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Posted at 7:18 PM ET, 02/18/2011

Weekend question

By Ezra Klein

Almost forgot! Have you or anyone close to you belonged to a union? How did that change your impressions of organized labor in general?

By Ezra Klein  | February 18, 2011; 7:18 PM ET
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Next: Are Wisconsin's state and local workers overpaid?


My mom, who's a conservative Republican, had to join the teacher's union a few years back to work for the county government in Northern California. Years before that, she had worked in a management position in a hospital in Southern California, and developed a negative view of unions--she saw them protecting incompetents and lazy workers, and so on. But when she started working again after us kids were old enough, I think it's safe to say her views changed in many ways. She told me she was happy with the union because they routinely delivered on higher pay and protected their people, and actually she's moved further to the left on a lot of different issues since then. She's now pro-universal health care, for example. Still a Republican and all, still conservative on social issues and she votes pretty much the same way. But if somehow Republicans were to ever try to pull some Wisconsin-style stuff here (hard to imagine, but play along), I'd be willing to bet she'd be out there protesting.

I guess there's also the time when I joined the UAW for a few months when they organized the tutors at my college, but I graduated not too long after that. They did manage to get me a raise almost immediately, though, which was helpful back then.

Posted by: TheLev | February 18, 2011 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Both of my uncles were in the UAW and, for people with very little education, it enabled them to live comfortable middle class lives and to support my grandparents when they got ill. My brother, in contrast, lives in a right to work state -- with my mom since no job he's ever been able to get (with a Master's degree and multiple CS certifications) pays enough to enable him to live independently.

But mostly what affects my opinion of organized labor is the actions of organized business. If labor is the opposition to that, then god love 'em.

Posted by: pj_camp | February 18, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, of course. I helped organize one in college, with help from the SEIU. We got health care for grad students. Why aren't you in a union?

Posted by: stonedone | February 18, 2011 7:59 PM | Report abuse

My in-laws have dedicated their careers to NEA and their respective state education unions. I've always felt positively about unions-- we wouldn't have minimum wage, 40-hour work weeks, overtime pay, paid holidays or sick leave without them. I truly think we wouldn't have the middle class without organized labor. But having family who have spent their lives working for the betterment of not only themselves but their colleagues makes my feelings about unions even stronger.

Posted by: christinemccorkle | February 18, 2011 8:12 PM | Report abuse

I was in the CEA (Colorado Education Association) for 2 years. I never had a bad experience with them. I grew up in Chicago and had many friends with unionized steel and auto workers for parents. They always seemed like good people. I always have had a positive view of unions, particularly after I studied the history of the labor movement in college. Current republicans want labor relations to revert to the 1850's with no weekends, no overtime, child labor, no health and safety regulations, etc. These are the practices that labor unions worked to end. Ludlow, Harlan county, etc. pretty much cemented my view that unions are necessary to balance the otherwise overwhelming power of corporations and put a check on their otherwise egregious practices. (and really unions are losing badly at this because of the emasculation of the NLRB, right to work laws, the fact that deep pocketed corporations can hold out far longer than workers, etc.) The decline in unionization tracks pretty well with the stagnation of wages and the lowering of benefits in the general workforce.

It was during that study of the labor movement that I also learned about their shameful conduct toward black workers up until the labor movement started to decline in the late 50s and 60s. Nobody is perfect.

"Oh, dear me, the world is ill divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
But I'm maun bide contented dark days are fine
There's no much pleasure living off a ten and nine

Oh, dear me, the mill runs fast
The poor wee shifters cannae get their rest
Shifting bobbins course and fine
They fairly make you work for your ten and nine"

Union YES!

Posted by: srw3 | February 18, 2011 8:14 PM | Report abuse

My father and both grandfathers were in unions, plus other family members. As a kid in Cleveland I remember knowing that the union were the people who helped our family. They helped my dad get a decent paycheck, insurance, vacation time, and fair working conditions. The union was our safety net, and they were as important to us as my dad's employer. We needed them both.

As an adult I've worked for two unions, and I've had many conversations with family about what does/doesn't work about unions. What works is the power of collective bargaining. It makes the difference between decent wages and benefits and terrible ones, and safe workplaces and dangerous ones. And, importantly, it's often a way to ensure being treated respectfully.

Everyone I talk to agrees on the downsides. Some unions fell into corrupt hands in the past. Some are more grassroots and democratic than others, and one's experience can vary depending on local leadership. And, from my own experience, there are ways in which some unions are out of sync with changes in workplace culture, such as flextime and changing job definitions.

But, as my father (airline cargo agent then school custodian) recently said to me, "I've been with unions and without them. With is better. I'd never want to be without one."

