During the second half of the twentieth century, union officials prospered mightily, while millions of rank-and-file union members saw their jobs vanish. Since union policy is set by the bosses, I am not optimistic for significant reforms, but since my heart is with the rank-and-file workers rather than with elitist union hierarchies, I will offer some suggestions for what the unions of tomorrow need to do if they truly want to help their members.
I have paid dues to two unions: UAW (auto workers) and NEA (teachers’ union). Some of my all-time favorite people were my co-workers at a Chrysler plant in Michigan. They embodied the bedrock values of America—honest, dedicated, hard-working. Sadly, other employees there performed little, if any, work. The union protected the nonperforming workers just as much as the productive ones, and because of the union’s power, Chrysler accepted the status quo. One effect of this arrangement was that Japanese auto manufacturers won ever-greater market share from the Big Three. American companies carrying the dead-weight expense of unproductive workers could not possibly match the productivity of Japanese competitors, because only some UAW members operated under the principle of “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work,” whereas virtually all their Japanese counterparts were imbued with that cultural value. As a result, many UAW members were permanently laid off.
One day, the plant union supervisor approached me and said, “Slow down, lean on your broom.” I replied that I needed to keep busy so I wouldn’t go crazy with boredom. That incident illustrates the primary goal of the American labor union movement: more pay for less work. Unionism completely reverses the traditional American belief that the way to obtain greater rewards was to put forth greater effort. The economic truth is that wages rise as worker productivity increases. When wages exceed labor productivity, consumers over-pay, companies operate less efficiently, and competitors with rational cost structures will take market share away from the inefficient producers, who then have to lay off employees. When unions extract above-market wages, they gain a short-term victory and a long-term disaster. Sadly and, I believe, unfairly, the seniority system favored by unions means that some of the best, most productive workers get laid off while inferior workers are kept.
An experience I had with NEA officialdom is also illuminating. I had been led by prayer to move from Arizona back to Michigan in late January, 1975, at a time when Michigan had the highest unemployment rate in the country and the second semester of the school year had already started. Miraculously, I found one district that hadn’t started the second semester yet because of a strike the previous September. They had a sudden opening for a teacher in my two subjects, and they hired me. Several weeks later, a union rep asked me to file a grievance against the district about a technicality in my contract. I refused. My employers were treating me well, so why would I complain? The lesson here is that too many unions habitually regard employers as enemies rather than as partners in providing a good or service.
In order for unions to thrive in the 21st century, I offer union workers these recommendations:
Make it your primary goal that every member uphold high standards of dedication, reliability, and skill. Then, when employers seek workers, you can honestly say, “We’re the best, and if you want us to work for you, you’ll have to pay top dollar.”
Strive to increase your productivity, because this provides the best long-term protection for your jobs.
Unite with management to keep government from imposing on businesses unfunded mandates that render them uncompetitive against foreign companies.
Even if management is obnoxious, learn to work in partnership with them for the success of the company. Samuel Gompers (founder of the A. F. of L.) stated an economic truth when he wrote that what laborers most need is a profitable employer.
Instead of expecting private-sector employers to provide for members’ retirement (a high-risk strategy in an era when you don’t even know if a company will exist in the future) insist on employee-owned individual retirement accounts funded out of present company revenue.
Instead of letting union bosses spend millions of your dues dollars on political issues irrelevant to workers’ needs, have them monitor employment trends and provide training to keep members’ skills up-to-date and marketable.
In short, unions must either accommodate themselves to economic reality, or continue on their suicidal path to extinction.
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