Page Two: An Injury to All

The universal perils of union-busting

Page Two
The early years here at The Austin Chronicle ended up being among the most trying times in my life. When one is starting a business without nearly enough resources, the atmosphere is always fragmented, but everything intensified even more when, by absolute necessity, I became a manager (someone had to do it, and that ended up being Nick Barbaro and me). I was spectacularly ill-equipped to accomplish tasks myself at that point, much less tell others what to do.

Armchair managing (running a business) is a breeze, because you can advance one decision as a cure-all for almost any problem. Actually managing is much more difficult, because no decision is ever made in a vacuum; there are innumerable repercussions with which you have to deal. There's the little you know and the enormous amount you don't know.

Over time, I came to realize that practically every staff member felt he or she was not only underpaid but, to my surprise, also under-appreciated (quite likely the way most people feel). After many years of struggling, the Chronicle began to make some money, and, finally, staff members were given substantial raises. A few came to talk to me, saying that they were grateful for the raises but thought if the paper was doing better, it was the right time to finally address their oversized workloads. They wanted to shift some of their job responsibilities to others, assigning them the most tedious tasks.

That reaction was completely unexpected, and it took me a while to realize that, as convinced as most of them were that they were underpaid, they were equally convinced that other staff members were being overpaid.

I was surprised that most of the employees felt that way and even more shaken up by the passion of their convictions.

This attitude may help explain the immoral and illogical legislative activities certain state governments are taking against the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The claim that this action is a necessary and unavoidable response to budgetary shortfalls, given the terrible economic downturn, is far-fetched. In general, it is agreed that this financial disaster was man-made, that outrageous greed and excess blinded many people to basic economic realities as well as their fiduciary responsibilities. What is really depressing about the gist of these legislative responses is that the groups they are aimed at are by no means the main perpetrators of the problem. Instead of the banking and financial industry, literally the almost too-classic capitalist exploiters, it is the unions and their members who are going to suffer the most through extensive legislative assaults and concurrent financial retaliations. Once again, government, working hand in glove with management, has sucker punched labor.

At the same time, the main culprits – the financiers, bankers, stock traders, and the like – have seen precious few negative repercussions. There have been few indictments and prosecutions of the guilty parties. The ones to suffer the most serious financial consequences were the investors, large and small. The financial institutions first received federal bail-out money and then went on, within a year, to achieve record profits. Those bearing the most responsibility ended up receiving record bonuses.

Unions proved to be a surprisingly easy target to offer up to Americans as the cause for their problems. Some of it was probably the feeling that union members earned too much money. Certainly, the unions may bear some limited responsibility for the financial collapse, as do so many groups and institutions. But casting them as a major malevolent presence is just vicious politics. It is very much the classic case of a child who, in the course of rough play, sent some family heirloom crashing to the floor but has the wits about him or her to blame a sibling as soon as the mom shows up. The parent, too angry to hear excuses or listen to any more stories, yells at the innocent party.

Their limited liability can be established simply by looking at Texas, a state long hostile to organized labor that has such an extraordinarily large budget deficit, it makes clear the unbelievable incompetence of the state's government.

Admittedly, there has been a campaign to tarnish and taint the unions going back to World War II. Before that, the unions didn't yet have power, so there was no need to tarnish or taint them when you could just arrest or shoot organizers and fire workers who joined one. The violent war against labor is not even very far in the past. Instead of the century and a half that separates us from slavery, it was a little more than a half-century back that unions finally flourished.

On top of that, all members of America's working class benefited from the success of the unions. The five-day, 40-hour workweek was accomplished largely through the efforts of the unions. In many cases, industries improved working conditions and raised pay as a proactive move against unionization.

Unions were a legitimate response to the horrible ways in which labor was often treated, and in their drive for economic justice, they benefited the entire working community. Still, all too often, when the story of unions is portrayed in the movies (which it rarely is), the rotten, inhumane working conditions that resulted in labor organizing are shown at the film's beginning. But almost always, those scenes serve as a brief prelude to successful unionization. Then, just as inevitably as the bickering couple at the beginning of a screwball comedy is going to end up together, the newborn union is taken over by the mob, resulting in the abuse of workers and pervasive corruption.

This is neither to offer a blanket defense against all accusations aimed at unions nor to deny the admittedly serious corruption experienced by many of them. Still, if every charge ever made against any union was not only true but understated, it would not come close to matching the abuses of owners and managers. This current crisis, not caused by unions, is an ideal example of unions being unfairly blamed and excessively attacked.

Those who worry about government growing too big but cheer legislative initiatives to bust unions are missing the point. The unions allowed the mass of workers some equity in their negotiations with management.

As we watch this ridiculous, anti-working-class, anti-middle-class travesty work itself out, it is important to remember that government has almost always been an active enemy of labor's attempts to organize. When, in the earliest days of unionization, workers tried to get power by striking, mayors sent the police; governors sent the National Guard to beat down labor and sometimes armed them with machine guns to shoot at and sometimes even kill workers.

I realize that some of the above sounds like a Marxist screed. It isn't. I'm not writing to demand more powers for unions or restricted powers for management. I'm responding to unembarrassed government attacks on the rights, livelihoods, and lives of its citizens. The extent to which the above sounds like a typical radical left-wing rant should actually indicate not my true red colors but just the extent of how irresponsible and overbearing these actions are.

I am a capitalist. I am an owner and a manager. I am an employer. I am intimate with the problems and concerns of management as well as their often-differing goals with labor. Demonizing and dehumanizing all managers and owners is not the purpose here. But it is hard to watch Republicans, long the party of the upper classes, not just demonize but try to destroy labor.

I really believe in a system of checks and balances – not just those mandated by the Constitution but also those that have evolved over the years in response to economic and political injustices. There is no more complex state than a democratic constitutional republic with a population of more than 300 million citizens. These endless and frequently annoying checks and balances keep it not only stable but moving forward. Anyone who believes that if labor is rendered powerless, management, public and private, is going to behave well and perform for the benefit of all the people has no understanding of history.

The abuse and power of the management and owning classes before unions came into power not only affected labor but also, being basically unchallenged by any equal societal force, allowed them to manipulate government and ignore the judiciary. How can anyone think returning to that dynamic is "conservative," "productive," or "good for the country"?

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unions, union busting, collective bargaining, workers' rights, Scott Walker

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