Sunday, February 28, 2010

Labor Bosses: Still a Friend to the American Worker?

The history of organized labor in this country has certainly been an interesting tale, and the personalities who have led the numerous trade and professional unions over the years have certainly become more and more "entertaining" as time has passed. During these many decades, it seems that the motives of the union bosses have changed as well.

I should interject here that I am not a member of a union, but union representation has been a fairly significant part of my family's history. My father, a teacher for nearly 20 years, was a member of the VEA and NEA, as were/are several of my relatives and friends who are currently teachers. My late paternal grandfather, a 42-year employee at a Virginia iron foundry, was (I believe) a member of the USW (I'm actually in the midst of a project attempting to learn more about that part of his life). I had a great uncle who was a career railroad employee, and I can only assume that he was part of a union as well. In short, unions have helped my family over the years.

Even though I have traditionally been fairly conservative in my political views, I can certainly see the value that labor unions provide for American workers. Just in the past 24 hours, I have seen several media reports about unions gathering to protect the 1,000-plus workers in danger of losing their jobs at a Whirlpool plant, several thousand employees at Continental who voted to become part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the collaborative efforts of the AFGE and TSA employees to provide contract and benefit protections for those employees through membership in the federal employees' union. Even though nothing has been certain during this time of economic upheaval the downturn has affected union and non-union workers alike, I would think that being a part of a union would provide some sort of safety net - even if it is just networking through locals to try and find a new position, if not enjoying the protection of a solid contract.

The dynamics of unions have certainly changed over the past several years. While union membership within the federal government has gone up, private industry union representation has dropped. Whether it is a combination of right-to-work laws or employers who make an effort to provide strong salary and benefits packages to their employees so that a unionization effort is unnecessary, the shift in hard numbers for membership has changed.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, so seemingly has the approach and style of union bosses.

To me - as a union outsider - it seems the glory days of unionization were during the era when the A. Philip Randolphs and John L. Lewises of the world were hard at work, forming trade unions, working for protections for train porters and steelworkers and coal miners, and setting up a network (the old AFL and CIO, pre-1955 merger) of locals around the country to ensure that American workers could achieve the dream of a comfortable, middle-class (or more) life. Over the years, though, it seems the motives of the union bosses have changed; first, there was Jimmy Hoffa and his ruthless drive to take over the Teamsters, including his close collaboration with members of organized crime. More recently, Andy Stern of the SEIU has drawn fire from a wide range of folks for the unlimited access he seems to have with the Obama Administration (read that as "unlimited influence," perhaps?), his alleged lobbying efforts even after dis-enrolling as a registered lobbyist, and now his appointment to the newly-created debt commission.

Now I don't know Andy Stern, and I have never met Andy Stern, but from the media I have read (and I will freely admit that much of it has been of the non-union variety) it seems that Stern has gradually become more concerned with his own success than that of his members. I seem to see Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO out in the field, supporting his workers, than I do Stern.

So using the SEIU leadership as an example, I have to ask: are today's labor bosses more concerned with the strength and stability of their members or with their own power and level of access. My perception of today's unions is certainly slanted; I read stories of the success of union locals and see how they continue to provide value for their members, but it is countered by watching what the big boys in Washington are doing.

I am hoping that union members and non-union employees alike will weigh in on this issue. I pose the question not out of anger, spite, or from a conservative tilt, but just to get a fuller sense of how people feel about today's union leadership. At the very least, I'm hoping that my research into my grandfather's professional life may give me a more complete picture of the importance of the USW on the stability of his family.

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