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March 22, 2009

Organized labor: good for more than just “getting yours”
Posted by Patrick at 05:24 PM * 100 comments

An interesting point from the generally excellent Mark Schmitt:

As has often been noted, while AIG’s bonuses were apparently bound by the sanctity of contract (and the ruthless Connecticut Wage Law), the autoworkers’ contracts were renegotiated as a condition of the industry recovery plan. Mostly this is treated as a matter of class justice—the workers made sacrifices, the Wall Streeters (or, more accurately in the case of AIG-FP, the Wiltonians) were untouched.

But there’s more to it than that. How were the auto workers’ benefits cut? Not involuntarily. They agreed to it. They agreed to it because they were able to act collectively. The United Auto Workers came to the table and agreed that the survival of GM and Chrysler was a more important common goal than everyone getting exactly what they were promised. The presence of the union created a collective sense of loyalty to the industry as well as to their own self-interest.

[…W]hat if you were able to get all the bonus-eligible employees at AIG together, and ask them to jointly make a choice—give up much of their bonus, and the company might survive and remain eligible for federal cash, or demand exactly what they were promised a year ago and watch the company die, in part because of political backlash?

Who knows what the collective choice might be. But since these are all individuals, with individual contracts, the logical move for any one person, acting alone and not knowing what others might do, is to demand every penny. If you agree to reduce your bonus, and the others don’t, you are the classic loser in a Prisoners’ Dilemma—you don’t get the money and the firm goes under. In this case, the incentive is for the individuals to take the money, and then leave the firm.

The classic argument for unionization is that acting together, workers have a stronger negotiating hand than workers acting alone, negotiating individual contracts. That’s demonstrably true. But it also works in the other direction. When the time calls not for soaking as much profit out of the company as possible, but for making some sacrifices, out of loyalty and a sense of shared economic destiny, unions can do that too. Individuals cannot. Solidarity is good for the economy.

Schmitt’s observation parallels a point made repeatedly in the work of the brilliant Thomas Geoghegan, that the American labor movement at its post-WWII peak was, for all its flaws, a mechanism by which millions of people learned how to do civic participation—how to negotiate, horse-trade, and persuade.

Losing that mechanism wasn’t just a blow to hazy ideals of social justice. It was also a blow to American society’s practical ability to function, to our ability to negotiate among ourselves. Like all attempts to radically simplify society (think of Henry VIII breaking up the monasteries), the largely-successful war against American unions has left us all fundamentally stupider, less capable of working complex problems out.

Comments on Organized labor: good for more than just "getting yours":
#1 ::: Heather ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 05:55 PM:

Hmm. If you all are in Europe, it might be interesting to come see the notorious French union system?

(Welcome to this side of the pond.)

Seriously, much as I complain about personal inconvenience (of which there can be much much much) when some French get together and strike, there is a great element of truth in what you wrote. On the other hand, one does notice that the unions here are not very representative, percentage-wise, of the workers' groups they are supposed to be representing, and when they hold other groups (often workers) hostage, they are acting in the self-interest of the few, rather than the many. A different few than usual, but still not the majority. When it is the majority, then and only then does one feel like the collective reaction was fair and just.

I wish I could say that was just because we were in France. But I think it's human nature.

#2 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 06:11 PM:

It can hardly surprise us that organized labor contains corruption and shortsightedness. So does the business world; so does government; so does every area of human endeavor.

What's remarkable is the extent to which Americans have been persuaded that every sin committed within one union accrues to the moral balance sheet of every union. If we applied this standard to corporations we'd be dragging CEOs out of their offices on a weekly basis and strangling them with piano wire.

#3 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 06:12 PM:

(Different CEOs, I should clarify. Lest we find ourselves in the world of the classic SNL sketch that begins "In New York City, a man is mugged every twenty-five minutes. We interviewed that man.")

#4 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 06:19 PM:

I am not in favor of unionizing rich people. Exclusive country clubs, boardrooms, lodges and smoke-filled back rooms already serve that purpose.

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 06:24 PM:

Well, no, they don't, actually. "Exclusive country clubs, boardrooms, lodges and smoke-filled back rooms" aren't unions, they're gangs.

A union is something else: a legal entity with enumerated public responsibilities. I didn't put this post up in order to advocate unionizing rich AIG analysts, nor do I think that was Mark Schmitt's intent, but now that you mention it, it's not the worst idea in the world.

#6 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 06:41 PM:

But you see, corporations and their CEOs are fundamentally honest unless tempted into irrational behavior by regulations, which as I understand it are mostly the fault of Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd, and hippies.

Damn hippies, always throwing frisbees on my lawn.

#7 ::: ADM ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 06:41 PM:

I like the idea. Of course, I like the idea of unions, even though I hate much about two of the three unions to which I've belonged (AFT and NEA).

Of course I like the idea of national health care ...

#8 ::: Mickle ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 07:02 PM:

I work for a library system within a county that is looking at budget cuts across the board next fiscal year (shocking, I know), and this is all so true.

Our most recent mailer from our "employee's association" was a survey of what we would be most willing to give up, what we would be least willing to give up, how that might change depending on the consequences, and how strongly we felt about our opinions.

(And this is reminding me that I still need to fill it out and send it in. I hope it's not too late.)

And it's important that they ask these questions and that we be able to bargain - not just so we don't get screwed over, but so that the Board of Supervisors (the people we contract with) can get input that comes from somewhere other than the papers and people influential enough to know the Supervisors personally. It also makes the process more transparent to the public, who - in this case, are the ones paying our salary.

#9 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 08:44 PM:

At its best, a union can help its members define and clarify their relationship to the company they work for. That relationship may be adversarial or cooperative with the company, depending on how the management sees the relationship between their own goals, the company goals, and the union goals.

If management really is interested in the benefit and survival of the company, it is in their interest to negotiate in good faith with the union, and try to persuade (preferably by acts rather than words) the union and the workers to think of themselves as part of the company as well. Unfortunately, the Harvard MBA generation of top management has almost universally taken the position that they owe the company nothing beyond a good current quarter, and not even that if it might interfere with the managers plans for getting rich. If management doesn't have the company's interests and survival as primary objectives, they're not going to be cooperative with a union; the union is either an enemy or a collection of victims from their viewpoint.

Having managers join a union might actually make them more aware of the cooperative nature of business, and less inclined to treat everyone else as either a competitor or an enemy (where they even perceive a difference between the two).

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 08:57 PM:

Harvard MBA generation of top management

Not just Harvard: I think it's the entire lot that was taught that an MBA qualified them to run anything, whether or not they knew anything about it or the field the job was in.

Also, they were being taught things, in 'public administration', like libraries are only necessary in schools, because public libraries aren't wildly profitable (and then they proceed to make sure of this, by taking the library funding away, and putting its fines into the general fund).

#11 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 08:59 PM:

Or perhaps managers could behave like an actual profession, with an oath (parallel to the Hippocratic Oath) that outlines their standards and responsibilities, one of those being to debar members who don't live up to their oath.

Unionizing might actually be easier.

#12 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 09:04 PM:

Unions help workers defend against oppression by their employers. They shouldn't be used to empower greed.

I can't help thinking, though, that the power of unions to protect their members is ultimately illusory. I'm still pissed off that Reagan broke the back of PATCO.

#13 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 09:31 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 6: corporations and their CEOs are fundamentally honest unless tempted into irrational behavior by regulations

<libertarian>Don't forget that the regulations are made by politicians. They're evil because they'll do anything to get elected. You need to get rid of the politicians!</libertarian>

The corollary is that the people who have ambition to become political leaders would, if they were business leaders instead and only accountable to the shareholders, be benevolent. Thus, it's the accountability to the voters that causes them to be evil.

#14 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 09:38 PM:

Earl@12: PATCO (or at least their management) was at best stupid; they thought their endorsement was worth something after Reagan was elected. (Whether they were merely stupid, or actively traitorous (to the idea[l] of organized labor) as a sort of extended we've got ours, is something I don't know enough of their deliberations to judge.

#15 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 09:50 PM:

Earl Cooley III #12: I can't help thinking, though, that the power of unions to protect their members is ultimately illusory.

Not really "illusory", just finite! That's true of anyone's power, as ShrubCo have demonstrated. (I was going to say, "learned to their sorrow", but I'm not sure they've actually learned much!)

In the PATCO case, that wasn't just a company crushing the union -- the President Of The United States directly intervened in the labor dispute! And then we paid for it for decades. My impression is that the ATC system never did completely recover.

Patrick: Like all attempts to radically simplify society...

The thing is, the neocons weren't, and still aren't, trying to "simplify" society as such... as far as I can tell, their basic strategy is to either control or destroy every center of power and authority in America. That is, anything they can't "own" in some fashion, they do their level best to destroy.

#16 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 10:04 PM:

But you see, corporations and their CEOs are fundamentally honest unless tempted into irrational behavior by regulations

Of course people will self-regulate! If there is no central regulation and people can do whatever they want, they will work together to make a regulation system. They usually call that system the government.

#17 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 12:55 AM:

PNH @ 5: "A union is something else: a legal entity with enumerated public responsibilities."

I agree with your larger point (that unions are a site for learning civic participation), but I have to quibble with this sentence. A union is a group of workers consciously organizing and acting collectively to defend their interests. The legal status of that organization is incidental. Or to put it another way: the institutional form that workers take when they organize is secondary to actually acting in solidarity with one another.

In workplace organizing workshops I've attended, the process is known as AEIOU: Agitate (for your interests), Educate (your fellow workers about their rights and their options for defending them), Inoculate (against counterattacks from the bosses), Organize (to get what you're fighting for), Unionize. Forming a formal, legally certified union is the last step -- and if the solidarity that made it possible in the first place doesn't continue to exist, the union is in danger of becoming just another bureaucracy.

Bruce @ 9: "At its best, a union can help its members define and clarify their relationship to the company they work for. That relationship may be adversarial or cooperative with the company, depending on how the management sees the relationship between their own goals, the company goals, and the union goals."

It's telling that we think of the relationship in terms of how the management sees things, rather than how the workers see things. It seems to me that as long as the bosses are the ones who call the shots, they'll have an incentive to exploit the workforce, no matter how "cooperative" they may seem to be. The relationship is fundamentally adversarial as long as one group (the bosses) has power over the other.

