Bashing public unions has a long history in the SmallTowns of Massachusetts. I was speaking with a member of our Town Finance Committee recently—a perfectly sensible and intelligent person and a friend—and she was bemoaning that while the local union representing town departments had agreed to give-backs in their contract, the school teachers were holding firm on concessions. My friend was not happy. Unions are narrow and selfish. Often churlish and too rigid.
“I know people in Town,” she said, “who have taken 15% pay cuts, or are now working only part-time, or have lost their health insurance.” But the Teachers won’t recognize that suffering.
Now, I confess that all too often, my second thoughts are better than my first thoughts. So I regret that it was some time after this conversation ended that I came up with what should have been my response.
I should have said: “Keeping job security and pay rates in a labor contract are exactly what unions do and should be doing, especially in historically hard times. Perhaps if more of the people you know who have gotten whacked by their employers were union members at least some of them would have fared better. Maybe if the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. were, say, double the current rate of 12% (and only 7.5% of private sector workers) business corporations wouldn’t have been able to so quickly reduce their payrolls by millions of workers to fatten their profits (and increase executive bonuses). If labor was a more effective countervailing power in the system, the system might work better—for everyone.”
No, I wouldn’t have “won” the argument with this line. The anti-union frames are too embedded. But perhaps in the shadow of the Wisconsin (and now, Indiana) messes we need to get back to basics on the role of unions. After the depredations of Goldman Sachs, CitiGroup, Bank of America, AIG and all the rest, I’ll take the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and throw in the United Mine workers for good measure. Not even close.