03 March 2011

Post 341: Dan Walker (guest blogger)

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang. ISBN: 9781608191666.

I've never known how to feel about unions. I've come to regard them as a double-edged sword, though perhaps one that is past its prime. It's inarguable that they were absolutely necessary back around the turn of the century. Working conditions were inhumanly deplorable and unions were the workers' only way to stand up against the elites who were holding them down. So once upon a time, unions were the only savior of the lower classes.

But nowadays, it seems that unions have grown huge and bloated, taking on the trappings of the corporations they once fought against, looking out only for their own bottom lines. They prevent employers from firing bad employees, they try to squeeze all the money out of corporations that they possibly can, whether it's best for the industry or not. Just look at UAW and the auto industry right now. In some industries (I think of Hollywood, mostly), you can't get a job without joining the union and paying their dues, however high and regardless of skill. How is someone supposed to pay dues when they haven't even gotten a paycheck? The rights the unions once fought for are now enshrined in national and state laws; what, then, is their purpose?

Really, it just seems like the corporate squeezing I mentioned is about the end of it. I worked at a college bookstore once, a national chain, that had one in-store union employee. There wasn't any option for the rest of us to join, I don't think. All that really seemed different about her was that she got extra breaks and the managers tended not to yell at her. That said, I doubt my father would be employed if not for the letter carriers' union he belongs to. The US Postal Service is a pretty shitty business to work for, and the union is often the only thing standing up for workers' rights. So, in certain cases, they seem to have a function still, but otherwise...

Well, that pretty much sums up my view as of two days before this writing. I now have a slightly improved viewpoint of the situation thanks to this book. I'm going to copy the passage that changed my mind here. For context, the author has just finished discussing what happens to unemployed workers in Europe.
"...if you are a worker in the US, you'd better make sure you hold on to your current job, if necessary through protectionism, because losing your job means losing almost everything. Unemployment insurance coverage is patchy and of shorter duration than in Europe. There is little public help with retraining and job search...losing your job means losing your health insurance and probably your home... As a result, worker resistance to any industrial restructuring that involves job cuts is much greater in the US than in Europe. Most US workers are unable to put up an organized resistance, but those who can -- unionized workers -- will, understandably, do everything they can to preserve the current job distribution." (pp. 226-7)
If you lose your job in Europe, you can get unemployment and even retraining if need be. In the US, you're pretty much finished, so of course workers who can resist will. It goes beyond the "I've got mine, jack" attitude that plagues many in the upper echelons of our society; it really is a struggle between working and being homeless.

So I've come to the conclusion that while some unions may indeed be too powerful, the bad parts of unionization are in fact understandable. It's the system that is to be blamed. Grasping at everything you can is really different when the alternative is having nothing. I just wish I had someone to advocate for me, you know?

Dan Walker (pseudonym) is a writer from Northeast Ohio, who would be teaching ESL if he wasn't unemployed temporarily working at a bookstore. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Wright State University in 2004 and a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language from Kent State University in 2009. He will make some lucky librarian a wonderful husband someday. 

*This post was originally written February 12, 2011 to allow the regular blogger to play several hours of Zuma's Revenge and spend time with her fiance. Also, this seemed poignant given the events in Wisconsin.

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