There was a time when trade unions were the working man’s salvation. Before unions came on the scene, workers were exploited, they were forced to work in dangerous conditions, and they had no recourse. Speak out against an injustice and you were out the door. There is no question that unions helped shape American labor for the better.

But there is a flip side to that coin. In many instances, unions have gone too far. Way too far.

Last week Nick Balzano, president of the Service Employees International Union in Allentown, Pennsylvania, made national news when he threatened the city because they had allowed a 17 year old Boy Scout to clear a walking/biking path in a local park to earn his Eagle ranking. The boy spent 200 hours on the project, and earned the wrath of Balzano and his union, who claimed that only union members were allowed to “pick up a hoe or shovel, plant a flower or clear a walking path. There are to be no volunteers.”

Give me a break! What’s next, hassling Boy Scouts for walking little old ladies across the street? In the melee that followed, Balzano was chastised in news reports, blogs, and from political podiums. He resigned his position and stepped down, and rightfully so, I think.

It is this selfish, thuggish attitude that turned me off unions long ago. When I was a young man just getting my start in the newspaper business, the union representing the printing trade in Washington state demanded that I join the union. I told their rep I was a one man shop. What was I going to do, go on strike against myself?  I sent him packing, and two days later I had pickets outside my door. I was a kid trying to build a business to support his family, but to them, I was a scab.     

A few weeks ago the Elkhart Truth newspaper reported on a three year long strike at Vincent Bach, a band instrument company in Elkhart, Indiana. Jobs at the company had been handed down from father to son, and by all accounts, it was a good place to work, a “family atmosphere.” But when other companies moved to Mexico in search of cheaper labor, the management knew they had to do something to survive in the face of cheap Chinese imported instruments that undersold their products. They asked workers, whose average pay was $21 an hour, to agree to pay cuts averaging $6 an hour. Instead, their union called a strike.

Forty months later, the strike ended when a vote disbanded the union. But by then, workers had no jobs to go back to. The company had replaced them and moved on. In the meantime, many had lost their homes and cars because they could not make the payments. Some took jobs paying only a few dollars an hour. In a community ravaged by downturns in the RV industry, jobs of any kind are hard to come by. So what did they accomplish?

Years ago, copper miners went on strike in Arizona, and the company finally locked the gates and moved their operations to Mexico. Those miners, who once made big bucks, were left out in the cold. Again, what did they accomplish?

I know many union members who are as rabid as the hard corps, born again Christians, and I know this blog will make some of them mad. A while back, on an internet forum, somebody was complaining about problems with a Pontiac automobile, and I replied that my daughter bought a Pontiac Grand Am that was a total lemon, and that after two years of it spending more time in the shop than in her driveway, her attorney finally convinced the company to buy it back, and that she now drives a Toyota and loves it.

A retired UAW worker sent me a nasty e-mail telling me to cancel his subscription to the Gypsy Journal RV newspaper I publish, because I was slamming the union workers who built the Pontiac. Huh? I made a truthful statement, the car was a lemon, GM finally bought it back, and Tiffany now has a Toyota, which has served her well. How is that “slamming” union workers?

But you know what they say about religion and politics, and apparently this guy’s religion was the UAW. There was no gray area, just the union line of thought. Could that be a part of why our automobile industry is in the toilet and foreign imports have made such great inroads?

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18 Comments on Protecting Jobs Or Playing Bully?

  1. Cindy -- Wyoming says:

    You are right Nick. As with so many other things in America now the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction! Labor unions were desperately needed to protect workers and help with livable wages. Instead of finding a middle ground beneficial to both workers and businesses momentum brought about demands and decisions that throttled the very industries that put food in their mouths. You bet unions are a large part of the reason the automobile industry in this country is failing along with poorly built cars and poor quality control. How stupid can a person be to strike against a company that will be forced out of business by that strike? Duh, who feeds and clothes the family then. It isn’t just the auto unions either. A majority of unions have used little common sense and are now dumbfounded at the turn of events they find their members facing. DUH, DUH, DUH………..

