Common myths about labor unions

From the pages of:

by David Macaray 3-15-08

Myth #1: Union wages are responsible for companies relocating to foreign countries.

It’s not inaccurate to say that some jobs (e.g., manufacturing jobs) have been moved from the Midwest and Northeast to the South in order to take advantage of a non-union environment, a lower standard of living, and less stringent government regulations regarding environment protection and workers’ rights. It’s a fact. And there’s no arguing that unions are partially to “blame” for that. Even auto manufacturers in faraway Japan have heard about the built-in benefits of setting up shop in the American South; that’s why they install their factories down there.

Replacing a union forklift driver earning $17.50 per hour in Cleveland, Ohio, with a non-union driver earning $10.50 per hour in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, might be enough of an inducement for a factory owner to pick up stakes and relocate to Dixie, particularly if he had a large number of employees. Moreover, there’s not much a union can do about these wage differentials, other than try to organize as many sites in the South as possible, in order to level the playing field.

But a company that moves its operation to a foreign country isn’t doing it to avoid paying a union wage; it’s doing it to avoid paying an American wage. Where being able to pay a non-union forklift driver $10.50 per hour instead $17.50 per hour represents an opportunity to trim costs, the prospect of moving abroad is seen as a shrieking bonanza.

Moving an operation to Asia or Latin America is not a case of union vs. non-union. It’s a case of a decent standard of living trying to compete with the permanent underclass of a fledgling economy. It’s no contest.

And to suggest that it’s somehow organized labor’s fault that businesses are forced to exploit the foreign labor market is to perpetuate a lie. The United States could go non-union overnight, and you’d still have businesses seeking foreign labor. Why? Because the wage differentials are simply too staggering, too alluring, even compared to work being done in the U.S. for the federal minimum wage.

Myth #2: Union members are sub-standard workers.

Consider the premise for a moment. People can say or think whatever they wish about labor unions (they can accuse them of being anachronistic, out of touch, too powerful, etc.), but they can’t deny that, across the board, union jobs typically offer better wages, benefits and working conditions than non-union jobs. The notion that the best paying, most coveted jobs in a community would attract the least competent workers simply makes no sense.

As a general rule, the highest paying and best-benefited employers will attract the highest caliber of worker—whether we’re talking about accountants, cooks, college teachers or warehousemen. Think about it. Which warehouse is going to attract and maintain the better shipping checkers—the one that is clean, safe and generous, or the hole-in-the-wall outfit that pays lousy wages and offers little or no benefits?

Also, because a union shop offers better pay, benefits and working conditions, it’s going to have many more applicants to choose from, allowing management to pick and choose from the very best candidates, an option the tiny mom-and-pop enterprise won’t have.

Still, this notion that union members somehow aren’t as competent or hard-working as non-union members has seeped into the national consciousness. Part of it may be because a union contract provides workers with dignity on the job. That doesn’t mean they’re bad workers; it just means they don’t have to grovel or jump to attention when a boss passes by. Part of it may be that a union contract exposes inferior managers. Working within the confines of a union contract requires the bosses to be consistent and attentive, something which some managers (particularly the lazy or dumb ones) aren’t capable of.

You commonly hear this work performance slur in regard to the California school teachers’ union, where incompetent teachers (rather than a myriad of other obvious factors) are blamed for low test scores. This is a myth that is being propagated by school administrators who don’t have the courage or resources to address the root problem. Blaming the teachers is far easier.

If people really, truly believe that union workers are less competent than non-union workers, then they should think twice before calling 9-11 or flying somewhere on a trip. Police, firemen and pilots are heavily unionized occupations.

Myth #3: Union members can’t be fired.

As good as union workers generally are, there are occasions where they, like anyone else, deserve to be fired. And, despite the myth, union members do get fired. Indeed, union members in this country get fired every day, for every manner of violation, from insubordination to poor work performance to insurance fraud to chronic absenteeism (the most common offense).

No contract in the world is going to include language that forbids management from firing a substandard employee. Again, all one needs to do is consider the premise. What management representative would ever sign a contract that contained “immunity” language of that sort? And what union rep, no matter how bold or arrogant, would dare suggest that such restrictive language be written into it? In truth, no one wants to work with deadbeats . . . not even other deadbeats.

Is it harder to fire a union worker than a non-union worker? Yes. Thank god, yes. Having a modicum of job security is one of the virtues of being a union member. Where a boss in a non-union shop might be able to fire an employee because, say, he didn’t like his “Nader for President” bumper sticker, or because he wanted to give the job to his wife’s nephew, he couldn’t do that in a union shop, because in a facility governed by a union contract you need actual grounds to get rid of someone.

Again, it’s school teachers who are frequently scapegoated here. Administrators complain that it’s inordinately hard to fire an incompetent teacher, even though, per the provisions of the union contract, the school has two full years from a teacher’s date of hire to fire him or her for any reason they like, without having to defend that decision. Two years. Compare that window of opportunity to the standard 60 or 90 day probationary periods found in most businesses.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000/ He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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