The Union Label

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.

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14 Responses to The Union Label

  1. zp says:

    I’m with the strikers on this one, and I’ve lived through a SEPTA strike before. Granted, there is a lot that should be done differently if unions want to have long term political viabilty . . . In any case, maybe you should consider this just one more way Philadelphia is “the most French” of all US cities.

  2. hektor.bim says:

    This would be a lot easier to accept if you actually held people to the same standards, but you manifestly refuse to do that. Why are public servants allowed to be “inscrutable, distant and self-interested”, but union leaders must be completely transparent, neighborly, and selfless? Why shouldn’t we support strikes if that means that large numbers of people will get guaranteed health care? Isn’t that what we want for everyone?

    I don’t think you are being fair here. Unions are necessary, and their absence has been a huge factor in the median wage stagnation, the failure to raise the minimum wage, and the ballooning number of uninsured Americans. The one place where they remain strong is in the public sector.

    You yourself benefit hugely from your union, so a little solidarity might not seem untoward. All I see here is carping. You don’t even address whether you think their demands are justified. Is that too nitty-gritty for your lofty academic perch?

  3. SamChevre says:

    I think an absolutely key distinction, in evaluating unions, is who or what is the “countervailing power” (in Galbraith’s terms). In other words, who is the union negotiating with, and at whose expense will concessions be made.

    Public-sector unions are the most problematic in this regard; not coincidentally, the fall in public respect for unions correlates well with their becoming more and more based in the public sector. Private-sector unions are bargaining with companies; concessions come at company expense; if the deal is too bad for the company, the company may go out of business, which is bad for the union. Public-sector unions, on the other hand, often end up in effect bargaining with themselves, at taxpayer expense. Public-sector unions are hugely politically influential; thus, the politicians with whom they bargain often were elected with union support; the concessions, however, come at the expense of the general public, which can always be squeezed for more money. (If they try to run–leave Philadelphia and move to the suburbs–the formula for funding schools can always be changed to get more state money (don’t know if that has happened in PA, but it has in many states).) I think public sector unions give unions a bad name.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess it’s partly that I don’t think their demands are justified in this case, Hektor. I should have made that clearer. The complication comes in through why I don’t think their demands are justified: they’re asking for a kind of health care coverage that many comparable workers in the private sector are no longer receiving. I don’t think that’s a desirable situation generally, but the solution, if there is one, is a general social solution, not one to be negotiated in a single public-sector context. So if, for example, the SEPTA union was pursuing some larger alliance or coalition specifically devoted to general reform of health-care benefits, that would be appealing to me, and I also think it would mobilize public support in a new fashion: a fight for the rights of all in relation to work and life, not a differential claim on their own behalf to public resources.

    It’s also fair to ask why I give managers a pass; I don’t mean to. But I do mean to observe that the union movement positioned itself once upon a time in relation to society at large differently than it does now, and that this is especially important to continue to do with public-sector unions, as SamChevre observes. The moral location that unions want to claim, try to claim, ought to claim is different than what managers or employers claim.

  5. hektor.bim says:

    I don’t think I can agree with your statements here. Unions manifestly have supported health care coverage for all Americans and have repeatedly done so, both by supporting Democratic candidates who favor that and by agitating on the issue themselves. So I don’t think you can fault them on this score – they in fact have been working hard for health care for everyone. They haven’t been successful yet, but that does not mean they have not been trying. What you seem to be saying here is that unions have to accept the crappy health care situation in this country and muffle their complaints until they are able to overturn it in one fell swoop by federal legislation. This logic is by no means obvious to me, so perhaps you can expand your thoughts.

    I still don’t accept your distinction between public service managers and union leaders. Both should be held to high moral standards, and I find it pretty disturbing that you are willing to allow managers to be immoral as the natural order of things.

  6. rvarco says:

    “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.”

    Why is this the case? It is a sort of a bizaro world where we expect the most public spiritedness from those with the least power and the least assests, while we excuse selfishness in those with the most wealth and priviledge.

    I think the explanation is the classic phenomenon of free ridership. Unions lift wages and benefits, not just for their own members, but for all workers. The working poor who suffer from the transit strike gain far more when strong unions are able to lift wages and health care coverage for all. But most people, especially upper class professionals only see the imediate pain and not the broader benefit.

    As for public sector unions, why should tax-payers be allowed to exploit workers any more than corporate shareholders? If the tax burden of providing adequate wages and health care falls excessively on the poor, that is a problem of an unfair tax code. Why is it worse to provide adequate health care for private sector workers by cutting into profits, than to provide adequate health care to public sector workers by taxing large corporate salaries and capitol gains?

