeling I had at Cabrillo, which was a very pleasant place to work. But my experience with the union was typical of what that has since become. More and more, unions in this country are seen at public agencies and institutions, which don’t altogether deserve them, rather than private businesses, which increasingly do.
The standard liberal line on this phenomenon is that unions have lost ground in the private sector because the law and the National Labor Relations Board are not protecting the rights of workers. While that’s true as far as it goes, it ignores two huge cultural changes affecting the attitudes of businesses and employees.
From an employee standpoint a union makes a great deal of sense to someone who goes to work somewhere and expects to stay there for a working lifetime, or close to it. The printers and pressmen at our newspaper, and most others, were in unions because they weren’t going anywhere, had limited opportunities for promotion, and so had to get the best deal they could for doing the same job over the long haul. With all the creative chaos in the private sector, a government job is about the only place an employee can find that sort of long-term stability today.
Businesses, for their part, are looking at a changed landscape owing to that creative chaos. When Safeway’s competition was Lucky and Albertson’s, having a union was no problem, because the competitors had it too. Now that the competition is Wal-Mart, Costco and Target, all non-union, it’s a different game. For a manufacturer, the now easy option of moving overseas has altered the landscape, and the employees know it too.
Economic fairness over the next few decades is going to depend on whether unions can reinvent themselves in the context of the new reality or whether some other mechanism for improving wages and working conditions will take their place. Will that happen? I don’t know the answer, but that’s definitely the question.