  2. Amen, Brother! The unions also shut down the mines in Butte, Montana, and the town has never been the same. Is there any wonder why two thirds of what we can buy has a “Made in China” (or elsewhere in Asia) label?

    I also agree that the initial work that unions did was necessary, commendable, and very valuable. But all they want is more more more, and all that does is raise costs and prices. Notice that the union bosses don’t lose their income when the members are on strike! So who suffers? The companies, the workers, the public, and everybody except …. the ones who don’t lose their income while workers are striking. Hmmmm.

  3. Rex says:

    I agree with what has been said. While there may still be a need for unions today, the union needs to backup, regroup and realize that if they want to keep union jobs and products made in America the union is going to have to be an asset to the company and not a liability. By this, I do not mean taking pay cuts and losing benefits. They are going to have to police themselves and get rid of the loafers. Back in 1972 I worked in the office for a large truck manufacturer and if I wanted the union steward, I could find him reading the paper or sleeping in the bathroom. It was his office. He did not do any productive work at all. Companies can no longer tolerate this “overhead”. The unions must start working with management or fail in their mission to help their members. Is management correct all the time, fair all the time, hell no. But, they are the ones making the decisions and they need a partner not a bully to keep them under control.

  4. Illinois Snowbird says:

    I remember what an old Labor Economics Professor said: “Companies that have unions haver earned them.” I like your Pontiac/Toyota example …. they both are made by the same hillbillies. The major difference is that Toyota listens and involves their employees. When you have some time, read about the Toyota Production System, it’s famous world wide. One aspect is that a production worker can shutdown the assembly line when sometime is not right … and they do!

    I know nothing about the band instrument company in Elkhart, but I wonder if they involved their employees to reduce cost or simply went after wage reduction. However, there are cases where the international union is willing to throw members overboard to protect privileges in other industries and companies. The UAW is an example, they would not accept work rules changes to go along with modern equipment in some industries because of fear of setting a precedent that would carry into the auto industry.

  5. Redbear says:

    There is a big problem in any organization when the important battles have been won. People lose interest. There needs to be a new ‘war’ to keep up activity. Ministers call for a new building or addition. Politicians cry for rallies opposing/supporting the latest bill, because the success/failure of the current proposal will be the end of the world. Unions who have safe working conditions and decent pay need a new “battle,” real or imagined, against the “bad guys” to keep up the propaganda and interest.

    I am not on either side of this question. In small businesses, where the boss knows everyone by name, unions are certainly not needed. One place I worked, just like at your paper, scab picketers showed up to block the driveways despite the fact that no one had attempted to speak to or organize the employees.

    In large organizations, where you and your bosses are just numbers, there needs to be a union to protect you from exploitation situations like faceless middle managers who expect you to work an extra 30 hour per week off the clock to make their production numbers look good. The local District Attorney doesn’t have time to get involved in this nonsense. And I don’t want to hear “If you’re not willing to work 70 hours for 40 hours pay, find another job.”

    What the unions need to see is that to make their “piece of the pie” bigger, you need a bigger pie, not to take someone else’s piece. I have seen this work. At the most successful sand & gravel business in the area, the owners take care of the drivers. In return, every driver is a salesman. If a customer orders two loads, and then realizes two extra loads are needed by 5:00, the driver gets on the radio, trucks are diverted from maintenance activity, and the loads are delivered, the company makes money, and the drivers keep their good pay and benefits.

    As far as American carmakers go, the UAW workers didn’t DESIGN the cars (as far as I know). The trucks are great but the cars are sometimes horrible. There is more leg room for a 6-foot driver in the smallest Hyundai than in a Grand Caravan. In a brand-new full-sized Chevy van, I felt “crippled” in an hour, and had to drill new seat-mounting holes to be comfortable. I had a loaner Buick when my truck was in the shop, and there was a structural brace running through the foot well. No cash-back or financing deal could make me buy one. At least the companies that try harder make a little effort at finding out what customers want, instead of telling them what they are going to be given. Sort of like the RV designers.