#18 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 04:41 AM:

Jeff Davis @17

Having power is really, not actually, sufficient cause for oppression. "Power corrupts" is a vast simplification. Treating it as a simple and pure fact leads to folly.

There are vast swaths of history where the heads of families and businesses had power over people (we can call them "their people"), and used whatever power their people afforded the head, to make their lives better rather than just squeezing them. That improvement in their people's situation was... hmm... often? tied to improvements in the head's situation as well.

The point is, one person or group, having power over another person or group is not fundamentally adversarial. Adversarial relationships with a power imbalance are problematic, special cases of power imbalance.

#19 ::: Mike Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 04:51 AM:

I doubt that it would make any difference if the workers at AIG were unionised. The key difference between AIG and the auto manufacturers is not that the auto workers are unionised, but that if AIG were to go into bankruptcy it would probably cause a systemic collapse of the financial system, as it is the counterparty to hundreds of billions of dollars of contracts. A hypothetical AIG union could thus call the government's bluff by refusing pay cuts, since bankruptcy is not an option; the auto unions have no such luxury.

This does, of course, suggest that financial institutions that get too large to fail should be very tightly regulated, or nationalised, since they can no longer operate in a free market.

#20 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 07:18 AM:

Earl Cooley III @12: I can't help thinking, though, that the power of unions to protect their members is ultimately illusory.

A bit of vaguely recalled ancedotage, but I recall reading of a long typesetters' strike in Canada in the late 60s - early 70s. The center of the union was in the States — the Canadian typesetters wanted to settle; the bulk of the union was opposed to caving in. The end result did not benefit the Canadian typesetters — the strike accelerated the replacement of linotype machines (which had been operated by union members experienced on those machines) with simpler, faster photo-typesetting equipment (operated by newly hired non-union workers).

#21 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 08:50 AM:

Scott #18:

Power may not always corrupt, but it often does. Imagine a society in which the men in marriages hold absolutely all the cards--they can beat, kill, or throw out their wives with no recourse. Now, in that society, there will still be decent marriages, because there will be decent men who don't want to use that massive upper hand in unfair ways. But the average marriage will be a lot less healthy, in ways which, IMO, will make things worse for the husband and kids as well as the wife. Because when you give one person in almost any interaction all the cards, it takes an unusually farsighted, understanding person not to start ignoring all the irritating feedback from the other person in that interaction. It's far too easy to respond to questions of "why?" with "because I said so." Sometimes, that will include times where the powerless wife has some really important information/feedback that could make the family work better, but which the husband doesn't want to hear.

I think something like this applies in a lot of situations. Give management unlimited power, and they'll not only screw over the workers, shareholders, and public, but they'll screw themselves over as well, because it's so easy for them to insulate themselves from feedback. Give the workers (or union, which may not be the same as the workers) all the power, and they'll also screw management, shareholders, and the public. Vest all the power in some bureaucracy with no check on their power, and the bureaucrats will start screwing people over--not so much for profit, but to help their institutional goals. And so on.

If I were smarter and had drunk more coffee, I'd find a way to link this to the Coase theorem. Concentrating all the power in one set of hands prevents welfare-improving transactions from taking place.

I guess it's also worth pointing out that the agency problem is important in understanding the dynamics of unions. The people running the union represent the workers, in the same way that the politicians writing laws and the bureaucrats regulating the industry represent the voters and the management of the company represents the shareholders. But in all three cases, the representatives are people with their own incentives and interests. The people running the union will behave in their own interests, as will the management--it's quite possible for this to lead to outcomes that prove disastrous for the shareholders and workers.

#22 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 09:26 AM:

albatross @21: Imagine a society in which the men in marriages hold absolutely all the cards--they can beat, kill, or throw out their wives with no recourse. Now, in that society, there will still be decent marriages, because there will be decent men who don't want to use that massive upper hand in unfair ways. But the average marriage will be a lot less healthy, in ways which, IMO, will make things worse for the husband and kids as well as the wife.

The presumption here is that the position of power is what causes the men to be the sort of men who would beat women, which I do not see evidence for. There is a clear argument that power allows for the expression of corruption as the men would otherwise not beat their wives, but that does not mean that the ability to beat their wives inspired the desire to do so.

I think the proper interpretation of that situation is that men who are prone to abuse are more likely to marry when that is acceptable and are also less likely to suppress that urge in such a situation. There could also be an argument that, in a society where such violence occurs, young people are encouraged to follow suit and more people who participate in such violence are born. However, in none of these situations is the power what corrupts. Rather, the power is a vehicle which displays the corruption.

In this instance, my argument is purely a philosophical quibble, with the practical results being substantively identical. Whether it is power that corrupts or merely that power displays corruption, the important issue is that destruction is simpler than creation, so corrupt uses of power are wildly dangerous. The response of controlling power is identical whatever the philosophical underpinnings.

However, when applying the "power corrupts" rule more broadly, it is relevant to consider a different explanation. Any time that something is labeled a source of corruption (video games, rock music, atheism) based on specific examples where people displayed corruption and it could be correlated to a particular practice, it is this same rule being mis-applied.

#23 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 10:28 AM:

An interesting anomaly can happen when an occupation is going away either because of loss of demand or technological development.

The problem is that it is in the interest of both the employers and the workers to shrink the number of jobs, and a union should be able to help in negotiating an agreement that does this fairly.

Unfortunately, reducing the number of workers (with appropriate compensation) may be good for the union members, but it is bad for the union as an organization, which ends up with fewer members and less revenue.

This conflict seems (from an admittedly underinformed viewpoint) to have been important in some of the unions of dock workers when container shipping came in. Some dockyards ended up with systems of either make-work or pretending to work, but others ended up with smaller and more efficient workforces at higher pay, and at least some compensation for those forced out.

Some dockyards, of course, just did whatever they wanted and ignored the workers' needs, but this thread is about the potential for win-win collective bargaining.

#24 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 10:36 AM:

I'm a state employee in a state that does not allow work related unions. However, the teachers and educators definitely act as a union, and the NEA speaks on their behalf. With the state budget crisis upon us, the governor has already announced that all state employees will have to make sacrifices, except for those non-unionized teachers (who have the NEA speak and lobby for them).

Teachers will get a raise; non-teachers, nothing.

Teachers will get a longevity/bonus check; non-teachers' longevity will be frozen for 2 years.

Education gets an increase in budget, everyone else gets cut 5%-15%.

The governor has pledged not to force cuts in education even if things get worse; she's warned the rest of us to expect pay cuts, furloughs and possibly layoffs.

So I guess looking at this from the "non-unionized" teachers (who have the NEA speak and lobby for them), having a union to look after their interests is a good thing. From my viewpoint, not so much.

#25 ::: Tim in Albion ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 10:50 AM:

Scott @18:
There are vast swaths of history where the heads of families and businesses had power over people (we can call them "their people"), and used whatever power their people afforded the head, to make their lives better rather than just squeezing them.

Examples include: [please fill in]

#26 ::: Henry Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 11:28 AM:

Disparate points ...

Heather at #1 - you are right; French trade unions are a mess. But there are some historical reasons for that, to do with the pronounced weirdnesses of French industrial relations (which give the worst of both worlds; a small set of unions which are officially recognized and have semi-monopoly status, hence not always being responsive to their members, and a highly fragmented negotiation system that gives incentives for strikes based on narrow grievances). Sweden or (to a lesser extent, Germany) are good examples of how unions can work well - and play an important role in,say, negotiating general public deals over economic reforms that make sure that workers don't get screwed (here, I am thinking of the role of German unions in pushing for worker retraining as a stimulus/response to the risk of increased unemployment) over the last few months.

Patrick at #5 - Adam Smith (who really deserves to be read - he is not the caricature that right wing nutcases make out) had this down pat. I quote:

"We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people."

And one final point on unions for management - we have them across large chunks of Europe - they are called employers' associations, and play a big role in collective negotiations over wage setting etc. However, business hasn't wanted this to spread, for example, to the European Union level or to various places overseas, because (and this is a sort of realpolitik corollary to Mark's original point) business is often stronger when it is weaker. That is - if there is no collective business organization that can make binding commitments for its members in negotiations, then unions etc have to bargain with each individual firm, which is a lot harder to do. Hence, business may actively prefer not to have a collective bargaining association, because this means that it cannot be bound easily.

#27 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 12:32 PM:

One of the points that I make, when teaching into American politics, is that organised workers have historically extracted better working conditions from their employers than non-organised ones. Also that many of the benefits written into law, such as workplace safety regulations, are the result of efforts made over the years by the unions, not the generosity of enlightened politicians.

#28 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 12:34 PM:

Scott @ 18: Having power is really, not actually, sufficient cause for oppression. "Power corrupts" is a vast simplification. [...] The point is, one person or group, having power over another person or group is not fundamentally adversarial.

I don't think I'm saying that power corrupts, exactly (although I believe it does, more often than not). I agree that a power imbalance does not in itself amount to oppression. And plenty of employers are decent people who try to treat their employees fairly. But past a certain point, employers' interests and workers' interests are incommensurable. Both have an interest in ensuring that the company survives, but it's in the employer's interest to keep wages as low as they can get away with (ditto benefits and so on). For that reason, even when employers aren't as ruthless about it as they could be, the fact that there is a power imbalance -- that they get to make the decisions about wages, and benefits, and how work gets done; that both the law and social norms in the US and elsewhere favor the employer -- means that the relationship is adversarial. Employers' interests are privileged in our society to the detriment of workers' interests, and that has tangible negative effects in the workplace.

It seems to me that the only way to ensure fair, genuine cooperation between employers and employees is to make the workplace democratic. Give everyone an equal say in how the place is run, how wages are determined, and so on, and you erode the power imbalance to the point that real cooperation becomes possible. Of course, that would also mean there wouldn't really be any bosses anymore.

albatross @ 21: The people running the union will behave in their own interests, as will the management--it's quite possible for this to lead to outcomes that prove disastrous for the shareholders and workers.

