Monday, December 6, 2010

The Unions Forever

Given Wisconsin's history in the labor movement, perhaps it's fitting that next year we could find ourselves on the front line in the battle between public employee unions and the GOP. Union representatives and others sympathetic to the cause have been anything but hesitant to raise the issue of having it out with Governor Walker and the Republican legislature.  Here's Capper:

Cognitive Dissidence: As The Unions Go, So Goes The Rest Of The Workers
Back in the days before unionized labor, working conditions were miserable to say the least. Workers were paid lower than living wages; young children would work long days, often in dangerous conditions; workers were often killed on the job; workdays were often 12 or more hours long, six or seven days a week; and in some extreme cases, workers' wives were forced to sleep with their husbands bosses or risk losing their jobs and their company-owned homes....

The question that I have is at what point do enough of us hit rock bottom, how many of us have to lose their jobs, their homes, their health care and even their lives before we wake up and take our county, state and country back?
In the post he quotes Xoff who raises the specter of a public employee strike, which makes me wonder what would be the public reaction to such an event.

Since a recovery in the employment numbers doesn't seem to be in the near future, I guess the unions could gamble on a strike, but that's just what it would be, a gamble.  How long do they think the patience of private sector workers will hold out given the fact that many of them have had to get by with little or no raises, increased contributions to health insurance premiums, not to mention living under the shadow of a potential layoff?

Unless a Walker administration just blows it, I can imagine a scenario where Walker would take his case to the public, arguing that the offer he is making is reasonable given the tough economic times.  Now juxtapose that with video of public workers on the picket line.  Even if the public employees have legitimate arguments on some parts of the issue, how will this play out and where will the public come down?  I think that part of the anti-immigrant mood of the electorate right now is rooted in economic insecurity.  It's possible that a backlash against the unions in the wake of a strike could be even more intense.

The question, then, is why.

For Xoff the answer is simple, the public has been duped by Walker, the GOP, the Tea Party etc. It's a nice simple explanation, but like many simple explanations it probably doesn't really get at the heart of the matter.

Some of us self-described conservatives look at history and see how the industrial revolution moved us from a home-based economy to a corporate one, and how too many families surrendered their wives and children to corporations.  The remedies that were in part brought about by union action and that Capper outlines changed this.  But for a small section of us, the gains are viewed as fleeting since we just turned our children over to the government instead of the corporations.  Our children were enrolled in institutionalized settings for compulsory public schooling, the outlines of which always seem to be expanding.  After a brief interlude our wives were back in the work force and we have watched the family disintegrate.  This is my view, and it influences my thinking, but like I said, it is a small section of the populace and it isn't what will drive any potential union backlash.

The real problem is that the labor movement could be a victim of its own success.  If people view the gains that they have won as part of the permanent landscape of the country's work life, then what is the argument for keeping unions around?  Capper and Xoff would have you believe that there are still critical fights to take on, but I'm not sure how many people buy this argument.  Rightly or wrongly, many people think of unions as primarily protecting the worst workers.  It's wrong to generalize about the millions of hard working union men and women based on a few bad apples, but in a time of economic insecurity this could easily dominate the public thinking.

Do unions, particularly public sector ones, have as much important work to do in 2011 as they did in 1911?  Are gains from unionization of the labor force immune from diminishing returns?  I'd probably answer no to both of these, even while I acknowledge the important role that unions have played in our history.  If 2011 sees a showdown between the GOP and public employees in Wisconsin, we may get the chance to see how the general public would answer these questions as well.


capper said...


I would argue that we are seeing the importance of unions this very day. There is a direct relationship between the decline of the unions and the shrinking middle class and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Without the unions' strength to keep things in check, the wealth is being again consolidated, workers' rights are being violated (as you point out, with both partners having to work, etc.).

Things are getting much like they were before the unions emerged as a force. I fear this trend of higher unemployment and poorer wages, benefits and working conditions will continue until people start coming back to the unions.

Dad29 said...

many people think of unions as primarily protecting the worst workers


Others think of unions as work-rules bigots, crippling productivity gains with "rules" which are antiquated and/or obfuscatory.

Dad29 said...

Sorry, Capper....

While unions may have had little to do with it, they've been quite willing to support (or not decry) the increasing burdens Gummint places on manufacturing through regulation and taxation.

Unions cannot make capital a captive; it will go where the return is highest.

So what the brotherhood has to do now is look, VERY hard, cost-increasing regulations which have NO positive effects on anyone.

CO2 limits, anyone?...for starters.

xoff said...

The words you put in my mouth never came out of it before. I did not say the public has been "duped" by Walker and Company.

I said that Walker has demonized public employees, and that the voters may agree with his characterization, which is what would make a strike risky.

But there comes a point when workers will fight back, and when backed to the wall will act to protect their self-respect and human dignity, sometimes even without doing the political calculus. Keeping their jobs and going backward economically might not be their idea of "winning."

capper said...

Or, Daddio, we could go about fixing the real problems, such as the outrageous profiteering involved in health care, which would not only lower one's costs in that field tremendously, but would have the double bonus of lowering taxes.

So simple that even a caveman could see it. Unfortunately, members of the ruling class are too beholding to the big interest money that flows from them, and would never want to stand up to them to protect the people.

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Dad29 said...

Well, it was the healthcare interests which shoved ObamaCare over the top, Capper.

Think about that.

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capper said...

Which only shows the hypocrisy of the whole TEA Party movement. They complain about taxes being too high, but don't want to do anything to change the root of the problem.

When a potential solution is offered, they go batshit crazy about it, with only a passing touch of reality in their complaints.

D said...

Not a single word written about the 'benefits' of unions on this page is true.

Unions do not help the middle class, they create permanent unemployment among them by coercively holding wages higher than the market level. (Remember, in econ 101 we learn that price floors create shortages and surpluses: a surplus of the unemployed and a shortage of jobs)

They did absolutely nothing to shorten the work week: that's the natural outcome of increased productivity.

"Back in the days before unionized labor, working conditions were miserable to say the leas"

? Here in 2010, we have the luxury of ignoring the lies propagated by Upton Sinclair.

"Workers were paid lower than living wages"

What is a living wage? Thats entirely subjective. Workers are paid their marginal productivity; period.

"workers were often killed on the job"

This is a bold-faced lie with no facts to back it up. Additionally, those working in dangerous jobs were paid a risk premium.

"and in some extreme cases, workers' wives were forced to sleep with their husbands bosses or risk losing their jobs and their company-owned homes...."

This situation exists everywhere, including TODAY, and in government no less. Non-sequitur.

"how many of us have to lose their jobs, their homes, their health care and even their lives before we wake up and take our county, state and country back? "

A person does not 'own' a job. A job exists when productive labor is needed, and never otherwise. A job is not 'yours' - it belongs to the person whom agrees on the conditions of the job with the employer.

And what do losing homes and healthcare have to do with unions? Other than the fact that government subsidized unions harm everyone's ability to make such purchases?

At least the pseudo-Keynesians and 'econometricists' who post on here try to make sense rather than peddle pure, unadultered lies in order to justify government theft and violence.

capper said...

Wow, someone's been forgetting to take their anti-paranoia and/or mood stabilizers.

Turn off the talk radio, pick up a history book, and learn something factual, would ya?