Union haters will often grudgingly admit that organized labor was a necessary antidote to economic exploitation in some distant past, but stoutly maintain that day is long gone. Now they view union workers, to borrow the stunning phrase of Indiana Governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Mitch Daniels in describing unionized public employees, as the “privileged elite” of the American economy, unnecessarily interfering in the workings of the free market.
There are at least two things wrong with this point of view. The first is that economic exploitation of the type revealed by the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of a century ago no longer exists in this country. In point of fact, there are right now Carolina poultry plant workers losing fingers and slipping into vats of grease; California farm workers ingesting pesticides in the fields; and, closer to home for most people, hotel maids throwing out their backs trying to flip mattresses made every larger and heavier for guests’ comfort.
The union busters will sometimes argue that government regulations and private lawsuits are alternative means of ensuring workplace safety and employee justice. But of course the same people who want to destroy unions also try to stifle regulators and hamstring plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The second flaw in the anti-union argument is that relatively well-paid workers in generally non-hazardous jobs don’t need to be organized. This position overlooks how the jobs became better paid and safer in the first place. Hint: it wasn’t out of the goodness of the employers’ hearts. And by extension, without the collective protection of strong unions, wage rates and safety levels will by the inextricable logic of the free market descend again to unacceptable levels.
Arguing against unions of the relatively well-treated is essentially criticizing organized labor for success. It’s like cutting the vaccination budget as unnecessary because the disease hasn’t been seen much lately.
Whether it’s teachers in Wisconsin, bus drivers in Ohio, or football players in the NFL (who are in hazardous jobs and trying to stave off a huge pay cut from their market-insulated bosses), American workers shouldn’t wait until they’re sufficiently abused to warrant the approval of union haters to get and stay organized. As always, the time for justice is now.