I'm no expert, but from what I've seen, this has been one of the big failings of the mainstream labor movement: unions representing workers too often become bureaucracies with their own set of interests, which sometimes align with workers' interests. In theory, my union avoids the problem by doing away with the bureaucracy altogether, but that approach has its own pitfalls.

#29 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 12:58 PM:

Mike Scott @ #19: the other big difference between AIG managers and the auto workers is that if AIG collapses, the managers will be significantly less likely to become unemployed and poor than the auto workers would if their respective corporations went bust.

Micah @ #22: on the contrary, whether you grow up watching your dad beat your mom is probably the single strongest predictor of whether you grow up to beat your own wife. It may also put girls at higher risk of being beaten by their husbands--even in a country where that's illegal.

#30 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 03:12 PM:

One of the greatest feats in the history of unions was when the American longshoremen unions (there are separate unions for the East and West coasts) arranged the transition from traditional stevedore work (a manual-labor-intensive, expensive process) to containerized cargo handlers in the 1960s. In the process, the number of people employed as longshoremen/stevedores dropped approximately 90%, but the remaining members had vastly increased salaries as crane operators, inspectors, planners, and so forth, and the others were (largely) retrained into other, better jobs outside of shipping.

It's hard to imagine several tens of thousands of individual workers negotiating such a graceful transition.

#31 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 05:21 PM:

Tim in Albion @25:

Examples include (not an exhaustive list):
Titus Salt
Francis Wright
John Corbett
Sir Macpherson Robertson
Joseph Rowntree

...or any number of other people you can find biographies of with Google terms like "victorian industrialist philanthropist"

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 06:27 PM:

Jeff Davis @#28:

It seems to me that the only way to ensure fair, genuine cooperation between employers and employees is to make the workplace democratic. Give everyone an equal say in how the place is run, how wages are determined, and so on, and you erode the power imbalance to the point that real cooperation becomes possible.

In fact, that would turn the corporation into a cooperative! Which certainly do exist, but they have one more feature you haven't mentioned: All those employees, including managers (and sometimes customers), need to "buy in" through dues and/or labor shifts. That gives each of them an similar stake in the business.

In contrast, a conventional cooperation is essentially funded "from the top" -- there is a central group of people who provided most of the founding capital, and that, ultimately, is where their authority comes from.

#33 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 06:53 PM:

When I was in Ottawa there was a bus strike. It was interesting, as an outsider, to see the reactions. One, everyone apologised to me for it. Two, the vast majority of the people I met were supportive of the strike.

Three, the majority of the letters to the editor about the strike were supportive of it. Even when the head of the union said stupid things.

One of the things I see happening right now (in the AIG mess) is the idea the union contracts are negotiable but the contracts to individuals aren't (just look at the way people like Jonah Goldberg say we have to pay AIG, while they were saying; mere weeks ago, the unions had to give up the contracts they had already negotiated down).

re Power: The quotation is "power tends to corrupt". The word tends is important. Having been in positions of power, I have seen the tendency. Having been near to power, I have seen it both corrupt, and not. All in all, concentration of power is, IME, and IMO, a bad idea. The tendency isn't certain, but it's very strong.

As for people who have worked to the benefit of those people who were, "theirs" that's both easy, and hard.

I was in the Army for 16 years. The Army is still a place where the idea of fealty exists. One has obligations both up and down the chain. Because it's a cultural ideal, violating it has strange repurcussions.

In a combat zone, the leader who fails to take account of it, will fail. If he's lucky it just means things don't happen right. If he's not, he gets killed. I've been in units which felt they weren't being properly served by those over them (sometimes correctly, sometimes not. It's harder when a unit has two masters; the one they have to answer too can't always stop the one they also have to obey, that's a completely different story).

One of them came close to mutiny. It was an unpleasant time. Things were resolved before it got ugly. In another unit I (thankfully) wasn't in, the commander was "promoted" laterally (which meant he wasn't relieved of command). If that hadn't been done... I don't think he'd have come home.

But, outside the Services, we don't have that sense of mutual need. A lot of management sees the workers as replaceable widgets. The pundit class of the Conservatice movement say the workers don't deserve to be well paid (or have their taxes reduced much) because the, "add nothing" to the equation.

That's a recipe for disaster. It's a class argument. The "management" class is valuable, the "working" class, is disposable.

Unions change that equation. When a worker who speaks up is dismissable, who will dare to speak up? When she isn't, she may. When being unfair to one is seen as a blow to all... what business can stand against it?

Only the one which can afford to close plants.

Most businesses can't, which means a well run union is a benefit to the workers, which is a benefit to the society.

And strikes are better than riots and rebellions. Better that the bosses risk losing money, and even being turned out of their offices than they end up with their heads on pikes, a la Christopher Marlowe in (IIRC, Edward II), explaining that people in such a state will do more good as educators than they might could they still speak.

#34 ::: Mickle ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 07:42 PM:

"The presumption here is that the position of power is what causes the men to be the sort of men who would beat women, which I do not see evidence for."

No, it's not. The issue is not (just) the power-holder's intentions, it's their limited ability to understand what it's like to BE the other person. Because it's not just about obvious abuses - like beating wives, it's also about all the little things - like not taking into account how biology translates into experience when writing, oh say, building codes dealing with the number of stalls required in restrooms.

This would, after all, be the point of "no taxation without representation." Not just that it's not fair! to tax someone who doesn't have a say in the system, and that the ability to do so encourages abuse. It's also that it's just makes for better laws to include everyone because you don't know what it's like to be everyone, you just know what it's like to be you. Even aside from the problem of selfishness or worse - which is what you are talking about - you also have the more basic problem that lack of power discourages communication - even when the power imbalance is simply there and not actively being abused.

A large number of men who beat there wives - now and in the past - think that they are doing it for their wives own good. The wives tend to think this as well. And needless to say the parents who abuse their children usually think they are doing it for their own good. Nicer people won't help any of that nearly as much as better understanding and more respect would - and balance of power encourages communication, sharing of knowledge, and mutual respect.

#35 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 07:43 PM:

Lila, #29: I have anecdotal evidence supporting your position. A friend of mine, a stay-at-home mom, lived for a while on the same street with a family that displayed strong evidence of wife abuse; they also had a son about the same age as her oldest daughter, and the two children were occasional playmates. On one occasion, my friend chided the boy for misbehavior while the children were playing in her front yard. His response: "You can't tell me what to do! I'll have my daddy come over and beat you up!"

He was five years old and had already internalized the idea that violence against women was not just okay, but the preferred solution when his will was thwarted. I shudder to think about what's likely to happen to the girls he's probably dating by now.

#36 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 08:27 PM:

One of them came close to mutiny. It was an unpleasant time. Things were resolved before it got ugly. In another unit I (thankfully) wasn't in, the commander was "promoted" laterally (which meant he wasn't relieved of command). If that hadn't been done... I don't think he'd have come home.

But, outside the Services, we don't have that sense of mutual need. A lot of management sees the workers as replaceable widgets. The pundit class of the Conservatice movement say the workers don't deserve to be well paid (or have their taxes reduced much) because the, "add nothing" to the equation.

One possible interpretation of this - which I don't necessarily endorse, I just want to look at it for a minute - is that an armed workplace is a polite workplace. The fact that all your subordinates carry deadly weapons gives a military officer, possibly, a different viewpoint on morale. (The fact that, in addition, any one of your subordinates could *save* your life at any moment - if they feel like it - and that you all have a defined enemy that isn't each other might have something to do with it too.)

I dunno. Militaries through history have often not been models of respect for the enlisted man, but then, how did they compare to contemporary businesses/plantations/etc.? For most of history the *modal* employer-employee relationship was outright slavery, or something as close to it as made no difference - but enslaving your soldiers is rarely tried and even more rarely successful. (And even then, I think it was more of a nominally-owned-by-the-Sultan thing.)

#37 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 08:46 PM:

David Harmon @ 32: "In fact, that would turn the corporation into a cooperative!"

Indeed it would. Maybe we should add Robert Owen to abi's list of 19th-century philanthropists...?

#38 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 11:02 PM:

Chris --
Contrary to RAH's fictional Luna, an armed society is not a polite one, but one that is a single step away from the wacko's and those with fractionally better aim/reflexes exercising life and death over everybody else, after they have removed the guns from those who are less able.

The military works as a cooperative venture because there is the inbuilt esprit of the shared experience. And in countries like the USA, because of the ingrained concept of the military as the servant of the society, not the other way around.

In the US, the oath of enlistment and the oath of office have, as the *first* stricture, the oath to support and defend the Constitution. This is a potent oath, as the U.S Constitution is the base where all U.S. law flows from.

Part of the Subsidiary oaths are to Obey the President and the officers as appointed, and even there, the obedience is not unswerving, but as modified and controlled by the military regulations and the UCMJ

The only unqualified oath, which is repeated in both the Oath of Enlistment and Oath of Office, is the one to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Not an oath to unconditionally support the President, or the nation, but the Constitution. A difference that some "Conservatives" seem to miss (such as ex VP Cheney, when he misstated the oath in his speech at the commencement exercises at West Point in 2007, when he declared the Cadets had just taken an oath do defend the United States, and he didn't mention the Constitution of the U.S as the target of the Oath).

#39 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 12:41 AM:

Lila @29: on the contrary, whether you grow up watching your dad beat your mom is probably the single strongest predictor of whether you grow up to beat your own wife. It may also put girls at higher risk of being beaten by their husbands--even in a country where that's illegal.

Yes, that is in complete agreement with what I said.

To quote the comment you are replying to: "in a society where such violence occurs, young people are encouraged to follow suit and more people who participate in such violence are born."

The argument is whether it is the power itself that is causing corruption. Seeing someone else wield power in a corrupt manner may cause corruption, but in that case it is the display of corruption which causes corruption, which is not the same. In your example, the child does not because abusive because they are capable of abusing, but because they were raised in an environment where abuse happened.


Mickle @34: No, it's not. The issue is not (just) the power-holder's intentions, it's their limited ability to understand what it's like to BE the other person. Because it's not just about obvious abuses - like beating wives, it's also about all the little things - like not taking into account how biology translates into experience when writing, oh say, building codes dealing with the number of stalls required in restrooms.