I've worked with flight attendants, teachers, printers, telecom workers, state employees and many others who put in many hours, sometimes taking personal risks in hostile workplaces, to organize.

And contrary to the public image of the "union boss," the people I worked for cared deeply about the members and worked long hours for them.

What's missing from the public discussion of unions is the voices of those who are losing jobs and being harassed for organizing in their workplaces. Most Americans have no idea what companies often do to unionizing workers, and some of those practices are downright dirty. So workers are often choosing between rampant safety violations and getting fired.

I was taught in my family that you take pride in your work, and you bust your tail to get a job done. And in return, you expect fair pay and respect. Instead, we now have a race to the economic bottom and contempt for people who want a modest house in a decent school district, health insurance, paid time off, and the chance to retire with some money in the bank.

Biggest union supporter in my family? My 92 year old grandmother. Her husband's machinist job, which kept him home for the war effort in WWII, now allows her to be in a safe nursing home today. Between my grandparents' careful saving and a union pension, I sleep well knowing Grandma is ok each night. We have my grandfather's hard work, his Alcoa employers and the UAW to thank for that.

Posted by: TracyDC | February 18, 2011 8:15 PM | Report abuse

My father was a union member and employee of Union Pacific Railroad. The living wage his union insured enabled my parents to own their own home and help their kids pay to go to college. Now that my father is retired the union negotiated pension he receives allows him to live in dignity with health insurance he can afford.

Posted by: KevinKSF | February 18, 2011 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I am currently in a union, and proud of it. Before my (government) workplace unionized, we were terribly badly paid, in a public agency that was generously funded. Good workers who were on the outs with management for petty personal reasons were harassed. Now, good people are free to do good work, and we are well paid. The union also has the clout to deal with unsafe working conditions that middle managers do not, and some have privately thanked us for helping negotiate better, safer working conditions.

Posted by: ciocia1 | February 18, 2011 8:31 PM | Report abuse

I became a union member about seven years ago -- coincidentally, just months before my union went on strike, and also coincidentally a union whose members are a big part of the ongoing Madison protests. I was a grad student and TA at UW then; now I'm a professor in Illinois, and a member of the faculty association, so I'm still a public employee and a union member.

I can't say the experience changed my view of organized labor much, since I was already very much a proponent of unions and very cognizant of the benefits provided by them to the workforce in general. I grew up in an old mining town in Michigan, and clashes between labor and management -- at times bloody and tragic clashes -- are a big part of our local history. If anything, the experience changed my view of sociology grad students, some of whom were pretty gung-ho about striking and getting arrested way before the process had really reached that point.

Ultimately, we didn't get what we wanted, but that didn't change my view either. You fight every fight -- losing one doesn't mean you tank the next. I'm extremely proud to see what my friends and colleagues have done this week.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | February 18, 2011 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Oh, you can't fool me, I'm stickin' with a union,
I'm stickin' with a union,
I'm stickin' with a union.

Oh you can't fool me, I'm stickin' with the union,
I'm stickin' with the union, 'til the day I die.

Posted by: SouthernWreck | February 18, 2011 8:44 PM | Report abuse

Have been in several. UAW, Teamsters, IBEW, and others. There is no way that I would suggest or recommend that anyone not be in one. Imagine what would be happening now if there were none.

IMVHO, we should be lifting everyone up to union standards and wages instead of trying to bring the union members down. The fat cats are getting theirs, why shouldn't the people that do the actual work be compensated?

Posted by: SickupandFed | February 18, 2011 9:13 PM | Report abuse

My father was born in San Fernando, California in 1924 but only a few years later his family returned to Spain just in time for the civil war. At the tender age of 11, after his father died, Dad had to quit going to school and start working to support his family. He experienced working conditions first-hand that weren't far removed from those of slave-labor as he grew up in Spain under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. It was only the knowledge that he was an American citizen that gave Dad the courage and motivation to overcome a great deal of personal, physical and economic adversity to join the U.S. Navy during World War II so that he could just have a chance to return home to the States and bring his family back with him.

Dad wasn't a man with a particularly sophisticated skill set like that of an electrician, auto worker or meat packer. Nor did he have the skills to work in management but with only a rudimentary education and a strong work ethic he became a simple grocer working in the produce sections of grocery stores in the Los Angeles area for 34 years.