    Of course health care should be dealth with as a national issue and no boad national organization has done more to promote national health care than the labor movement. So why do you begrudge the transit workers adequate health care?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I just don’t think that it’s the case any longer, Rvarco, that strong unions lift wages and benefits across the board. I thiink that stopped being the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when some unions (private and public) in both the US and Western Europe leveraged their power into wage and benefit packages that were actually extremely differentiated from the rest of the labor marketplace and which in some cases threatened the actual viability of the businesses or services for which they labored. I think historically that the union movement in the United States is responsible for the general postwar prosperity of the 1950s, and for the foundational assumptions about American social mobility and fairness that helped to secure. (Many of which are under assault now.) So credit is due, and often denied, and that’s a fair point. But at some juncture, unionism drifted away from that, partly because it remained stuck in a tunnel vision of what the purpose of collective bargaining was. There was a point in the late 1970s in both the US and the UK where I think unions needed to evolve, needed to become more concerned with stewardship over the businesses and services they provided, needed to overcome an impulse to regulatory and customary inhibition of the work ethos of members, needed to pursue a different sense of workplace excellence that exhorted individual as well as collective achievement.

    I wouldn’t begrudge the transit workers adequate health care (though that’s really not the term for it, given that “adequate” in this case is also superior to comparable health care coverage in the rest ofthe labor market) if adequate health care came from an internal reallocation of available resources within public transit systems, and came with an adequate address to the stewardship of transit workers over the public service they provide. On the latter, all that’s really needed is more political savvy, more care and attentiveness to the burdens that a strike puts on the public: that’s my most important point. The union in this case does not seem to care, particularly, and hasn’t in the past when they’ve gone out on strike. They plead meager resources for advertising budgets and so on, but that shows just how badly they misunderstand the political priorities they should have. It’s not about spending money for TV ads: it’s about getting any union officials who are not in the negotiating room out there speaking to the public in churches, in community centers, about pounding the pavement and taking the time to show concern for people, listen to the problems you’ve imposed on them, being solicitious. It’s about trying to find solutions: form carpools of union members and union supporters to help older Philadelphians dependent on bus transport get to their destinations. Sure, that’s mostly gestural, but that’s what’s needed. The lack of such gestures amounts to a big “screw you”, a vacating of the public space that unions used to occupy fairly well.

    As for why taxpayers should be allowed to exploit workers, that goes to the former problem: if the demands of the workers in this case result in either higher fees to ride public transit, or the significant reduction of public services in some other domain, or higher taxes, those are all compulsory steps that result in serious public consequences. That’s what it means to be public. If a business raises its prices so high that I cannot afford their services, I can stop buying what they’re selling unless it’s basic food, basic shelter, water, heating, basic health care. (All of which are services we either work through the public sector or in some fashion heavily subordinate to public concerns or regulation). You can’t endorse doing something in the public interest that has regressive consequences elsewhere: if getting the transit workers adequate health care means preventing poorer Philadelphians from using public transit, you haven’t done anything worth doing. There is a heedlessness about the public domain and the state that some progressives have, as if the state is a boundless, infinite source of public goods. It doesn’t work that way: if you want to support one public good, you have to tell me which other one you’re going to take away from and why. In this context, I’d rather see transit workers operating closer to what the labor market as a whole is doing (and look for some general public solution to the health care crisis) than give them a better-than-market deal at the cost of increasing Philadelphia’s already high tax burdens (which are negatively suppressing economic growth in the city), at the cost of making public transit less accessible to poorer Philadelphians, or at the cost of reductions in the quality and capacity of the transit system itself. That’s my considered judgement of how to maximize the public good in this case. If the transit workers feel differently, it’s incumbent on them not to articulate their case selfcenteredly, but in full light of that larger public terrain. It’s not about them and that they do not understand this is the main problem that concerns me.

  8. David Salmanson says:

    The union is in a tough spot. They are having a hard time getting their point across. The few times union spokesmen have gotten face time on tv, they have been effective in pointing out that 1) they are willing to make co-pays but it is ridiculous to expect a minimum wage worker and the head of Septa make the same contribution. They are holding out for a sliding scale. However, the union has done nothing to try to win public support. No coffee stands on the Regional Rail platforms or even information picketers explaining the union’s position. No attempts to get kids to school or organize ride shares or carpools. 4000,000 people rely Septa busses and trolleys and many have no other options. If the union leaders think public support is important, they aren’t showing it. They appear to be acting in narrowly self-interested ways that don’t say, “we have a greater good in mind here folks.” Is it unfair to expect unions to have a greater good in mind? Not really, as long as they don’t expect anyone who doesn’t share their narrow self-interest to not cross their picket line. The Philadelphia Building trades lost me when they blocked a provision in the Philly housing code that would allow PVC hook-ups to the sewer rather than the more expensive metal. The only reason for it is one person can hook up PVC pretty quickly and it takes two people a while to hook up metal. Using building codes to create job security is short sighted, and it makes it easier for me to cross a building trades picket line because these folks don’t care about me so why should I care about them?

  9. rvarco says:

    Do unions raise wages for all workers? You say they did once in the 50s and 60s but not since the 70s and 80s. From an empirical point of view you seem to be all wrong. The most recent data shows higher wages in U.S. States with high union density and lower wages in U.S. States with low union densisty. See (scroll down):

    What else other than high union density explains the higher relative average wages of European workers vs. U.S. workers.