My claim was simply that the actual cause of the problems is not the power. In some ways it is minor, but I think it is generally useful to actually identify the problem.

For example, "it's their limited ability to understand what it's like to BE the other person". Is the claim then that, before they had power, they could understand the other person's situation, yet with power they cannot?

In all cases I have seen, people who are not empathetic were that way when they had no power and remained thus when they gained power. Likewise, people who are empathetic do not cease to be so if they gain power. The presence or absence of empathy is not caused by the presence or absence of power. Rather, it is made clearly visible because actions backed by power have significant impact.

I see many situations where corruption causes corruption (such as the issue of abusive parents), but that is not the same claim. I can see clear evidence that corruption is irrelevant without power, but that is also not the same claim.

The fundamental claim of "power corrupts" is that power causes corruption. I do not see strong evidence of this.

#40 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 01:47 AM:

Kevin Maroney @ 30

Your example shows why unions are going to be vital to the survival of the US economy and society in the next couple of decades. Automation has been killing off job categories at a great rate since the middle of the 20th Century, but the effects haven't been felt in the US economy as strongly as you would expect because of the creation of large numbers of jobs in areas where automation hadn't quite caught up yet (e.g., service jobs), and the massive increase in middle management. The next wave of automation based on business process automation* will hit all of those categories, and cause a great deal of upheaval. In fact, I suspect some of what will happen to the economy in the course of the current depression will be a change in employment as a result of automation-related changes that have been held back by falling wages and outsourcing of permanent jobs to contractors and temps.

But if the changes aren't done in such a way that working class Americans survive it economically, there will be some real tectonic changes in society: perhaps a class war with real guns, or economic war with boycotts. Without the unions, or some other form of organized representation of labor, the corporations will have no incentive to get the economic changes right; just the opposite.

* I know it's a buzzword, but the technology is actually starting to happen in a way that allows application to an individual and idiosyncratic organization without massive reprogramming.

#41 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 02:46 AM:

Micah #39: The fundamental claim of "power corrupts" is that power causes corruption. I do not see strong evidence of this.

I'm willing to beta test that meme if someone is willing to supply the power. I figure I could be a fairly entertaining despot.

#42 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 07:23 AM:

Micah #39: Perhaps a better way to express it would be that power tempts toward corruption. Those whose moral systems aren't sturdy enough to withstand that temptation are likely to slip into abusive behavior, if only by ignoring feedback (which is deadly in itself).

#43 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 07:54 AM:

Micah #39: The fundamental claim of "power corrupts" is that power causes corruption. I do not see strong evidence of this.

Lord Acton wrote "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." That's the, ahem, fundamental claim. Not that power causes corruption, but that the holding of power will tend to lead to corruption and that the holding of absolute power (power without any checks upon it) will be corrupting.

#44 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 09:48 AM:

Fragano @43: Lord Acton wrote "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." That's the, ahem, fundamental claim. Not that power causes corruption, but that the holding of power will tend to lead to corruption and that the holding of absolute power (power without any checks upon it) will be corrupting.

The addition of the word "tends" to the phrase is just a comment on frequency of occurrence, which isn't what I was commenting on and is a rather minor difference aside. Either way, I do not agree with the claim.

David @42: Perhaps a better way to express it would be that power tempts toward corruption. Those whose moral systems aren't sturdy enough to withstand that temptation are likely to slip into abusive behavior, if only by ignoring feedback (which is deadly in itself).

That's a lot closer to what I was saying, it's just disagreeing on some semantic specifics. I'd more be saying that people were already corrupted if their moral systems were prone to abusive behavior once the avenue was opened to them.

The corruption is already present and the access to power makes it visible. Many activities which are harmless without power become harmful with power. Many activities are impossible without power, so they are only practiced once someone has power. The power is related to no change in behavior or morality, merely to a change in results and perceptions.

The implication that power is a bad thing, as it does apparently corrupt good people, is wrong.

#45 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 10:42 AM:

The simple fact is that companies get the union they deserve. Treat your employees poorly, they will find someone to help ensure that they are treated with respect. Wages and benefits are rarely the initial issue in an organizing campaign.

AIG and UAW are really completely different issues. Labor costs are a huge factor in auto manufacturing, and one of the main differentials between US and foreign manufacturing. It isn't an accident that foreign manufacturers set up shop in the south, in right to work states, rather than in the north.

Labor costs are basically irrelevant to the mess at AIG. 100 million dollars is basically irrelevant, except as a symbol. This is a good illustration: http://xkcd.com/558/

Unions actually win a slight majority of their elections these days - and the vast majority of those elections result in a first contract within 18 months. Anyone who says different is lying to you, and does not have the facts to back it up. Election delays? How about propoerly funding the NLRB, instead of revamping US labor law (which actually works fairly well).

Bruce Cohen at 9: The managers you speak to may be planning to get rich on the backs of the employees, but not the ones I do - and I speak with a lot of managers. Most of them are doing their job, as an HR or Labor Relations manager, and actually have a pretty good relationship with their employees.

Compare the rise of the unions in the early parts of the century. Refuse to sleep with the boss? Who's going to protect you, if it isn't the union. Forced overtime, without overtime pay? DOL doesn't care. DOL may not *exist* Minimum wage? OSHA? Title VII? Whistleblower protections? The Americans with Disabilities Act? Age discrimination?

None of these protections existed. You cause trouble - out come the Pinkertons. Union supporters like to use the rhetoric of that time to apply to ours - where in the vast majority of businesses today, employees are treated unthinkably well in comparison to even the 1950s.

This is not to say that companies get it right 100% of the time - but when they get it wrong, they are often required to have internal proceedures to address it, and there are government agencies working to protect you.

So why pay dues now? To fund the civil war within UNITE HERE? The battle between SEIU and its former local - currently affecting thousands of nurses and hundreds of hospitals and nursing homes.

Unions need to find a way to stay relevent in this century - no one is saying that they weren't relelvant in the last. One complication for them is the shift from manufacturing to service industries. Manufacturing employees can often be paid on the same scale, in lockstep (think UAW). Service employees are often rewarded for providing better service - service companies often compete *solely* on the basis of who provides the better service.

If unions want to be crucial to the success of the economy in the future, they need to find a way to become relevant at the best companies - not just the ones who treat their people the worst...

#46 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 10:49 AM:

Tor, in the last 30 years real wages haven't increased at all in the US, despite vast increases in productivity, and the average work week is the longest it's been in seventy years. Stronger unions would help redress that...

#47 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 11:11 AM:

ajay - even assuming that's true (and I'm not saying it isn't) - unions are really the wrong tool for addressing that issue. Corporations have evolved into organizations that pay vast amounts to the very top executives (who may or may not deserve it), distribute as much as possible into dividends/stock buybacks(share price)/company reinvestment, and pay workers as little as they have to in order to remain competitive. So they do stay competitive in terms of the market - but the market may not move, as you point out.

So wouldn't it be better to sponsor shareholder initiatives which force corporations to pay above market, to get the best employees? Many do - I've worked with several that pay way above market, expect the best employees, and are at the top of their fields in terms of the competition.

If the choice is between requiring employees to pay dues and initiation fees to an organization with a broad range of goals, some of which may be better wages for its members, or to form organizations which lobby directly for higher wages by using corporate governance.

People say unions fight for higher wages, but the fact is that they fight for high enough wages to justify the dues people have paid over the past 3+ years. That's not about fairness and justice - that's about earning your fees. I've negotiated those agreements, and fairness and justice have rarely been anything more than rhetoric. Unions use other businesses in the market to justify their proposals. Companies who already are at market, and intend to stay at market, do not give up anything more than they would otherwise. Companies who are below market will often go out of business if non-union (can't keep/retain good employees) and are driven out of business if union (strikes/slowdowns/can't keep/retain good employees).

Wage rates may be a problem, but just because unions like to talk about wages does not mean that they are a solution.

#48 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 11:41 AM:

tor @ 47

just because unions like to talk about wages does not mean that they are a solution.

They certainly are one solution, and a necessary one for some situations. Do you think that a shareholders initiative would do anything to affect the way coal mining companies treat and pay their workers?

Of course there's more than one solution, and more than one part to any solution, of the labor problem in this country. It's a fundamental problem: not only do corporate executives believe that they owe nothing to their workers, a large part of the populace of the US believes that, too. It's only in the last few months, as the general population has begun to realize that all of us have been systematically cheated while being told it was good for us, that this belief has been questioned on a large scale.

Unions have always been the vanguard of the labor movement, not its entire fabric. Corporate executives and their political shills, the "owner class" that's inherited from the robber barons of the late 19th century, recognized that the unions were the entering wedge of a major change in labor relations, and tried as hard as possible to prevent their rise, or to de-legitimize them in the eyes of the electorate. Without those initial battles (and they're clearly not over yet, ask Wal-Mart), there would be no recognition that there was a problem that needed to be solved, and far fewer of the shareholder initiative you mention.

You mention good managers. My experience has been that first-line managers are largely well-aware of the need for a good relationship with the people they manage (if often unaware of how to get that relationship). The problem is usually middle-managers, who have no real connection with the workforce or what they do, and executive managers, who usually have little connection with the universe the rest of us inhabit. Their problem is the myth they've been taught that management is a separate and sovereign discipline, and that good management requires no understanding or appreciation of the kind of work being managed, or of the skills and experience that make that work possible.

#49 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 01:24 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 48

We have different experiences with managers. Most of the front line managers I deal with have a great connection with the people they are supervising, but because they still see themselves as one of them - and not as part of management. Which is why the vast majority of harassment claims come from this area (we were just fooling around! I wasn't *really* threatening to fire her) and not middle management or executives (although the most high profile claims come from these areas).

Good middle and top management has experience on the floor - bad management often does not, especially if they cannot maintain credibility with their employees.

You get the union you deserve - if you can't treat your employees with respect, they'll find a union to help get that respect.

Again - no one is disputing that unions were integral to the rise of our economy - the question is - what is their relevance now? Bad employers are easily unionized - good ones are not. Good employers provide all the services a union does, without cost.

'Middle managers' make a convenient target for those who don't deal with these managers who straddle the line between getting everything they can for their people and the demands of the top executives. It isn't an easy job - and most of them used to be line employees. They didn't spring up fully formed from serpent's teeth buried in the dirt...