Go to your local grocery store today and talk to an employee in their teens or twenties and ask them if they can imagine working in that particular job for the majority of their adult life. I've asked them and their response is usually to roll their eyes or laugh because they know that they can't raise a family or buy a house with the wages they earn in that job. When I tell them that my dad did the same job that they did for 34 years, their jaws drop and they ask, "How could he stand it?" My answer: He belonged to a union and that union looked out for him and his co-workers to make sure that they got a wage that they could live on. A wage that they could raise a family with. A wage that allowed them to become home owners. And there's no reason why people working those same jobs today shouldn't be given the same respect, benefits and living wages that men like my dad earned for his honest labor.

It's because of Dad's experience with his union, an organization that looked out for his best interests--and by extension those of his family--that I support workers rights in this country . One's level of education or limited skill set should not preclude one's ability to earn a living wage for honest work that will enable them to raise a family and own a home.

Posted by: puente | February 18, 2011 9:29 PM | Report abuse

I was in a union working my way through high school and college and it was a positive experience. In general the union helped the company to manage employees more effectively and good employees benefited. In one case, the company assigned a truly horrible manager to our store (he made life difficult for employees and customers disliked him immensely); the employees used the union to communicate to higher-level management that they had a problem on their hands; and the company replaced him with an excellent manager.

Posted by: pjro | February 18, 2011 9:31 PM | Report abuse

I worked in a union bottling plant, on the truck-loading crew, nights when I was a student. I figured out how to do the work of two men, told the boss I had a bargain for him: I only wanted the pay of one and a half. Boss couldn't do it--union contract. So I learned that the union squashes productivity, improvement, and getting ahead, a leveler that paid laziness and penalized hard work. No wonder unions have just about disappeared from private enterprise, as they suck value from human endeavor.

Posted by: mark31 | February 18, 2011 9:32 PM | Report abuse

As a friend of mine said in a similar context: I don't join gangs.

Posted by: msoja | February 18, 2011 10:13 PM | Report abuse

When I was a little younger I had the privilege of working for UPS and Fed Ex at the same time. Fed Ex will fire you if they find out that you work for UPS, but they never did. UPS is of course a union job (Teamsters) and Fed Ex is not. The difference was night and day.

At UPS I got a decent hourly wage, thousands of dollars yearly as a tuition benefit, good health insurance, and a pension. At Fed Ex I got the same hourly wage (a little bit more to be honest) and jack squat for benefits (literally nothing).

At UPS I got treated with a lot of respect, even though I was just a dockworker. If I felt sick or had something else I needed to attend to, I'd give the office a call and they wouldn't even ask me why I was missing work. They just told me to do what I needed to do. At Fed Ex calling in sick was treated like treachery. They let you know that you were an at-will employee and treated you like it.

And safety? Holy toledo. When I got hired at UPS they put me through a week of classes where they taught me proper lifting practices, how to safely and efficiently perform virtually every task I could possibly be asked to do, how to deal with hazardous materials, etc. When I showed up at Fed Ex they pointed to a trailer and said "empty it". They didn't even bother to give me the customary "don't lift with your back". UPS performed routine safe practices evaluations where a supervisor would watch you working for a little bit and give advice on how you could be safer and less likely to injure yourself. Fed Ex didn't bother. I ended up teaching proper lifting mechanics to a lot of guys I worked with there simply because I was worried about their health. Fed Ex didn't give a rat's ass if they blew out their backs, but I kind of liked the guys I worked with so I did what I could.

Twice while I was working at Fed Ex I nearly got crushed by heavy equipment due to the incompetence of the supervisors there. Both times I saved myself with a little running dive but it was close. The accidents were easily preventable but nobody cared and so they kept happening. After the second near-miss I didn't show up for work the next day and didn't bother to come back.

I don't work at UPS or Fed Ex anymore. I've got a good union job in a different line of work these days (thank the Lord for college!), but I know what difference a good union makes.

Posted by: JElias | February 18, 2011 10:17 PM | Report abuse

I am a teacher in Madison and the recent events have altered my understanding of the union. I had previously been ambivalent about the union--it provides important protection for the very public work we do, but it also doesn't do enough to support progressive education reform. While I still feel the union needs to take a more flexible stance in education reform, Gov. Walker's proposal to strip us of any meaningful bargaining rights has put the value of the union in a new perspective for me.

I can swallow a pay cut during hard times (created by Walker's tax cuts, not just the Great Recession, as Ezra pointed out yesterday). But to lose 10% of my salary (currently $42,000: with a Master's degree and 5 years experience working with at-risk kids) and then lose the union would not only reduce my earnings next year, but depress my anticipated lifetime earnings severely, remove basic civil service protections that are essential for working in the public eye, and take away any meaningful way to negotiate a new balance between salary and benefits. Walker is not proposing a way to pay good teachers for good work, he is simply cutting our take home pay and removing any chance to negotiate a rebalance to the overall benefits package. After this week, I'll take a pay cut, but I can't stomach the lose of the union. This is why we fight. I am proud of my colleagues and hopeful that our efforts have given the State Senate Dems the political space to work with 3 Sen. Republicans to come to a compromise that preserves our right to negotiate.

