Framing the Dialogue

Liberal Alters – Unions

A few months ago I posted about the first liberal alter, abortion.  Now on Labor Day it seems appropriate to post my second installment about unions.  I think that I have a pretty unique perspective on unions having grown up in a heavily unionized Pittsburgh area and raised by a very pro-union father yet I was never a member of a union.  I certainly remember my father having to take turns on the picket line when his union went on strike and I remember many times when he could not cross other picket lines in support of other unions. 

As I got older his steadfast support of unions and consequently Democrat politics often created “lively” conversations and none perhaps more animated than when Bill Clinton was being dogged by Republicans.  When my father the staunch Catholic defended Clinton the adulterer by saying the acts in which Clinton participated did not constitute sex.  I still shake my head at that statement.  It really has nothing to do with unions except that he felt as strongly about his union as he did about his Democrat politics.

I am not anti-union.  I really could not care less whether you belong to a union and know that they played a pivotal rule in the industrialization of America.  I remember when my daughter was younger and her Brownie troop went on a field trip to visit the Frick mansion.  The Fricks, Carnegies, etc. have many monuments to their philanthropy around Pittsburgh.  Upon her return, my daughter regaled us with tales about the Fricks and how great they were and all that they did for our country.  Because she was old enough and I wanted her to know all about Mr. Frick I sat her down to teach her the stuff that they didn’t highlight during her tour.  Unfortunately schools don’t teach much history in history any more or she would learned of Mr. Frick’s role in bringing in strikebusters causing riots leaving 16 dead at one of his plants.  Industrialists of that age seemed to always have a very dark history before becoming philanthropists.

I wonder now about what role unions really play in our society.  We are all familiar with their dominance over United States automakers and have heard horror stories about job banks where workers make over $30 per hour to sit just in case they are needed or not being allowed to plug in a tool unless you are a member of an electrical union.  The union pendulum seems to have swung so far to the left that it is hard not to think of them as an anachronism that should be retired. 

I believe that as people discuss unions they are confusing union members with union leaders.  Union members, for the most part, are just like you and me.  The union leaders, however seem to be cut from a different cloth and drag their members into venues that ought not to be part of a union’s function.  Rather than hedging bets like Wall Street the unions have gone pretty much all in for the Democrats.  Since 1990 92% of union contributions to political campaigns have gone to Democrats adding up to a whopping $614 million.  This does not include the value of “volunteer” efforts as unions work to get folks to vote for Democrats.

Union money is not any worse than business money or foreign money or environmental money in our political world…it stinks.  You would be hard pressed to find an American who would disagree that politics and the pursuit of money has damaged our country and use of union dues to influence elections.  The Pew Research Center did a survey of how people feel about unions and found;

“Just 53% of independents agreed that labor unions are necessary to protect working people, down from 67% in 2007 and 73% a decade earlier. Fewer than half of Republicans (44%) agreed with that statement in 2009, down nine points from 2007 (and 1999). Democrats, meanwhile, showed little change over the 10-year period, with at least 80% consistently saying that unions were needed to protect working people each time the question was asked.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 12 percent of U.S. workers belong to unions.  This number is, however, skewed by the large number of public employees who belong to unions;

“In 2009, 7.9 million public sector employees belonged to a union, compared with 7.4 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public sector workers (37.4 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (7.2 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 43.3 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Private sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (22.2 percent), telecommunications (16.0 percent), and construction (14.5 percent).  In 2009, low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.1 percent) and financial activities (1.8 percent).

Should public sector workers even be unionized?  Most of them are covered by a Civil Service or other government office that should oversee hiring and firing practices.  There is contract negotiation, but many states prohibit critical workers (police, fire, EMT, teachers, etc.) from striking so why should they have to pay union dues?  Having spent some time in government employ, workers did not have to join unions, but were required to  pay a “fair share” amount that was to cover contract negotiations, but I really don’t know if there is a reasonable way to track how those dollars are spent. 

I don’t see a real difference between big business and big unions except that you don’t have to belong to a business, but in some professions you MUST belong to a union.  I’ll finish with a story about a meeting that I attended with a company owner and a union organizer hoping to unionize our workforce.  The union professional provided many useful reasons to allow our workers to unionize (I should note that this would have affected three workers).  He was fairly convincing until he mentioned that he could probably get us more invitations to bid on government jobs.  He then stated that his union shops did not do so well on open bids, but if the job was government (or prevailing wage) then they were competitive.  That’s my problem with today’s unions and their Democrat buddies.

In Pennsylvania, the extra costs associated with prevailing wage rates are estimated to add 20% to all public sector construction jobs.  Please note that in Pennsylvania a public sector construction job requires prevailing wages if it only has one dollar of public money.  Next time you hear about a government project and its cost multiply that amount by 20% and tell me how you feel about that amount of EXTRA money you are spending (taxes are taken from us) for the privilege of supporting labor.

Lest we forget, one of the first actions President Obama took was to sign an Executive Order requiring Project Labor Agreements (“PLS”) for all government funded jobs.  The PLAs require that union labor be used and takes “prevailing wages” a step further since a non-union firm cannot simply pay its employees more for that job.  President Obama recently announced a huge ($50 BILLION) program to rebuild roads, bridges, railways, etc.  Let’s do a little math here.  If government’s union-favoring policies increase costs by 20% how much of that $50,000,000,000.00 will essentially be wasted?  If you answered $10,000,000,000.00 (that’s $10 Billion for those of you who suffer from toomanyzerophobia) that would be correct. 

That is quite a return on their investment in Democrat politicians.  Like I said, I am not against labor unions…I just don’t know if we can afford it any longer.

February 16, 2011 update can be read here.

February 17, 2011 update can be read here.

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