  6. Jerry says:

    Need unions??? Well i worked for a few..and the last one local 1001 caw..What a joke. They take a large percent off your pay and didn’t even know how to negotiate or keep jobs in the country!! I don’t have anything good to say about them! They have put me out of work with a very young family. We lost our house and sold at a huge lost and the bankers chewed right in and our lawyers could not stand up to the match and we are left on the streets…homeless and hungry and there isn’t a food bank that will give us a morsel of food because our last years income tax is to high!!! I say “what about TODAY” We have lost over 200 hundred thousand instantly!!! (20 years of savings) Do i want to play the game again???…Ya i certainly DO but NO UNION!!! @ the library. Becareful of the street people they are getting alittle irate.

  7. Squirrel says:

    I had the case where a company subcontracted to a workshop for the mentally retarded to count nuts and bolts and but them in little bags to go into kits the company was sending out to display their product. The union union filed a grievance. True story! Taking jobs that nobody wanted to do away from a sheltered workshop.
    Ignorant Scum!

  8. Paul Stough says:

    Unions are required by law to file grievances when either the Union believes there is a violation of the contract, or when the a member believes there is a violation of the contract, and the Union agrees. If the Union fails to file a grievance, and pursue it vigorously, the Union can be held liable by the member, or the membership. It is called “The Right of Fair Representation”. This is a Federal Law! Another point on the subject of union grievances; just because the Union files a grievance, doesnt mean they win them all.

    The underlying issue here is: “What kind of country do we want our country to be”?

    Do we want a country where as many people as possible prosper, or do we want a country like Mexico where millions live in poverty, so a few can live like kings?

    Our country used to be the one where we wanted as many people to prosper as possible, now we are moving toward the latter.

    The number one problem in this country today is the huge over supply of low-skilled, and unskilled workers, which have driven down wages and benefits for millions of Americans, and not just the low-skilled and the unskilled.

    The second biggest problem in this country today is the idea that many seem to have is that US workers should have to compete with woefully underpaid foreign workers. Why on earth would any sane person think that a US worker should have to compete with a desperate Chinese worker making pennies an hour?

    The third biggest problem is the apparent lack of understanding of economics by many Americans who say that if workers are given raises, it will be offset by increases in prices of goods and services. Baloney!

    Unions serve a valuable purpose in this country. They protect the rights of working people from vindictive, stupid, and ignorant management, and they are weakened today by the huge oversupply of low skilled and unskilled workers, to the detriment of millions of hard working Americans; a fact ignored by both political parties today.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    That is the problem with the union people they forget who writes there pay check. They run around with there union caps and t-shirts. You don’t see there employers caps or t-shirts. Thank my lucky stars I didn’t have to join a union.

  10. Dave Bossert says:

    There are always two sides to every story. The non-union “sweat shop” I worked at really took advantage of their workers. We had no holiday pay, just the day off when Christmas fell on a work day, with no pay for the day of course. No sick days either. At the discretion of the boss, you could work Saturdays & Sundays at regular time to make up for sick days. We had to be running our machine right at 8AM and not shut off until 12 noon with no break. I checked with fair labor practices office and they said 5 hours with out a break was legal. The only right I had was to get a different job which took 9 months, but I did. My new job had 12 sick days a year, every major holiday paid, and even 15 minute braks during the day. Yes, it was a union shop.I really appreciated my benefits and the union benefits. Also I became a union steward and sat in on many grivences.Our union was firm but fair and did not always stand up for employees that deserved company discipline. We felt to do so, made our whole group look bad and would hurt us all in the long run.When management was being unfair, we fought for our rights! I think that is why it was such a good place for all to work and i was able to work there until retirement. So, there is some good unions and unon workers out there!

  11. Jim says:

    Unions like all things are both good and bad, but without them there never would have been an Americam middle class. No business improves its employees wages and working conditions out of the goodness of their heart.

  12. Paul Stough says:

    Very well said Jim. So as union membership is declining because the huge oversupply of low-skilled and unskilled workers in this country, the middle class in this country will continue to decline as we become more like a third world country.

