Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A more perfect union?

As a semi-Republican and semi-libertarian, I'm supposed to hate unions. As a teacher, I'm supposed to love them. Now that the WGA has "won" its dispute with the studios and will be bringing back network television, I am as torn as ever. Should all workers be unionized? Or do unions just protect the weak?

I think everyone who went to a Jewish day school in this part of the world must have learned about Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, when 145 seamstresses died because they couldn't escape the flames because the escape doors were (allegedly) locked. Who can hear stories like this and not believe in the labor movement? After all, if all employers have power and all employees do not, how can any employees get a decent deal? All they can do is band together to negotiate for better deals.

It works well in theory. When your job is industrial in some way, when higher-educated bosses can manipulate less-educated employees, when the work involved is somewhat uniform, there is little downside for a union. You build your cars or lay your bricks or sew your shirts correctly and the union will protect you.

Auto workers and construction workers, especially those who could potentially be risking their lives at work, need unions. Only the most radical of Republicans would want to return to the sweatshops of 1911 .

But fundamentally, unions run contrary to the spirit of capitalism. Any person with human ambition will take advantages of opportunities to succeed, given things like time and ability. In normal English, I'll work harder knowing I could hypothetically get fired or get promoted. Most people don't want to get fired and do want to get promoted. So people who might otherwise have these incentives that are taken away by unionization have been harmed.

My best example is my two back-to-back job offers after college - one with a union school and one without. The only difference? No salary negotiation at a union school. The pro-unionist in me notes that if I were at a union school, I'd automatically get a raise when I finish my masters. The anti-unionist in me notes that in theory, if I'm awesome enough, I could earn a raise through excellent performance, not just jumping through graduate hoops.

Every writer employed by the WGA has the protection of the WGA but the incentive to write better so that their stuff gets on the air. Bus drivers getting written up if they show up late and I'd guess that even the best union rep in the world can't save a construction worker guilty of habitual shoddy work.

I don't like unions for two reasons: the first because I think that they are occasionally too absorbed in self interest to realize whomever they are harming. As a York U student journalist, I snuck into a graduate students' union meeting (CUPE something or other) and was shocked at how they talked about "the employer" in terms that made it sound like they were talking about Wal-Mart. The more $$ they get from the university, the less there is for professors' salaries, books and electricity. It's not like public universities turn a profit! And the WGA won an important victory, but how many restaurants and hairdressers went broke when the industry shut down?

I also get upset when I hear about bad workers with seniority (teachers, public employees, or any other white-collar unionized workers) getting laid off and/or "bumping" out younger workers simply because they've been there the longest.

We value antique furniture more the older it gets - but no idiot would consider a 500-year-old chair sturdy enough to sit on.

For further reading: NYC teacher's union head will likely run for leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, not a bad thing given that she has been ok in the past with merit pay.


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