    From a theoretical point of view the case is fairly solid. A union contract reduces the supply of labor below a certain price. What reason is there to believe that it will not increase the price of labor in the reamining pool?

    Your explanation of what happened in the 70s and 80s amounts to a giant hand wave. Do you really think the fundemental structures of the U.S. economy could be so easily shaped by the attitudes of union leaders. Let me suggest an alternative explanation. By the 40s, Labor organized the great industrial enterprises and gained strong toeholds throughout the economy. Then came Taft-Hartley which wiped unions out of half of the U.S. and effectively halted their ability to organize in any private sector industry. The U.S. population grew and expanded in the non-union parts of the country (South and West) not because people wanted to avoid a union but because those were the less populated areas. Then came the 70s and 80s and the decimation of the older industrial enterprises. In Europe where it was still effectively legal to organize, industrial unions were able to keep up and other union organized the growing service sector. In the U.S. this was not possible because the organizing tactics of the 30s were now illegal.

    As for Philly you say ‘adequate’ health care depends on what other workers get for health care. But if I have inadequate health care, mine does not get any more ‘adequate’ if yours is less than mine.

    You want the transit workers to accept give up 1 adequate health care, so that you can 2. keep the Philly tax burden low, 3. avoid increasing the cost of transit to the working poor, and 4. avoid cutting transit services for the poor.

    You think 1 is incompatibe with 2,3, and 4. I suspect the transit workers think 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all compatible. All thoughout Europe they have universal health care and great public transit. You want the transit workers to accept less health care so you can avoid the public policy choices required to make 1,2,3, & 4 all compatible. Should they do a better job explaining how 1,2,3, & 4 are all compatible? Probably. But why are you so outraged that they have not? After all their job is just to drive the buses. Isn’t the task of expaining how 1,2,3, and 4 are all compatible really the job of, say, professors with blogs?

  10. joeo says:

    The decline of unions can’t really be blamed on the unions. Declines in the US manufactoring sector and increased unskilled immigration are not the unions’ fault. Las Vegas shows that when businessess need workers the unions can be an effective tool.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Rvarco: By mentioning Western Europe, you really make my point. 1,2 3, and 4 are compatible in Europe because of major, systematic differences in the entirety of the state’s role in the management of the economy–and before we start getting stars in our eyes and wishing we were European, the compatibility of 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Western Europe are not achieved without tradeoffs in other domains. Such as the sluggish immobility of the public sector and its consequent effects on the French economy, or the massively overbearing role of the state in Scandinavian countries. There’s also, if we’re talking public transport, an important material difference in terms of scales, distances and often centralization of urban infrastructure. The pattern of growth in most American urban areas, lamentable as it may be, simply saddles the US with a challenge that many Western European nations don’t face when it comes to building a public transport sector that is “great”.

    Since I’m not very fond of many of the tradeoffs made in Western Europe, I’m not entirely clear that 1,2,3 and 4 are compatible. That’s just notionally. In practical political terms at the present moment in the United States, they clearly are not, not without crimping at one end or another. It is the union’s job, since they are the ones taking public action, to articulate how they want to negotiate the relation between these competing priorities. Failing to do so is to offer a variety of “magical thinking”, which I’d argue is one of the reasons that progressives in general are strugging politically: they don’t explain well how they’d negotiate competing priorities in the public domain and in management of government, and so most people are suspicious that promises of the capacious ability to have everything and choose nothing are just that, promises. I join in that suspicion, in part precisely because arguments like “In Western Europe, everything is wonderful” that happen to be missing on the backside both a recognition of the costs of the wonderfulness of public policy there and the material differences that enable some possible choices.

    Beyond the larger arguments about unionism, there is also the basic argument about politics. If what you’re doing almost necessarily requires public support to be ultimately successful, and you show no interest whatsoever in even gestures that seek that support, then you’re politically incompetent. Which is not my responsibility: it is squarely the responsibility of the union in question.

  12. David Chudzicki says:

    Re lonely position: Maybe it’s an easy position for undergraduates to take, from our luxurious seat of just taking courses, and being encouraged to take courses in different but connected disciplines. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where we’re asked to focus in on one discipline’s interests and methods to the exclusion of everything else.

  13. David Chudzicki says:

    oops, wrong entry.

  14. individual says:

    The public-safety unions in particular have been strong advocates of binding arbitration to resolve impasse procedures. While arbitration does provide a method for resolving interest differences when strikes are prohibited, less information is available on the impact of the process on bargaining outcomes.

    Two studies found relatively minimal wage effects (0 to 5 percent) associated with arbitration. However arbitratio should serve to raise management’s offers, particularly in final-offer selection states.

    Management might be expected to concede toward what an arbitrator’s award might be, rather than to risk the choice of a union’s extreme position. And for the union’s part it might take a harder line when it has a final resolution available that does not entail the risk of an illegal strike. In studying fire fighter arbitration laws, arbitration was found to be associated with higher salaries and shorter working hours the longer the law was in effect. Wage increases averaged about 11 to 22 percent higher in arbitration states.

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