When I was growing up, my father worked for the Prudential Insurance Company as a salesman. It was a time when your insurance agent would visit to collect the monthly premium for policies and have a chat over coffee. He’d hear the neighborhood gossip, who was getting married, who just had a new son or daughter, and thus get new leads for business. He was good at it, being an amiable people-person and he was honest, unlike others in the trade at the time. People trusted him to sell them a life insurance policy commensurate with their family’s needs and ability to afford the premium. I remember him making weekly or monthly visits to customers to collect a premium of a quarter or even a nickel. Each customer was given the same courtesy and friendly shoulder to lean on.
He was also a labor organizer, a representative of the agents in the union local. I grew up hearing about actions, grievances, steward reports and changes the company was making in the workaday world of its salesmen that would affect their lives and livelihood. He was aggressive in his principles for his fellow workers, but always fair. He realized that there had to be a give-and-take between company and worker. As soon as I was old enough to use a typewriter, he enlisted me to type his union reports. Though barely old enough to understand what was really going on in these documents, I absorbed the gist of this age-old push-pull relationship.
The neighborhood where I lived in Buffalo, New York was mostly blue collar; first generation sons of German, Italian and Polish immigrants, part of the great Ellis Island wave from the turn of the last century. Buffalo was an industrial town with an unmatched location on Lake Erie. The once-great steel companies had factories and forgeries there, along with the American auto manufacturers. Work was plentiful and the unions made sure that workers were being treated fairly.
This is what unions have always been about, treating workers fairly. Unions gave workers a voice, it wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it proposition as coal miners had seen in the mid-South; company towns that economically entrapped and suffocated the very people it relied on, along with some of the most dangerous working conditions that any American has ever had to endure.
At various times throughout our country’s modern history, unions have had a bad rap. Companies have cried that workers’ demands were choking the economic life out of them, demands were exorbitant, that the very idea of a union was anti-American. To paraphrase Sean Mitchell of the LA Times writing in 2007 about the threat of a Hollywood writer’s strike as viewed through the prism of the writers’ experiences in the 1930s, “…as if unions and the whole idea of collective bargaining were anathema to the American way of life…that having all those workers working under one banner would mean the creation of ‘a workers soviet’”. The very idea is absolutely ridiculous.
I remember hearing complaints about special concessions and “perks” given to auto and steel workers, the number of paid minor holidays, paid birthdays and the like. No one ever stopped to ask the reason why workers were able to get these “extras” and saw the union members as spoiled brats. Well, sometimes companies weren’t willing to give decent pay raises, so workers took what they could by other means during negotiations.
Today, many of the things that looked like perks are gone due to the changing nature of America’s work, outsourcing and the march of time on economies in general, but the persistent view that unions are greedy and disingenuous in their dealings with companies and non-union workers remains. Many of these views were formed early in the twentieth century, when the work world was a rough and tumble place, trying to find its way in transition from an agrarian to a newly industrialized society. Long gone are practices like “featherbedding” and other perceived abuses.
Unions, more than ever, want and need to work together with companies and governments (no matter what you’ve been reading or listening to lately), because in the end, despite their differences, desperately need each other. Workers need jobs and benefits, and companies need workers, happy workers, to run them. The aggressive and hyperbolic nature of anti-union vitriol, both from government and industry, does no one any good and much harm to the lower and middle classes that form the vast majority of both our labor pool and the economic backbone of our country.
The recent standoff in Wisconsin between the state’s government and its workers, shows what can happen if this wrong-headed view of present-day unions is taken too far. Workers need unions as a buffer between them and their employers. Rare is the company who always looks out for the best interests of their employees, without the need for mediation, especially when that company happens to be publicly traded and is constantly striving to please their shareholders with the bottom line.
Unions make for happier and healthier workers, happy workers buy more of America’s products, healthy workers have less sick days and are better equipped to make the company they work for more successful. It’s a cycle that makes a lot of sense and one that shouldn’t be overlooked, even in these dire times of cost-cutting.
I think my friends in the old neighborhood would agree.