#50 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 02:20 PM:

Tor @ 49 and elsewhere:

I'm not sure where you get the idea that unions are irrelevant. Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, as ajay pointed out, and there are still plenty of companies where workers are treated terribly -- from giant corporations like Wal-Mart to small businesses like the local coffee shop that illegally fires an employee and withholds the wages it owes her. And how about all the temporary foreign workers who are brought to North America under false pretenses, underpaid, deported for trying to unionize, and treated like virtual slaves? A few companies that treat their employees well, and a few substantial victories for organized labor, don't mean that unions are somehow no longer needed.

You write that companies "get the unions they deserve." Isn't that precisely what makes unions relevant: the fact that far too many companies still don't treat their employees with respect?

You write that "Good employers provide all the services a union does, without cost." But if workers don't organize themselves to make their employer provide those services, what incentive does the employer have to provide them, and how do the employees ensure that those services aren't taken away when times get tough?

If there are other tactics, like lobbying for shareholder motions, that are more effective than traditional labor tactics, that's not an argument against unions. It's an argument that unions should adopt those tactics. A union is just a group of workers who have organized themselves; there's nothing that says they have to restrict their activities to strikes and contract negotiations (and to the extent that labor laws impose such restrictions, the laws are bad and should be changed).

#51 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 02:41 PM:

Jeff Davis @ 50

I get the idea that unions are becoming irrelevant because they are increasingly failing to provide services that employees feel are worthy of their dues.

There's a reason why unions used to represent over 20% of the private workforce, and now represent about 7%. And it is not because companies have gotten better at delaying elections - at the inception of the NLRA and widespread unionization, use of the Pinkertons, widespread firings and lockouts were common. Today, no employer would think of turning a firehose on demonstrating or striking employees - back then, it was not unheard of to read about.

In a service economy, employees want merit pay, bonuses, and to be treated as individuals. If they work harder than the person next to them, they want to be rewarded for that. Lockstep pay increases may have been appropriate for manufacturing, but are not for this economy.

In my experience, the companies who win union elections typically have a good percentage of formerly unionized workers. Their personal experiences have more effect on the outcome of the election than any other factor. If unions want to increase the size of their membership, they should take better care of the people who are their current members.

In a service economy, that's how most companies succeed. They treat their current customers well, so that they get recommended and increase their customers. Unions should take a lesson.

After all, unionization has been on the decline all this time wages have allegedly stagnated. If it were the answer (or even *an* answer), I would have thought it would have been on the increase.

And when you see the SEIU battle with UHW, and UNITE HERE's battle with itself? How much of the millions of dollars spent on these intra-union battles came from dues? All of them.

#52 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 03:05 PM:

In a service economy, employees want merit pay, bonuses, and to be treated as individuals. If they work harder than the person next to them, they want to be rewarded for that. Lockstep pay increases may have been appropriate for manufacturing, but are not for this economy.

1) Manufacturing's still 18% of the US economy; then there's mining, farming, construction... the US is far from a "service economy".

2) Unions can do other things than argue for lockstep pay increases.

3) Not all service sector jobs are susceptible to merit pay. Come to that, why shouldn't manufacturing be as open to merit pay as service work?

After all, unionization has been on the decline all this time wages have allegedly stagnated. If it were the answer (or even *an* answer), I would have thought it would have been on the increase.

I am going to keep this fragile little blossom of logic and press it between the leaves of my scrapbook.
Hey, Tor: if vaccination's the answer to infectious disease, how come falling vaccination rates coincide with higher disease rates?

#53 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 03:34 PM:

ajay - unions may be able to agree to other pay structures, but they very rarely do. Lockstep pay was considered a union victory as it became widespread, and many unions refuse to look at other types of pay structures.

As to number three - I agree with both your points. In fact, I made the second point to a USW rep not that long ago. He didn't agree.

As to your last point, that's a staggeringly mixed metaphor comparing apples and oranges.

Should unions do things differently? Yes - and by doing so, they may become more relevant. But they prefer to blame outside pressures for their failures, rather than their own mistakes.

#54 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 04:19 PM:

that's a staggeringly mixed metaphor comparing apples and oranges.

Not really on topic, but "comparing apples and oranges" itself doesn't really make that much sense as a metaphor. I generally like oranges more than apples. By saying this, I have just compared apples and oranges. What's supposed to be so difficult about that?

Back on topic- you had basically claimed that, in a case where A (unionisation) hasn't been in a good shape lately, and B (wage levels) hasn't been in a good shape lately either, this works as evidence against the idea that A and B might be somehow connected. Sure, correlation doesn't prove causation, but it doesn't disprove it, either.

#55 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 05:11 PM:

Tor, I think you're conflating two different arguments, and I'd like to tease them apart.

On the one hand, you're saying that mainstream unions have generally not succeeded in making themselves seem relevant to workers in recent years. I mostly agree with this. There are all sorts of problems with the mainstream labor unions, and in many cases, like the internal conflicts you mentioned, they brought those problems upon themselves. (I suspect you underestimate the effect of "outside pressures," though. Right-to-work laws, for example, are part of a deliberate attempt to undermine organized labor under the guise of preserving the worker's freedom of choice.)

On the other hand, you also seem to be saying (mainly in #45, but by implication in several other comments) that there isn't really a need for unions anymore, since things are no longer as horrible for workers as they were in the bad old days. Am I misreading you? Because I think you're deeply wrong on this point. I linked to a couple of articles about migrant workers who pretty obviously need someone to stand up for their rights. I mentioned Wal-Mart; a quick glance at the relevant Wikipedia article shows all sorts of abuses. Those are just two examples where a good union would make a big difference. And that's not even getting into the ancillary benefits of unions (like civic participation), which were the focus of the original post.

#56 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 05:30 PM:

Jeff, #55: While we're on this topic, I'd like to trot out my own pet peeve with the terminology. The phrase "right-to-work" may have meant something like what it sounds like a long time ago, but not any more. These days, it means "the employer's right to fire you at any time, with no notice, and without having to show cause".

And yes, unionization does make it a lot harder for an employer to do that. It's no wonder companies want to use a phrase that sounds as though it's a protection of workers' rights to describe a practice which is the exact opposite.

#57 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:19 PM:

Raphael @54 - the point I was trying to make was that unions are saying that they can increase wages, but the simple fact is that they did not succeed at doing so when they represented twice as much of the private workforce. So why would we assume that they could accomplish that goal now?

Also, if you have data that indicates that stagnant wages in an economy have any features in common with how a virus infects a host (or is defeated by innoculation), I'd love to see it.

Jeff @55 - I think one naturally leads into the other. Unions have basically failed to live up the to promises that they have made in the past, and they continue to fail to live up to the promises they make in organizing campaigns. As a consequence of this lack of credibility, they have failed to make themselves relevant in the average workplace.

Are there bad actors? Absolutely. And unions can make real gains in those workforces - simply by bringing conditions up to the minimums required by law. And in areas where safety is a crucial issue, I recognize that unions may have a role to play as well.

Think how loyal union members would be if they could honestly say, "my union saved my life" or "my union made sure I got OT, which I was denied for the last two years." You'd have a member for life.

Although, I do not think that conditions at Wal-Mart are anywhere as bad as the media likes to make out - it is an easy target for a story, and as the world's largest employer, they are naturally going to have more lawsuits filed against them.

But do unions focus on industries where there is arguably a need for their services? From what I can tell, UFCW has spent orders of magnitude more money trying to organize Wal-Mart, than they have on migrant farm workers. Of course, they can expect to collect a lot more in dues from Wal-Mart employees than from those farm workers...

Which leads into right to work laws. From my perspective, they indicate a 'right to work' without having to join a union. These laws are accused of undermining organized labor, but all they truly state is that a union has to earn its dues from employees, rather than just demand them (or require that the employee be fired - see Union Security in your CBA). Unions typically avoid organizing in right to work states, because they do not get paid if people aren't happy with their work. Here's how I would run a union in a right to work (or any other state):

You only pay dues if you want to participate as a Member of the Union. As a Member, you get input into the CBA we will negotiate - and a vote! As you'll see, we will obtain many of the things you ask for - if we don't, don't pay dues.

You get training that is only available to union members. You'll learn X, Y and Z, all of which are valuable skills. These skills alone will be worth your membership.

We also have reduced fee training for your family - in this economy, we are ensuring that we represent the best trained workforce we can!

You get automatic admission to the raffle for AAA baseball game tickets, admission to the semi-monthly pizza and beer party, and we have a special grievance hotline set up for you. And feel free to come one down to the union lodge, where we have $0.25 pints every tuesday night, and thursdays are always singles nights.

Maybe there are locals run like this out there - if so, I haven't seen them. The unions I deal with do enough work to avoid a decert, and move on to the next organizing campaign.

I'm not trying to say that there are no problems out there - but I am saying that unions do not have the credibility to fix those problems. They could build that credibility by doing the things you indicate, but in the first administration in a decade that is really open to working with them, all we see is bitter infighting.

#58 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:30 PM:

Tor @45:
This is not to say that companies get it right 100% of the time - but when they get it wrong, they are often required to have internal proceedures to address it, and there are government agencies working to protect you.

Regulatory protections are only as good as their enforcement. A relevant article, published today: Labor Enforcement Agency Is Failing Workers, Report Says.

Nine out of the ten complaints brought by investigators posing as aggrieved workers were mishandled, all to the detriment of the complainants. Further investigation shows that this is not a statistical fluke.

#59 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:33 PM:

Lee @ 56 - How could having a grievance process in place which required 'just cause' in order to terminate someone be a bad thing?

For a bad employer - it's probably a good thing. For a good employer, it keeps the poor employees in place, it reinstates sexual harassers and thieves (I've had arbitrations where the arbitrator acknowledged actual harassment in one case, and in another, theft, and both were reinstated) and it lowers morale. Also, many good employers have put in place grievance processes that are similar to the process under a union.

Are they necessary? They do prevent mistakes, and serve as a check on lower level managers who may be bad actors, both of which are good. Are they sufficient reasons to vote in a union? More and more people are saying 'no.'