Posted by: gregorytmiller | February 18, 2011 10:25 PM | Report abuse

My father was on strike for a while. He had to take on two other jobs, so I got to spend a lot time with him at work on the weekends cleaning bars and the like. He started to despise the artificial division between management and labor that unions created, one firmly out of touch with the knowledge worker economy in which we now live. Even he thinks it is ridiculous that he makes more now, retired, than when he was working.

At my sister's high school, they missed three months of school her junior year because the teachers were on strike. Many of her friends began attending private school. The source of the problem in this case was an elected school board composed of senior citizens and private school supporters that were trying to cut the local property taxes. However, the teachers were already very well compensated- with the typical pension time bomb approach and an easy target. Public sector unions seem to make the least sense of all, since public sector employees are ultimately working for themselves, the voters.

As a business owner, I would rather shut down the business than deal with a monopoly provider of labor like a union. It's like not having a real team, but outsourcing all of your crucial functions to a hostile entity. I believe in employee ownership, and every employee owns enough of the company to care about its long term future and directly share in the profits. This is ultimately a better route than the animosity that inevitably results from unionization.

Posted by: staticvars | February 18, 2011 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, this is one of the most valuable discussions ever -- such powerful and moving stories, and so absent from self-congatulatory Beltway discourse. I jwish some of your fellow pundits -- Broder, Brooks, Hiatt, Sullivan, et. al. -- would listen to these beautiful, authentic American voices.

Kudos, and many thanks.

Posted by: scarlota | February 18, 2011 10:52 PM | Report abuse

I work at a large nonprofit that unionized shortly after I arrived. Hesitant at first, I eventually became very involved, because I recognized the opportunity to make a union the way I thought it ought to be: transparent, inclusive, participatory. We've had a number of tough contract negotiations, and have always come away far better than we would have done if we weren't organized. Our bottom line has always been respect--well, that and the pizza at our monthly meetings. Respect and pizza: There's an organizing strategy for the ages.

Posted by: citizenstx | February 18, 2011 11:07 PM | Report abuse

My father was a member of the UTU. I remember passing out pamphlets to keep the firemen in the cabs when I was four or five. But it wasn't until I was in college that I realized the real benefit of his union membership: although he had (charitably) an eighth-grade education, he made enough that my family had a middle-class life, and they could afford to pay my tuition.

Posted by: shiracoffee | February 18, 2011 11:14 PM | Report abuse

I've not been a member of a union but I did work in a position for a period where my wages were set by a collective bargaining agreement. Overall I did appreciate the idea that I had some recourse against my employer and protections if I was put in a difficult situation, even though in the actual circumstances we had an excellent relationship.

Posted by: timgarmstrong | February 19, 2011 12:35 AM | Report abuse

As a friend of mine said in a similar context: msoja is a worthless droning nonentity.

To answer the question: a) yes; b) not applicable, because the relevant question is "how does union-busting change your impressions of politicians and corporate management in general?" Implying that unions are some kind of anomaly, rather than the basis by which the working class was turned into the middle class, is to buy into a flawed rhetorical framework.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | February 19, 2011 1:51 AM | Report abuse

I have been, and the experience was positive. But, it was a white collar job -- thus not the most necessary union out there.

My father has been in many, being a laborer from the midwest. His terms allowed me to go to college (along with financial aid, which labor supports and elects politicians to support). He always had health care when employed (which was the almost always, except during some difficult recessions locally when unemployment was extremely high). He has accrued a pension, something many white collar employees no longer get.

Further, and in the national interest, I always tested extremely well in math. His employment terms allowed me to go to school, earn a very healthy living, and pay a lot of taxes for 30-40 years. It's a win-win-win, as far as I can see it.

Now, I'm aware that some unions have not been perfect. But, show me an institution that has been. While many complain that unions protect some unsavory folks, I'd say learn the law. They have to, by law. You are blaming them for not breaking the law. A competent management team will beat the union if the worker is terrible. Sometimes, management is incompetent. That's the truth...

Posted by: rat-raceparent | February 19, 2011 2:08 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: vadapanton | February 19, 2011 4:54 AM | Report abuse

The son of two teachers, I nonetheless believe that unions have no place in the public sector. What really riles me is that much of union largess, ultimately funded by taxpayers, is spent on political activities of a decidedly liberal bent. Public unions have essentially become permanent, liberal, taxpayer-funded lobbies.

