Union Members Need To Grow Up Confronting Opposition
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted June 21, 2012
As political strategy, and probably error, the Democrats leading up to June 5 underplayed the impact of what was happening to union workers. That strategy failed -- hard -- far from big cities. It was the rural communities that handed Scott Walker his victory - and out there, apparently, the word "union" had a bad taste and no contrary fire to dispute the view.
While workers – including many non-union workers -- remain proud of how quickly they gathered and protested in Madison and collected recall signatures, there were citizens who saw that not as America in action but an America to be afraid of.
In response, some acted like the meanest boss they ever had.
Now national pundits dismiss unions as irrelevant and Wisconsin media is full of reports how unions will have to fight for their lives against invasion of the "right to work for less" body-snatcher legislation for the private sector.
Walker has long claimed that such laws would never come to his table - yet here they are, pushed by his legislative allies and business cohorts filling conferences with remarks of how nice it would be not to have "forced" work rules -- this in a state where only 8% of the private workers are union. Some citizens seem to believe such bad arithmetic.
That is not just a consequence of constant harangues from talk radio and Ayn Rand acolytes. Some opposition to unions is a matter of heritage and high-minded belief in the goodness of the rich, which we all one day would like to be and secretly know we won’t.
But it's quite a stretch to rely on the big boss’ patriarchal benevolence (or matriarchal benevolence for that matter) by giving up your power to organize fellow workers and hire experts to look out for your interests and beliefs, just because master he or mistress she seems to be a decent sort. Yet that describes the agenda at work in “right to work for less” legislation.
But let's not quibble. The real power of this attitude that unions are blasé or passé is actually an indictment of unions themselves.
Loaded with evidence to the contrary, dripping with proof that unions are good for the community, rural or urban, it is the unions that have become complacent. Or defensively hostile and arrogant of late, as opposed to sharing the good news.
Unions have too long just gone along despite their own great examples to the contrary. They've thought the quality work they do on the job would speak for itself. Well it doesn't. People seem to need to be hit over the head -- and then they protest that you are hitting them too hard, as if somehow the extremists on the other side aren't even more over the top.
Union supporters have been circulating this historical roundup on the Internet
Members have also let their elected union leaders do the heavy promotional lifting, the speaking up about what unions do for the community. That's passing the buck. It overlooks why workers organized in the first place. They should be their own best missionaries.
But it's the leaders and diehard union activists who show up at charity events to lend a hand or pack rallies to speak about principles. It's not the workers taking time off from their busy lives. Yet is there a more important time to actually show up than now?
Members have too long let unknowing outsiders label them as dupes and simpletons, proclaiming it is a mis-use to employ union dues outside workplace details, as if it is okay to let corporations use enormous wealth to proselytize but workers can't let their cents speak for their own principles or the candidates that support the same goals. Political action with dues money is a natural extension of the belief in betterment that underlies unionism - and there is a voting process if you don't agree with your union's choices. In contrast, corporate minions have no power to object to how the big guys wave their political clout around.
The heart of union membership is not what you give in cash to a cause, though that seems to be where the opposition thrives, but how you reflect your personal independence by caring about others, how you speak out to neighbors when you hear a lie.
Yet the public only hears constantly that unions get too much take-home pay or only support extreme political causes and candidates.
It is the union member too often who walks away at such canards, much as citizens used to walk away when they heard anti-Semitic or anti-black remarks. Such childish evasion has no place in a mature democratic world.
During the election, little publicity or news coverage looked deeply at how the courts had ruled unconstitutional Walker's direct attack on union money. The federal judicial panel saw right through Walker as vindictive so they reversed his refusal to allow paycheck dues and rejected his demand for annual recertification. But Act 10 still eliminated the basic right to negotiate benefits. Over time that will cost taxpayers money even for those rural communities that elected Walker. Perhaps they don't know. Perhaps, more frighteningly, they don't care.
Reluctantly or not, public unions had agreed even before Walker's legislative attack to paying more for health benefits and pensions, though such rates were negotiated long ago in exchange for lesser wagers. You didn't hear much of that during the election. The strategists feared it would sound too much like union selfishness. So a good story of long-term sacrifice never got aired.
Nonunion households never connected to how union action to raise wages and working standards had over the years filtered into their lives. They have to be reminded to start looking around.
If hospitals that are not unionized give nurses better shifts and standards to care for patients, that is actually an echo of what union nurses proved and fought for. If non-union truckers on the highway are limited by law in how many hours they can drive so they don't fall asleep at the wheel, drift lanes and kill you, that was something drivers demanded through their unions. If buildings are constructed better and more safely, look at the standards unions established.
You want a negative about unions? Your family economy would be better if you could let your 12 year old go to work in a munitions factory, but he can't because unions fought against that standard child labor behavior of just a century ago. So indeed yes, they interfere with your economic freedom. Yet the casual union member doesn't celebrate his union membership. He or she is often not even aware of what unions do for their own pocketbooks. They simply rely on their leaders "to do the right thing."
"The biggest mistake we ever made," one union leader told me, "was not crowing from the rooftops each and every time we made a gain in wages, health care or pensions. Because after a while members took for granted we would win. Now they're angry that we've lost."
So forget for a moment the non-union citizen who doesn't like unions. Think of that casual union member who doesn't know what the union does for him or for the community in general.
"And if some of them don't know, how can we blame the non-union folks?" asked one union leader at a recent strategy meeting. "If they don't understand what a good contract means, how can they expect to convince their opponents?"
Union members don't have to ardently call each other "brothers and sisters" or carry placards in Madison, though it helps. They just have to stop taking unionism for granted. Because when they do, and then sneer at non-union citizens for being so harsh, it's just dumb against dumber.