#60 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:44 PM:

Abi @ 58

Actually, in the same post, I suggested we increase funding for the NLRB, which is the agency that enforces labor laws and deals with unions.

#61 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:45 PM:

Don't you people know that, if unions were powerful, incompetence would be allowed to fester in corporate America, and management would be unable to do the right and moral thing for its employees?!!!

Oh.
Wait.
Nevermind.

#62 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:49 PM:

Serge - I see you are familiar with the writings of Ayn Rand.

Wait! My sarcasm detector is showing a reading of... oh dear.

#63 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 06:49 PM:

Serge - I see you are familiar with the writings of Ayn Rand.

Wait! My sarcasm detector is showing a reading of... oh dear.

#64 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 07:01 PM:

An interesting question is what might take the place of a union in helping employees manage their relationship with their employer? Or how might unions evolve to be more relevant, assuming they're not now all that relevant?

Tor's description of the kind of union he'd try to run in a right-to-work state sounds very much like a professional organization, such as IEEE. I'm an IEEE member, and it's a good investment, even though I use relatively few of its services--it's nice having them available.

But I keep suspecting that there are all kinds of interesting wrinkles in here. Like, how much can unions actually affect pay? Take all those insane CEO bonuses and spread them out evenly among the employees, and I think they would make only a small difference. Is there some way to deal with tournament-style jobs (common in academia, where only a tiny fraction of PhDs have a shot at tenure anywhere) to moderate the nastiness of this whole thing on the people who take part? (Or would that just encourage even more tournament participants?) And how on earth do we deal with the massive differences in education and intelligence and culture among different workers? It seems inevitable that public-employee unions filled with college-educated professionals will look radically different from unions filled with barely-literate first-generation immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, frex.

#65 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 07:02 PM:

(Ob Rand Flashback: Did anyone else catch the very funny reference to Dagny and Hank near the end of John Barnes' _Mother of Storms_?)

#66 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 07:03 PM:

Tor... Sorry about that. It's just that I've had problems with my manager that make me very unlikely to believe that any corporate hierarchy has built-in failsafes against upstairs incompetence and pettiness.

#67 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 07:35 PM:

Tor, #59: Reread my post. Soi-disant "right-to-work" states are precisely those in which there is NO grievance procedure, NO requirement that a company show cause to fire someone. How you can see this as protecting an employee's right to work is beyond me.

You say that a good company will protect the rights of its employees without having to have a union. I don't disagree, but neither do I believe that all (or even the vast majority) of companies are sufficiently enlightened not to need the encouragement provided by unionization -- or the threat thereof. At Wal-Mart, even talking to another employee about unions is a termination-level offense. (I know this because I know people in management at Wal-Mart.) Do you think that's a good thing? I don't. I think it's a huge red warning flag.

#68 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 08:07 PM:

Corporation executives, in the US at least, are required by law to manage their corporations for the benefit of the shareholders, and no one else. This has come to mean for the benefit of the quarterly bottom line. Need I point out just how incredibly short-sighted and destructive this policy is?

But it further means that workers by definition come at best second after shareholders, and that there is pressure on executives to hold workers compensation (salaries + benefits) to the minimum that they will tolerate without leaving. There's no room for altruism, or even the enlightened self-interest of the corporation there. And the same pressures have resulted in most of top management in the US being either MBA trained, or otherwise believers in the MBA style of management. This means that they do not understand the work their subordinates do; in fact it means they automatically derogate it.

#69 ::: Jeff Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 08:40 PM:

Tor @ 57: From what I can tell, UFCW has spent orders of magnitude more money trying to organize Wal-Mart, than they have on migrant farm workers.

I don't know what the difference in expenditure is, but I do know that the UFCW successfully organized a group of migrant farm workers for the first time here in British Columbia last summer, not to mention successful drives at several other farms across the country -- after a years-long, nationwide campaign that involved (among other things) going to the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn laws that prevented farm workers from organizing. So even if their efforts in that area aren't as good as they could be, at least they're seeing some results.

Your thoughts on how a union might approach organizing in right-to-work states are interesting. Certainly, the services you describe are services that unions ought to be providing anyway. I worry, though, that such an approach would create second-class employees and provide an easy way for employers to undermine organizing efforts by playing one group of workers against another, or bringing in a second union that's more sympathetic to the employer (and consequently ends up doing less for the workers).

Also, I'm still not seeing the connection between your criticisms of how unions currently operate and the idea that we don't need unions anymore. I understand that you think existing mainstream unions haven't lived up to their promises, but I don't see how this demonstrates that the idea of the union has outlived its usefulness.

#70 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 08:54 PM:

It looks like Tor is falling into the same mindset that had an extremely influential government official wring his hands, and looking like a fish out of water when he had to face the fact that banks, as corporations, did *not* act for the long-term good of the banks.

Just as Tor seems to be assuming that corporations will recognize that the long-term good of the corporation depends on its treating the production workers equitably.

In my experience, neither statement is at all true.

#71 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 09:41 PM:

"The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can't make men work for money alone - you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way."
- William Holden in 1954's Executive Suite

#72 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 10:03 PM:

Have any unions tried the strategy of encouraging employees to own stock in the companies for which they work (giving them a direct stake in the company's success), and then organizing as a stockholder pressure group? In some cases, maybe they could get enough stocks together to vote a union representative to the company's board of directors. Or is that not really feasible?

#73 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 11:11 PM:

I always thought that right-to-work was in contrast with at-will states, in which an employer could fire you at will. If they're the same thing, what's the pithy phrase for states where your employer has to give notice and reason &etc before firing you?

#74 ::: Chris W ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2009, 11:30 PM:

Shadowsong:

"Right to work" is one of those terms of art that began as one side's talking points. The "right to work" in this case being the right of an employee to contract for his labor to an employer outside of a union contract. In other words, "right to work" really means "right to not join the union." (I.e. unions are prohibited by law from demanding as part of their contract negotiations that businesses only hire union members.)

The phrase you're looking for is "just cause employment." Incidentally, pretty much all union employees are just cause even in at will states, since any union contract worth the name will include rules about how employees can be fired.

#75 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 03:56 AM:

Earl Cooley @72, problem is, the math probably doesn't work out. The amounts of money involved in the stock market- even in bad times- are simply too big compared to the amounts of money employees can invest.

#76 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 09:24 AM:

Earl: There have been/are employee owned companies, and there are many companies in which employees get some kind of matching on stock purchases, and end up owning a significant fraction of the company. However, this isn't always a great thing for the employees, as witness all the Enron employees whose 401(K)s were full of Enron stock--the day your company tanks, you lose both your job and your savings.

Bruce: If I understand correctly, you're referring to case law spelling out under what terms shareholders may sue management, right? The thing to note here is that no legal rule can solve the agency problem. Management has different incentives than the shareholders, and you can see this all the time.

#77 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 10:39 AM:

albatross @ 76
Part of the problem with Enron employees' 401(k)s was that they apparently didn't have a lot of non-Enron investments; they were encouraged to put most of their money into their own company, even though the advice I've seen is to keep that part to about 30%.

#78 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 11:03 AM:

Serge @ 66 - no need to apologize - sarcasm is not a problem with me - I was trying to make an obscure Simpsons reference. I'm from NYC - I grew up on sarcasm and bagels.

Bruce @ 68 - Your first paragraph is true - but shareholders are not monolithic. Shareholder initiatives have been successful at making changes in how employees and others are treated, and can be very effective. Shareholders do not just care only about the bottom line, and changes to the laws that would enable dissadent groups to contact other shareholders more easily would improve this process.

I haven't spoken to managers who "derogate" the work of their subordinates. Maybe I'm just lucky in 9 years of practicing law (and 20 years in the workforce).

Jeff Davis @69 - I work with a company who has been at the top of the 100 great places to work survey for over a decade. They are also a top target for a number of unions. If employees say over and over again that they are so happy, the company is beloved by its community - why are these unions spending tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to organize it?

I don't think many people would oppose laws that would make it easier for unions to organize migrant farm workers - other than the farming companies. There are sectors of our economy where unions may continue to make sense on a widespread basis - but I don't see their relevance to most companies. But at the end of the day - that's why we have a secret ballot vote - employees get to choose which they want. So far, fewer and fewer employees are agreeing with the unions, despite the unions' protestations that a union is what people really want in their secret heart of hearts (or are what would be good for them, if only they could understand it).

As for the organizing strategy - those were my stream of consciousness thoughts. I'm sure unions could do all that and more. If unions concentrated earning their dues every day, instead of otherwise entrenching themselves, the percentage of organized employees would be much higher.

As for second class people - they already exist. Some of what I described already exists - you don't pay dues, you don't vote on the contract. And it would be easy to become first class - pay your dues. And the more people who pay their dues, the more services offered by the union.


Earl @72 - They have. It isn't a primary tactic, but it is one that they've used. As I mentioned above, dissadent groups need better access to lists of shareholders.


shadowsong @73 - Those are two different concepts. The defaut in every state is employment at will - you can be fired for any reason or no reason, so long as it is not an illegal reason.

The default in every state is also 'union shop' or 'forced unionization' depending on which side you talk to - if a majority (50%+1) of the bargaining unit votes for the union, *everyone* must pay dues, or be fired - as required by the Union Security article of the CBA.

Some states are Right to Work - which means that the state has passed a law banning Union Secirity provisions in CBAs. So you can't be forced to pay dues on pain of termination. Typically, a fraction of the bargaining unit actually pays dues.

But even in Right to Work states, there is still a grievance proceedure (that applies to both employees who pay dues, and those who do not) as part of the CBA. Grievance procedures typically
require that the employer establish Just Cause to terminate someone. What Just Cause actually means is basically up to the arbitrator, who will decide the case, if it gets that far.

Raphael @75 - I (slightly) disagree. Most shareholder votes are by proxy. Most shareholders do not vote, and almost none attend the meeting. If unions could get proxies from sympathetic shareholders, they could have a disporportionate effect to the number of shares they actually own. Which would be a good thing in some cases.

