Winston Churchill once famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.”
It’s beginning to look like the same thing could be said for unionized labor
For some years now, the term “union” has been a dirty word. It has become synonymous with graft, corruption and laziness. For a whole host of reasons, unions and union workers have been branded as being unrealistically selfish-and not without cause. Like any economic entity they are trying to get the most for what they’ve got. Buy (or manufacture) low, sell high. Work less, earn more.
Recent events, however, have shown that the unions and union workers are not stupid-or at least no less intelligent than their counterparts in management and the professions. The recently approved contract between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors Corp., for example, shows that the UAW is not oblivious to the fact that the auto industry is not what it was back in the day. What were once “sacred cows” for the union are falling left and right.
Same goes for UAW workers over at Chrysler: At one point it looked like the union membership was going to reject the deal, due to what it saw as a lack of job security. But ultimately, workers took a look around and realized this is no time to dig their heals in.
As Harley Shaiken, a labor expert with the University of California, Berkeley, told the Detroit Free Press: “The early plants had the opportunity to express anger…. The later plants were looking over the edge and realized that there were few alternatives and that, in fact, this was a good agreement in very dismal circumstances.”
In short, every voting member of the UAW analyzed the prospective contract with regard to current market conditions and his or her own bargaining position, and then decided whether or not it made sense economically. The same thing is going on among rank and file workers at Ford Motor Co. at this very moment. Sound familiar?
I’m not saying unions are perfect. I’m not even saying ya gotta like them. But to dismiss unions as entities offering no value makes no sense either. It’s a simple fact that they have played a central role in making the shop floor a much safer place than it was in years past. If you don’t believe me, there’s a book written by a guy named Upton Sinclair you should take a look at. Then again, take a look at what’s going on right now in places like China, Bangladesh and parts of Central America. Unions also have a legitimate role to play in keeping companies honest with their workers.
If unions have a down side, it’s that, like many large organizations, they can be both highly political and slow to change. But with regard to the UAW, at least, it appears those slow-to-change days are over. As is the case with any business relationship, there will always be a certain amount of friction. But the UAW seems to have figured out that if workers and managers don’t work together then they will have no choice but to work separately-flipping burgers for a heck of lot less money than when they worked for the auto industry. (Hopefully, some of the other more intransigent unions out there will also get the message!)
Another politician by the name of John Adams once, less famously, said: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Fortunately, for all of us, it appears that will not be the case with unions.