Opinions are often formed based on repeated experiences. While it is imprudent to ascribe a common set of behaviors to all of the members of any group, when the behavior is repeated with regularity it is difficult to not just shake your head and say, “There they go again.” That’s the way I feel about labor unions. And when the unions suffer a set back such as the recent announcement that union membership declined across the nation by about 400,000 members and set a new all time low in the percentage of workers belonging to unions, my reaction is “It’s their own damn fault.”
The union movement in America has been on a long and steady decline for nearly four decades. And despite the most ardent pro-union administration in fifty years, 2012 represented one of the largest and most significant declines ever because even the public employee unions –which had been basically immunized from the Bush/Obama recession by virtue of massive federal stimulus spending – lost nearly 230,000 members. The stimulus money dried up and the states were left to their own limited resources resulting in substantial cuts in manpower – generally considered to be eighty-five percent of state spending.
That long and steady decline can be directly attributed to three major factors – all under the direct control of the union leadership – union thuggery, political arrogance and a failure to adapt to a changing workplace environment.
But let’s back up a moment so I can explain how my view of unions was shaped. When I graduated from high school and while attending college and law school I worked in heavy highway construction during the summers. The first two summers I worked on a survey crew for the Montana Highway Department. Our crew consistent of four college kids and two full time employees – both members of AFSCME. The work assignments each day for the crew were laughable. The four college kids were full of “piss and vinegar” (for those of you forced to endure a teachers union directed education in the Portland Public Schools, that means “full of youthful energy”) and we would race each other from stake to stake dragging a hundred foot metal tape measure and a sixteen pound maul to set the stake at the prescribed height. The net result, we would finish a days assignment by lunchtime and then spend the rest of the day sleeping in a culvert and/or playing pinochle or hearts. Our two union members would remind us to keep our mouths shut about how quickly we finished our assignment for fear that more work might be expected of them in the future. That was my first introduction to the union concept of the least productive employee being the expected norm. And while the new welfare state is based on this premise those who actually work are offended that their hard work is no more recognized than the sloth of others.
Two years later found me working for a highway construction firm of which my father was a part owner. I was sent up to the small town of Malta, Montana where we were paving all of the streets in the town. I was handed a number two shovel and told to clean the recently installed curbs of all the gravel that fell on them while we were laying the base for the pavement. Towards the end of the second day, I passed a tractor with a rotating broom on it that was sitting idle. I figured out how to start it and to run the broom. It took me about a block to become proficient and by the end of the second day on the tractor/broom I had finished all of the curbs in the city – a job that would have taken me two or more weeks with a shovel. A couple of days later the union steward for the local labors union showed up and raised hell with me about “cheating a working man out of a job by using the tractor/broom” and it got worse when he demanded to see my union card. I told him that I wasn’t a member of the union and because I needed every dime I was making for college I wasn’t going to join. He told me that he would get me fired and I told him that I doubted that was going to work out for him since my father was one of the owners of the construction company. He then threatened to shut the job down if I didn’t join. The lesson on not working efficiently was reinforced and I learned the additional lesson that you were going to have to pay the union if you wanted to work. He wasn’t a laborer himself but a paid union thug who I later found out was an ex-con with a record of assault.
He never got the chance to shut the job down because a statewide strike was called by several of the unions who could not reach an agreement with the highway contractors represented by the Associated General Contractors. I continued to work doing mostly maintenance and clean up work. When I asked my father how long he thought the strike might last, he said, “Until the violence and vandalism gets too expensive to handle.” Sure enough contractors began to experience stolen and damaged machinery, sugar in the gas tanks of trucks and a myriad of personal threats. As we have progressed as a society people abhor violence and destructive acts ever more. The recent union thuggery at the ports in Vancouver and Portland were a reminder that unions, lacking an intelligible point of advocacy routinely resort to the acts of common criminals in lieu of reason and rationality.
After the strike against the highway contractors was settled those many years ago, I was moved to another job site and assigned to operate equipment including a tractor and a vibrating compactor. Because I was an equipment operator I fell under the jurisdiction of the International Union of Operating Engineers. This time the union president showed up. Unlike the paid union thug, he was an active equipment operator – he drove a road grader which required considerable skill and such specialists were considered the “elite” amongst equipment operators. This time the conversation was different. He asked me what I was studying in college and he related that he had kids in college too. He asked what I intended to do and I told him that I would become a lawyer. He winced and asked whether it was likely that I might meet him again across the bargaining table and I told him that you never know what’s going to happen. He said that he would give me some sort of provisional card and that I wouldn’t have to pay dues and hoped that I remembered a “fair deal” from the Operating Engineers in the future. From him I learned that union members are far more likely to seek reasonable solutions than union bosses. But in today’s unions it is the union bosses and not the rank and file that are in charge and that grates on them. It is the reason that once given a choice in Michigan under the new public employees right to work law, 56,000 public employees left the unions. Choice is an anathema to union bosses.
Later, after becoming a lawyer I represented a number of business groups before the state legislature. I watched year after year as the union officials brought their laundry list of things that they had failed to achieve at the bargaining table to the legislature in effort to force them on employers. In one session in which the Democrats had supermajorities in both houses they even went so far as to pass in one chamber a bill that would have required railroads to cater hot meals to employees who were outside of cities with open restaurants – it was designed to benefit one railroad employee who happened to be a state representative and who had failed to get work assignments that put him in proximity to his favorite lunch places during the workday. From that I learned of the arrogance of unions who routinely sought to use government to impose that which they failed to get at the bargaining table.
But it was this last act of arrogance that has played a larger part in the diminution of labor unions. The more the unions began to impose workplace issues with legislative mandates, the more that the rank and file saw the government as opposed to the unions as responsible for their gains. And the large and more intrusive the government became in the workplace the less relevance the unions had to workers – after all they had to pay the unions and the government appeared to be free. Legislative actions surrounding minimum wage, definitions of hours of labor, OSHA, non-discrimination, ERISA, and a host of other state and federal laws robbed the unions of their raison d’être and their decline was cast. Couple that with the unions continuing opposition to workplace changes due to technological changes and workers began and continue to abhor unionization all across the board. Even today where the NFL players union has stated that they need to make football safer for the players, their first instinct is to turn to Congress and President Obama rather than the bargaining table where working conditions should always be discussed and resolved first.
This political arrogance, the easy resort to violence and destruction, the forced membership in order to obtain or hold a job, the lack of political choice in the use of union funds have all made employees wary of unions. Good for them. Corruption should not be rewarded with support.
But here is the sad part. While unionization has been on a steady decline across America, not so in Oregon where union membership actually increased during 2012. Unfortunately the high paying union jobs in manufacturing, construction and transportation continue to decline as those businesses leave Oregon while unskilled union jobs (cooks, waiters, housemaids, etc.) increase. Because of the strong alliance between Oregon’s Democrat Party and the public employee unions (they actually finance the party) Oregon is heading in a direction entirely different from that of most of the rest of the nation. Unfortunately so is economic growth in Oregon.