#79 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 02:39 PM:

Tor @ 78

I'd be curious to know where you've worked that you've found so many enlightened managers. I've worked for a number of organizations larger than 1,000 employees: the University of California (on staff at the Davis Medical School), AMD, Intel, Tektronix, Mentor, Nike, and the same number of smaller companies. Among those, I have never found a company whose top management understood the idea of making the employees true partners in the company (no matter how much lip service they paid to the idea). I have found a lot of lower-level managers who did understand it, but their attitude was never a result of policy, but rather of personal understanding.

#80 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 03:35 PM:

Ah, Tor, I think you have a different idea of who the second-class employees are in Jeff's argument. It's easy to become a first-class employee - one who gets all the benefits of the CBA without the demerits - in an "open shop"; just stop paying dues.

The result of that is frequently that the union gets weaker, as they have less money to work with; so they have less weight in renegotiations of the CBA; so they seem less relevant; so fewer new employees join/more employees leave the union; and the circle repeats, to the benefit of the employer.

One would think that this is a negative feedback loop - eventually the deterioration in the workers' equation caused by the diminuition of the union would promote the kind of organizing that brought the union in in the first place, or a strengthening of the original union by more people rejoining; but this seems to be much harder to do than the natural deterioration. I would guess that is because it's easier to convert a small group of people to one position than a large group.

So, Lord Acton, does Nuclear Power decay, rather than corrupt?

#81 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 05:22 PM:

Bruce @ 79 - so how do you create personal understanding if not by personal experience. And how does a union create a workplace filled with respect? And have you worked at a company where you felt personally rewarded and respected as a result of a union's efforts?

Mycroft W @80 - actually, if you stop paying dues, you not longer get to vote on the contract. You no longer have any input into the document that governs your relationship with your employer, including wages, grievance proceedures, benefits, vacations, personal days, holidays, insurance, drug and alcohol testing, etc.

If the union were to try to earn their dues every day - instead of taking them for granted, through the use of extra (and useful) services only available to members, they would get more members. Here are some more ideas. An intra-union dating service - where dues paying members can see each other's profiles. Non-dues payers have to pay. Parties. Facebook-type groups. Electronic newsletters with useful and interesting information (just mine Fark.com for all the funny stuff). People create organizations that customers pay to join every day - only unions seem unable to get people to do the same, with the added benefit of a supposed voice in their workplace, just cause and a grievance proceedure, and federal protection.

Yeah - it's a negative feedback loop - go into the buggy whip business, insist you are only going to make buggy whips, ask for federal assistance in getting people to buy buggy whips, all without looking around and seeing that you are out of step with the rest of the economy. And today, we have the added benefit that the rival buggy whip manufacturers are whipping each other in the face, fueled by their declining dues.

I'm just waiting for Andy Stern to go on a hunting trip and actually shoot himself in the foot. That's about all that's left.

#82 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 05:22 PM:

Bruce @ 79 - so how do you create personal understanding if not by personal experience. And how does a union create a workplace filled with respect? And have you worked at a company where you felt personally rewarded and respected as a result of a union's efforts?

Mycroft W @80 - actually, if you stop paying dues, you not longer get to vote on the contract. You no longer have any input into the document that governs your relationship with your employer, including wages, grievance proceedures, benefits, vacations, personal days, holidays, insurance, drug and alcohol testing, etc.

If the union were to try to earn their dues every day - instead of taking them for granted, through the use of extra (and useful) services only available to members, they would get more members. Here are some more ideas. An intra-union dating service - where dues paying members can see each other's profiles. Non-dues payers have to pay. Parties. Facebook-type groups. Electronic newsletters with useful and interesting information (just mine Fark.com for all the funny stuff). People create organizations that customers pay to join every day - only unions seem unable to get people to do the same, with the added benefit of a supposed voice in their workplace, just cause and a grievance proceedure, and federal protection.

Yeah - it's a negative feedback loop - go into the buggy whip business, insist you are only going to make buggy whips, ask for federal assistance in getting people to buy buggy whips, all without looking around and seeing that you are out of step with the rest of the economy. And today, we have the added benefit that the rival buggy whip manufacturers are whipping each other in the face, fueled by their declining dues.

I'm just waiting for Andy Stern to go on a hunting trip and actually shoot himself in the foot. That's about all that's left.

#83 ::: Tor ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 05:28 PM:

crap - I really did only click once for absolute sure that time....

#84 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 06:11 PM:

Not to worry, Tor; Making Light double posts more than any other site I can think of.

#85 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 07:54 PM:

Yes, I no longer get a vote or a say in the process; but I still get the benefits of the CBA.

At a $X00/yr discount from the poor union-deluded saps.

I agree with you - a union that did things on a daily basis, to show benefits to union members over and above the CBA, would be an advantage. However, CBA (and grievance - do I know about grievance) is about 80+% of what people want a union for, so that's what they get.

I also agree that once a union gets to be a certain size, it's effectively a corporation itself, with the same management and bureaucracy of any medium-large corporation. And the people in management of the union seem to have the same blinkers that the management of the same-size businesses have with the workers; the blinkers that made unionization have the appeal it needed to form in the first place. That's a problem I don't currently see a solution for...

#86 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 10:56 PM:

Yeah, unions are an anachronism and fatally flawed and there's no practical solution other than to lube up, drop trou, and smile while the invisible hand of the market does its thing.

#87 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2009, 11:04 PM:

"Right to work" means that, if I want to work, and the company wants to employ me, no third party (such as a union) can interfere. It's obviously a phrase chosen for political propaganda, but it really does mean something positive to a lot of us too.

I have never felt the slightest hint of a thought that what my work environment really needed was a third party to all the negotiations.

#88 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2009, 03:28 AM:

Tor @ 57: "Also, if you have data that indicates that stagnant wages in an economy have any features in common with how a virus infects a host (or is defeated by innoculation), I'd love to see it."

Also there is that one song by Paul Simon where he says he is a rock I do not think that is literally true.

METAPHOR FAIL

#89 ::: RobW ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2009, 09:23 PM:

If Tor's employer is so generous as to provide pay and benefits sufficient to avoid unionization then I'm inclined to believe it does so, not out of the goodness of its corporate heart, but because it wants to prevent a union from organizing its employees.

Let me say that again: It makes its pay and benefits package nearly enough equal to those at union companies in its industry because it fears the unions that would empower its employees.

How does that support an argument that unions are irrelevant?

If that company's competetors were not unionized, would it offer the same package? I suspect not.

Your company's employees are therefore free riders: they benefit directly from efforts by unions elsewhere in that industry without having to contribute to those unions' efforts to raise the standard for employee compensation and treatment.

#90 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 01:48 AM:

heresiarch @ 88

Also there is that one song by Paul Simon where he says he is a rock I do not think that is literally true.

Agreed, but he can't be an island either, for as we all know "No man is an island — he's a peninsula!"

#91 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:01 PM:

Mickle @ 34: Because it's not just about obvious abuses - like beating wives, it's also about all the little things - like not taking into account how biology translates into experience when writing, oh say, building codes dealing with the number of stalls required in restrooms.

Um... this is a problem different from the one presented. I've spent a lot of time with women in places where the only toilets were bushes, and their spent no more (and often less) time using those bushes than the men did (myself included). So far as my empirical evidence goes toward the data set, women piss faster than men, when all things are equal.

What's different tends to be clothing (which was, in some of those cases in the bushes, a limiting factor too. A woman in breeches can drop and squat a lot faster than I, in breeches, can push down and fish out). If a woman has a lot of garments which have to be removed/shifted, and a man doesn't, he can be quicker.

There used to be urinals in women's rooms, but the large skirts/simple undergarment (split bloomers anyone?) went away, and so too the convenience factor.

It's not biology, but culture.

#92 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:39 PM:

chris @36: One possible interpretation of this - which I don't necessarily endorse, I just want to look at it for a minute - is that an armed workplace is a polite workplace. The fact that all your subordinates carry deadly weapons gives a military officer, possibly, a different viewpoint on morale. (The fact that, in addition, any one of your subordinates could *save* your life at any moment - if they feel like it - and that you all have a defined enemy that isn't each other might have something to do with it too.)

I dunno. Militaries through history have often not been models of respect for the enlisted man, but then, how did they compare to contemporary businesses/plantations/etc.? For most of history the *modal* employer-employee relationship was outright slavery, or something as close to it as made no difference - but enslaving your soldiers is rarely tried and even more rarely successful. (And even then, I think it was more of a nominally-owned-by-the-Sultan thing.)

I think this isn't the case, in either half of the question.

The army rarely has all the members walking about armed. Outside of a combat zone the restrictions on being armed are immense (soldiers are not allowed to keep personal weapons in their barracks, having unauthorised ammunition is a court martial offense, etc.).

The sense of shared risk/obligation is what knits things together, not the idea one's subordinates carry deadly weapons. It's when that sort of thinking starts to surface (that the rank and file might not be safe with their weapons, when issued out), that units are unpleasant to be in. That's what the British Navy calls a, "shot rolling" ship.

The second half is also not true. Even when the society was more violent (stocks, beatings, dunking stools, and the like), the ways in which the Army/Navy dealt with things was more severe. The scene in the film, "Glory" where the Denzel Washington character is being flogged... it was something only done to slaves, seamen and soldiers, which is why the Broderick caracter is presented as shocked... he would never have seen such scars. A British officer could have seen them into the 1870s. The US military allowed NCOs to strike enlisted, up to the 70s. Recruits could be beaten, even with sticks, until the late 60s. Fragging didn't happen because of that, but because the officers in question weren't taking proper safeguard of the troops lives.

As to the slavery issue. The British did as close as made no never mind. Short of injury, or sudden changes in need (the end of the Napoleonic Wars), he wasn't paid off. He enlisted for 20-25 years. To leave was to be tried for desertion. If it went poorly he'd be flogged (perhaps to debilitation, or even death), or shot.

Seamen were in an even worse lot. They were siezed, forced (on pain of death) to serve, and had no expectation of the service ending.

For a 1st rate, like HMS Victory, they weren't even guaranteed to get a trade out of it, since so many were needed just for the guns that they might never be rated Seaman, much less Able.