  13. don says:

    As has been said, there have been unions that helped the workers and unions that harmed the industries and, probably, some that did both. I’ve personally been in a retail clerk’s union that did absolutely nothing for the members. I’ve worked in management in a couple of companies where the unions seemed to do nothing for their members but were a pain in the ass for management; I don’t know whether this is typical or not, certainly I hope not!

    Still, today unions need to figure out a way to help workers without bankrupting the companies that employ them. Good luck to all is all I can say!

  14. Rick Ulmstedt says:

    As a longtime union member I can tell you right now that the greed and laziness of too many union workers has done this country more harm than any political party ever did. They turned what started out as a necessary advocate into a weapon to abuse management. I worked in a union machine shop 25 years, and saw guys come in drunk and stoned, but if a foreman tried to send them home, the union rep was right there making threats. So instead they were allowed to sleep it off in the break room while on the time clock! I also saw a good manager who really cared about the workers get railroaded out of a job because he stood up to a bunch of worthless slobs who were making the job miserable and dangerous for the rest of us. We went on strike five times in my years there and the little bit we gained in wages never made up for what we lost while walking the picket line. But we paid those union dues no matter what! I stayed in the union because I needed to to work there but the day I retired I told the union to kiss my ass!

  15. Sam says:

    This day and age Unions are for the ones who “don’t” want to work but steal their pay legally!!!! I’ve worked beside the “pro” unioners!

  16. Ed Hackenbruch says:

    Sadly the unions like Rick’s are the ones you always seem to hear about. I worked non union for years and have nothing to show for it. I have been union for 21 years and have a pension building up. I am a heavy equipment operator. In our union we have drug testing before employment and random testing during….you fail, you are gone. If you can’t or won’t do the job, you are gone. I have seen guys that came out on a job and said they could run a piece of equipment, and in 5-10 minutes you could tell they were bs’ing you. Gone. If we don’t get production the company doesn’t make money and we don’t have anybody to work for. We have a 30 minute break for lunch, no coffee breaks. No paid holidays, no paid sick days, no paid vacation. We are usually seasonal because of the weather, that is our time off. We have health care that used to be better but is still decent. We work hard and are paid well although for the last 2 seasons i have worked for 10% less to help the company survive. Unions gave everyone the 40 hour week, child labor laws, overtime, medical, vacation, sick leave, pensions and decent wages and raised the standard of living of this country. As pointed out not all unions are good and some need to be changed. I have worked in a right to work state also. Sounds good? everybody should have the right to work, right? Except that in a right to work state the wages are lower…..i make only 2/3 the wage in Az. as compared to Wa. doing the same job. When Idaho voted in right to work a study was done on the effects and as i recall in 2 years the average income fell by 25%. Now you are probably thinking that the business people were making more money right? Wrong. nobody had money to spend. All you have to do is look at the depression to see what low wages does to the economy and the standard of living. People back then were lucky if they had a job and if that job paid a buck a day. Nobody had money to spend on goods and something like 30-40% of the businesses went under. WW 2 came along and people were put to work for the war effort and had money to spend. Granted things were in short supply at the time but after the war the economy took off and the standard of living went way up. Sure, business owners need to make a profit otherwise they can’t stay in business. But if employees don’t make a decent wage then they can’t buy from the businesses. It is all inter-related, each one needs the other. I could say a lot more but i hope you get the idea. Happy Thanksgiving everyone and i hope things get better for all of us!

  17. Ben says:

    Jobs and wages are subject to the law of supply and demand just like everything else in the marketplace. Unions can distort this law, but they can’t change it. We’re in a global economy and the competition works for a fraction of union wages.

    WWII created a demand for workers to produce war materials. The aftermath of WWII created a demand for America’s products because we were the only economy left standing; nobody else could supply them. The cold war created a demand for high tech war materials, and the GI bill created a supply of highly educated workers to make them. Cheap oil and coal fueled it all.

    Recently, our economy was running on borrowed money. That has crashed down around us. Americans are getting back to basics; no more abusing credit. We’re paying off our debts and taking a new look at our lifestyles. When America comes back, look out China and the far east! America can compete with the best of them!

  18. latisse says:

    latisse is great

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