Even back when my political sensibilities were more party-line progressive than they are now, I was always uneasy about the expectation that any given action by a labor union mandatorily demanded unquestioning support.
Partly that’s the consequence of growing up with a father who represented management in labor disputes. Not just my father’s views on things, but also some of his concrete experiences (like the time that someone showily broke into his office and messed up papers during one negotiation, to ‘send a message’), were persuasive to me as a young adult that there was a morally complex terrain involved in modern unionism, that any given strike or labor action required independent assessment rather than reflexive endorsement. Heck, even my dad thought some strikes were legitimate, and that unions were an important institution. Near the end of his life, he was sometimes bothered, in fact, by the waning of the union movement: my sense was that he preferred arbitration with many union leaders to some of the kinds of workplace litigation he was increasingly involved in. I once saw a videotape he did for non-union workplaces about how to handle drives to unionize, and he went well beyond explaining what their legal obligations were: the first and last thing he said, I recall, was that any employer who thought that a lack of a union was a license to squeeze his employees was going to get a union and he was going to deserve every consequence that followed from that.
So, for example, the proposition that Wal-Mart employees need collective representation that aggressively stands up for their interests strikes me as unquestionable. The only solution for predatory employment practices in cases where workers have few if any alternative sources of employment and woefully unfair terms of labor is unionization. You have to have a legally protected right to unionize or to bargain collectively in a free society, and some strikes or labor actions deserve the general endorsement of a public, even when those strikes inconvenience us.
That support is for me, and I think it ought to be for anyone, given only on a case-by-case basis. Some strikes I simply can’t work up any support for. It’s hard for me, like almost everyone else in the Philadelphia area, to feel any real support or warmth for the striking mass transit workers who have crippled transportation this week. It doesn’t affect me personally, though it has increased my wife’s commuting times due to the big spike in cars on the road. However, this is a very public event: it completely changes and complicates the landscape of daily life for a large number of people in the metropolitan area, most especially poorer Philadelphians who are dependent on bus transport and schoolchildren in the city who use vouchers to travel on public transportation to get to school. Moreover, if the union gets even some of what it is asking for in health care benefits, the cost of that is going to come out of the pockets of transport riders in some fashion or another. A strike against a private business is one thing: in a way, you can usually just avoid engaging it altogether, work with some other business for the time being. This is different.
The union involved doesn’t seem to recognize the difference, and in failing to do so, neatly explains the eclipse of the modern labor movement in America. They’ve made no meaningful effort to speak to the public in advance of the strike, to prepare the ground, no attempt to explain or frame their actions in that arena. They’ve acted in a way that has huge public consequences with almost no sense of engagement with that public, and this particular union has done that quite a few times in the last decade. The general public are treated largely as spectators with their noses pressed to the glass, watching some private tableau unfold inside a distant interior. This is equally true for the managers on the other side of the negotiations, of course, but that’s the problem. People expect them to be inscrutable, distant and self-interested (even though they are also public servants); they have a different expectation of labor. Labor’s decline began in the United States almost as soon as it won legitimacy as a public institution, as soon as the right to organize was enshrined (and also obstructed) by statute, precisely because of a consistent inability to articulate its actions through an alliance with some larger general interest. That accelerated in the late 1970s and early 1980s; now many unions don’t even bother to try to pretend that the public consequences of their labor actions are worth more than a cursory address, or maintain incorrectly that the public interest is best addressed not at the site of particular actions, but instead through general political engagement at the level of national and state elections. (There are very important and exciting exceptions to this, but that’s just it: they’re exceptions.)
As long as unions seem too inwardly self-interested, anybody who has a cultural ethos that values labor in terms beyond the contractual and financial, who has a sense of professional pride and commonsensical tolerance for small-scale workplace injustices, who sees their labor in relation to some larger obligation (a sensibility that spans across social class in the United States) is likely to feel uneasy with contemporary unionism. As long as unions seem as obsessed with bureaucratic over-regulation of workplace obligations as any middle-manager straight out of “The Office”, as eager to return all their members to some mediocre mean of on-the-job effort, or as uninterested in the long-term viability of the institutions for which they labor as stock-price obsessed CEOs, they’re going to turn off many potential members. Yes, these are all caricatures, exaggerated by the news media, but I suspect many people in their working lives have encountered a few vividly personal examples as well as telling public anecdotes that verify the caricatures in some respect.
Certainly that’s what’s happening in Philadelphia now. Most people would probably be annoyed by the strike no matter what the union did, but it would help to see that the union is at least trying to care about the consequences.