#93 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 07:58 PM:

Micah @ 39: I've been moved to places of power. I can see how it could reduce empathy. The more power one has, over the greater mass, the less one can identify the effects of its exercise. Some unpleasant things have to be done (the latrines have to be cleaned. This is to everyone's benefit. Who shall clean them? The sergeant major usually has other things which need doing, he is rarely on that duty roster. A good commander/sgt. major, will see to it that when it really matters, all the NCOs are on it, but, by and large, the privates get the crap details, and the upper ranks the cake.

Which insulates them from the sense of indignity/injustice.

In an army this tends to be tempered by the small distances between the boss and the rank and file. Move it to something where those gaps are greater, and the diminuition of identification with the other becomes more pronounced.

The tends in Lord Actons quote isn't quite as minor as you seem to think. Economies tend to inflation. Wars tend to get larger/more violent. It's a trend line, not an outlier. It's not certain, but absent outside controls, it's the way the smart money bets.

Because the corrupt person, with power, will tend to squeeze out the non-corrupt.

#94 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 08:01 PM:

Tor @ all over the place: You say unions are becoming irrelevant because management has seen some light, and internalised the idea of treating workers well. Why then do they resist them so? Why does Wal-Mart close shops, rather then let the unions be?

If the unions are so bad at getting things for workers. If they can't get more than management was going to offer anyway, why not let them in? After all, if the workers get a better deal without the unions, management ought to be slavering for unions to come in and trick the workers into getting lesser pay and bennies.

They will then fail in the marketplace of ideas (Lincoln Electric is a non-union piecework shop. I don't know how it is now, but 30 years ago the family of the president was good friend of ours. He had no problem allowing union organisers to come in. He gave them time to talk. He gave them a place to talk. And the elections failed, because what the company was offering was at least as good as the unions could offer).

When I see someone arguing against that free exchange (which management does, and which the shills of management encourage; see Rush Limbaugh explaining the worker adds nothing of value), I have to think there's something in it for them to prevent it.

The decline of unions might have more to do with people saying things such as you are,convincing the general public that unions aren't needed. Add, "open shops" where people get to ride on the unions coattails for free, while the union loses the money which makes it more effective...how much money is in the strike fund? I know a healthy strike fund has more negotiating leverage than a weak one.

Consolidation is one of the things which makes that possible (Colt bought a factory a friend of mine used to work in. He was also the shop steward. The had a contract better than the rest of Colt employeess. They took advantage of the year between purchase and renegotiation to stockpile parts, and then gave a take it, or leave it, offer of reduced wages/benefits. My friend recommended against the strike [he'd seen the stockpiling of parts, and knew Colt had other plants]. The union went out. It was almost nine months, but they had to give in, because they were too small a cog for Colt to feel any pain).

Distribution makes it possible too. Machine shops tend to be non-union, they have small number of employees, and they vary in disciplines. The one I was working in had five mill operators, one welder/lathe operator, a brake-operator, a punch/die press operator, two assemblers, three coders, two quality control inspectors. That's fifteen people. The office had the boss, the materials buyer, the sales guy, the receptionist, the bosses son-in-law (who was a needless manager; who didn't know the real details of the operations), and the accountant (who was a grasping, and conniving person; fond of cheating the employees in little ways).

How do you unionize that?

The shop diddled us out of a day's pay whenever they could, but paid the manager full salary, for half-days, and leased his BMW.

Why? Because they could, in ways Boeing, or Hughes, couldn't when they weren't jobbing all the work out. The sad thing, I was working in a shop which was pretty good, for a job shop. But the petty demands of my boss were all things I had to put up with. Why? Because they didn't have to give any reason for anything they did. Change my job description? Anytime they wanted. Reduce my pay? Anytime they wanted. Give me a $1.50 raise, and the guy next to me $.50? Perfectly acceptable.

Make us work a 60 hour week for five months, because they had accepted more orders than they had wit to produce. I was hired on because they were hideously behind. The manager at the time wanted to start a second shift (he actually wanted to get to three shifts. As soon as they thought they were caught up, they fired all but three of us from the second shift, and told us we could stay on the day shift, or quit.

I'm pretty sure that, had we quit, we'd have had no unemployment coverage.

Two months later they were still backed up, and rather than open a second shift, we all got 20 hours a week of mandatory OT. Mind you, they didn't want to pay OT for more than a regular shift. When the state republicans got the OT changed to more than 40 hours in a week, not more than a standard shift (we were working 4/10s), they posted that prominently. When the Dems got it fixed, they made an oral declaration of policy they only paid OT for more than 40 hours in a week.

Vacation was pro-rated. You earned 1/52nd of a week per 40 hours worked. OT didn't count toward that, and holidays didn't either. We got eight hours pay for a holiday, not the ten we worked. If there was a day the shop couldn't operate, we didn't get vacation credit. If you took your vacation, that time didn't accrue any either. So it was 53 (or 54, if you were entitled to that much) weeks work for "year's vacation.

When the shop was closed because of loss of power, we got sent home. We weren't paid the minimum 4 hours. No, we were paid the time we had been there.

We could complain, but that would get us the back pay, and a pink slip.

They did an illegal "Vacation bank" one year (before my time). For ten weeks people could forgo pay for an eight hour OT shift on Friday. The shop would be closed for two weeks over Christmas/New Years, and they would get straight pay. One guy said no. He worked (or not), and got paid OT. After the New Year someone reported it, and they all got the backpay for OT, and there were fines and penalties.

Guess who was let go? The guy who actually had nothing to gain. He was seen as a troublemaker (he'd commented that he wasn't going to take a pay cut, in the form of a weeks loss in pay). They assumed the person who complained wouldn't have done it if that guy hadn't made that point.

When you say unions don't help with things like wages.... supermarkets. Unionized cashiers get more pay than non-unionize cashiers. In a union shop, running the register pays more than bagging. If a bagger spends 15 minutes covering a register, they get the higher pay for those 15 minutes.

Wal-mart doesn't do that.

You also discuss the idea of stockholders being a driving force (out of their enlightenment that happy workers are more productive)... in practice this doesn't seem to be the case. CostCo spends less on preventing employee theft, and oddly has less than Wal-Mart. They are also subject to having a stockholder file suit, pretty much annually, because they provide too much in wages and benefits; thus decreasing stockholder value. Every time this comes up, the stockholder loses.

But they keep making the claim, and keep losing, and keep wasting corporate (i.e. stockholder) time, money and assets, to have this explained to them. I have little faith in the stockholders as an enlightened class.

Why has the UCFW spent more money trying to unionize Wal-Mart? Maybe because it costs so much more. Wal-Mart makes a really significant effort (and not on the cheap) fighting the very idea of unionizing. When they have lost, they closed the the stores. Why should the UCFW care?

Becuase Wal-Mart treats it employees badly. Yes, the union will collect dues. But the UCFW doesn't need to spend as much organising farm-workers, because when they do, they are more successful. In a PR sense, keeping the pressure on Wal-Mart probably makes other drives less costly. If they come in, they can point to the Wal-Mart effort to show the workers they want to represent how determined they are. They can show the same evidence to the employers.

#95 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 08:02 PM:

Re Paul Simon: But does his momma love him, love him like a rock?

#96 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 08:47 PM:

re the shop: I forgot to mention, because of OT, I never worked more hours in a year than I would had I been a straight 40 hour per week employee.

But I never got a full vacation allowance either, because the army would claim about 14 working days a year. My boss never complained about that (she was proud of it, in a strangely vicarious way), but those days didn't earn vacation, and the OT didn't make up the loss.

So the "manager" worked four days a week, at 4-6 hours a day (he was doing law school at night) and got 60K a year, plus medical, and a leased car, didn't know squat about running a machine (he once told me he didn't want a worst case estimate to complete a job, he wanted best; so he could price it on that), and a bonus when things got caught up.

I got 14 bucks an hour, and a hearty handshake when I shaved ten minutes of a run of parts; which could be applied to an entire category. Over the course of a years worth of orders (they were recurrent, shim tabs for comsat components) that made the company about 200,000 bucks.

I'd have been glad to pay union dues.

#97 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2009, 09:10 PM:

Terry Karney @ 96... I got 14 bucks an hour, and a hearty handshake when I shaved ten minutes of a run of parts

Like I forcefully told my manager during my yearly review in February, I countered her accusations of a lack of inventiveness by pointing out that many of my changes are not very sexy and not very visible, but they have improved things greatly. Mind you, I spent the last months of 2008 singlehandedly upgrading our very visible program scheduler, and I went way beyond the basic requirements, but she dismissed it as being the one and only project where I did so.

If there were a union, she wouldn't be able to get away with this crap.

#98 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 02:22 AM:

As several comments on this thread have alluded, one reason that unions have suffered in the last three decades is a growing sense in the US that the work of managers and owners is worth more to the company and the economy than the work of the "individual contributors" (irony quotes). And yet how can a manager produce anything without workers to manage?

That sense seems to be changing since it became obvious to most people that the managerial and owner classes don't care whether what they do is good for either the country or the company as long as it is good enough for them (and nothing is too good for them, to be sure). But it's still the way most managers and owners feel.

Yes, there are managers and owners who care about the people who work for them. I know of two companies for sure in the US where this is true. I know of hundreds, probably thousands if I really sat down and thought about it, where it's decidedly not true. And what has happened to the quality of the workplace*, and the wage-earning power of the average worker** in the last 20 years indicates that this is generally the case in American business.

No, there is no corporate altruism, Virginia. And there is no evidence for workers getting a better deal since the unions started getting busted. The good news is that the "Current Economic Unpleasantness" may convert a lot of Americans to the notion that unions have an important place in the economic scheme of things.

* Average work-week up (and see below for what you get for it), average job satisfaction down, average quality of workspace (size, noise, etc.) down.
** Wages in constant dollars are down, it now takes two incomes to pay an average family's bills, retirement benefits drastically down and many employees delaying retirement, health insurance benefits down (while costs rise more than twice as fast as inflation).

#99 ::: Rob Rusick spots spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 01:06 AM:

#99 looks like it to me. Nothing to do with the topic, and doesn't connect (AFAIK without reviewing the entire thread) with anything that has been said.

#100 ::: John A Arkansawyer doubts this SPAMMER is in a union shop ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 08:03 AM:

Thematically inconsistent--one more clue!

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