What's the Matter with Unions and Our Political Process?
What’s the Matter with our Unions and our Politics? [revised]
Why is there so much bad press about Unions? What or Who do these bad-press people think Unions are? And why does this bad press just keep spinning until there is no way to separate reality from fantasy or some other agenda that really isn’t about the business of unions at all?
Here is a Union. A Union gives voice, power, to the people, and does all it can to take care to implement a fair and equitable vote to make sure decisions are made that protect union rights, which translate into personal rights in the workplace. In the beginning, Unions were seen as a threat; as interfering with corporations and management. Individual employee rights were not the greater goal, the goal was to use human labor and make a profit. Unions had to be agressive. Employees had to admit that poor working conditions and low pay, long hours and hazardous, hostile envirnoments existed and that something might be done about that if they bonded together. Did both sides use all the powers of persuasion and action they could? Yes. Were there strikes and lock-outs and punishment for even daring to think about organizing? Yes. Lives were lost, families were ruined. The struggle was huge, and in many parts of the world that same struggle is only now just beginning.
It's not easy to raise consciousness. Those who have ideals and ideologies are dreamers. They are passionate about the dream and they are willing to sacrifice to see it manifested.
Unions did win things like vacation pay, sick pay, medical benefits, the 40-hour work week. They lobbied for laws and regulations that kept employees safer and protected their health. They put in place a process to file grievances and have them heard. They gave the people equal power at the bargaining table, and they put together a structure that gave both employees and management reasonable options. And the working world benefited, and the corporations and management benefited as well.
But somewhere along the way, everyone forgot that there was still a need to protect what was so hard-won. Somewhere along the way employees become complacent and employers began to take advantage again. It became standard practice to reinterpret what had been negotiated on both sides to the advantage of management. Unions did it too, because you do what is done to you. Cutting corners for profit, firing skilled employees to hire cheaper, inexperienced workers, became the new threat to unions. Management could still punish activists in so many subtle ways.
I worked for years in a public employee union, first as a steward, then as a labor representative, and finally as a manager in that union. I did a lot of organizing, a lot of representation, and a lot of managing – including having to sit on the other side of the table when it came to dealing with the employees who worked for that union. I have seen both sides, and neither one has a clear path towards good practices. And I say that with great respect for both sides.
It’s messy business. It requires a lot of dialogue – long dialogues -- long nights -- long meetings that never ever seem to come to conclusions. Too many people who want to talk about their own little problems – not enough people who can step back and see the big picture, the issues that might move the institutions forward. Never enough thoughtful people who can listen and then articulate what they are hearing. Too many thoughtful people who burn out, who exhaust themselves trying to make sense of too many splinter issues – too many people who try to incorporate everybody’s concerns and thereby never get to address anybody’s concerns. Not enough triage, not enough experts brought to bear on real issues.
Finding the will of the people is not an easy business. Most people don’t know what they want, including those who are trying to find out what other people want – maybe especially those people. It’s grueling, grinding work. It is persuading people just to come out and talk about what they want. It is persuading people to come out and vote for what they think they want.
Where did we lose this will to be involved in the process? How did we lose it? A good share of it is bad press. But bad press can’t have an effect unless people are already unhappy with the status quo. And that, I think starts when people try to be heard, and there is no response. People have been encouraged to speak up, speak out, come out, get involved – but when they get to where they are supposed to be to do that – somebody is making a speech. Either it is someone in the corporate world extolling the terrible effects of unions on the economy, or it is the Unions themselves who are trotting out old slogans and tired rhetoric. Both sides try to intimidate. And nobody is listening to the people. So the people give up and go home.They do what every kid does when a parent just wants to skip over dialogue and get to the bottom line – “just do what I say, what I think is right for you, and everything will turn out fine!”
It is the authoritarian world we live in that is smothering all of us. Democrats do it, Republicans do it, and they do it out of fear. Unions do it. Because you do what has been done to you. And fear is the consequence. So people stop coming out to hear speeches, and they stop turning up to vote. They don’t like what they are “buying,” be it with union dues or political affiliation, and they turn off.
We are supposed to be smarter than this. We are supposed to be kinder than this. We are supposed to care about each other, and listen to concerns. Instead we get sound bites. Unions and management have their own demi-gods and self-servers who want to tell everybody everything. But what we really need is some place where we can listen without anybody shouting. We live here, and we all want to keep living here, working here, and thriving.
We all do appreciate that we have a democracy, that we have personal rights, that we have won employment practices that protect us. Even management – I’ve talked to them, and I have been one of them. They do appreciate those rights because it protects them as well. Why do we keep trying to tear that apart?
Why can’t we shut up for a minute, take a breath, stop being so scared, and just listen. To the facts. To the reality. To each other.
Stop throwing around the easy catch-phrase and the zingers. Get together over a cup of coffee, or a beer, and listen to each other. Let’s just listen, very carefully, and with respect. We do need to learn that valuable skill. It is too easy to just want to make your point. If you are trying to negotiate or resolve an issue, listening is the biggest part of that process. Because in the end, if you cannot listen, you cannot negotiate, you cannot resolve, and you cannot move anything forward.