Posted by: MGonyea | February 19, 2011 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I've belonged to a couple of unions (my brother still does), and think they tend to worry about the wrong things. Instead of maximizing every dollar out of contracts, they should work to become more of a partner with the business, to make the issue more common to both sides. Instead of fighting any dismissal or discipline, regardless of how deserving the recipient was of the action, they should consider the well-being of their members who doing the job while fighting inefficient or inappropriate actions from management.

The union can't help anyone if the company goes under. They need to find ways to share both the risks and the rewards, or too many workers find themselves accepting the risks of unemployment while the management reaps the rewards of higher profits. When a going concern goes out of business, the owners have already recouped their initial investments and then some; the current workers lose their sole source of income.

Posted by: dlk117561 | February 19, 2011 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Klein quoted this passage from a letter from the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau dated January 31 as part of his argument:

More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees).

What Klein didn’t quote is the sentence right before, which reads:

Our analysis indicates that for the three-year period, aggregate, general fund tax collections will be $202.8 million lower than those reflected in the November/December reports.

In other words, Walker’s decisions did impact the budget -- but not necessarily the budget for this current fiscal year, which is facing $137 million shortfall.



Posted by: manbearpig4 | February 19, 2011 10:53 AM | Report abuse

--*Ezra, this is one of the most valuable discussions ever*--

If touchy-feely is what you value, maybe.

I see a bunch of people glad they had a mob of like-minded people on their side to help them get things they likely wouldn't have been able to obtain on the merits.

Face it, unions operate by holding businesses hostage, threatening to cripple or ruin said businesses until their demands are met, all sanctioned under special (illegitimate, to my mind) dispensations in the law. The long association between unions and thuggishness goes right to the root of their operational principles.

The union outlook is an interesting mind set, but I wouldn't say there's any value in seeing it lauded or patronized.

Posted by: msoja | February 19, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I live in Tennessee which is a state that has very little union representation (just some state workers and teachers). We are affected by unions though. We do have non-union manufacturing like Nissan that offer good pay and benefits, but how long would that last if there was no threat of a possible union. Today, if Nissan were to cut back on benefits and pay, the possibility of unionization would go up. If unions go away (which I believe they will), what's the incentive for the company to treat their employees right.

Posted by: runningmanmt | February 19, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I have always been a steadfast supporter of unions because of my mother. She was a teacher and I remember as a child the time her union went on strike. As a child as was so excited about not having to go to school but my mother sat me down and talked to me about what the union was doing. I think her explanation was perfect, it was all about fairness. Fairness. Individually teachers couldn't get fair wages and benefits but collectively they were able to get fair compensation for their work.

Posted by: manscar | February 19, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm a graduate student at the University of Illinois and a member of the Graduate Employees Organization. Last year we went on strike when the university refused to renegotiate our contract. The strike lasted 3 days and included over 1000 people-- one of the only strikes in recent years to top 1000. The strike was terrifying, but also one of the most gratifying and unifying things I have ever experienced. We stopped the university from eliminating tuition waivers for graduate students (which would have made grad school unattainable for most), guaranteed a living wage for all grads (which is around $16k in Champaign-Urbana) and guaranteed no furloughs for grads, which in turn strengthened the bargaining position of the local SEIU when they needed to negotiate furloughs in their contract. Our successful strike made it possible for other unions on campus and on affiliated campuses to fight against the aggressive attacks from administrators who seek to undermine the rights of campus workers.

I am a proud union member and supporter of the labor movement, and I stand in solidarity with the state workers of Wisconsin! Unions protect workers' rights and the middle class and are an essential component of American life.

Posted by: earlymoderngirl | February 19, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Although I see the last person to say it got pounced on, I'll say it again: this was a wonderful discussion. And the difference in tone between those supportive of unions and those opposed is frankly, chilling.

I know which ones I'd rather sit down and have a beer with.

Posted by: Hieronymous | February 19, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Defending the bargaining rights of public service workers didn't at first blush seem to me like the ideal place for Democrats to pivot against the Tea Party. And I work in a public service job in a hospital and I am a member of AFSCME.

I know more than one steward who spends all of their union time defending the worst workers, the kind who think life owes them a living for sitting on their ass and government work is where to do it. Those workers never last long, it is a variety of self hatred and they leave or kill themselves in one manner or another. Like anybody else they are worthy of mercy and AFSCME provides some measure of it and in this political climate that gives unions and public service a bad public rep in the process.

I have a good wage and very good benefits. In exchange I work my butt off. I believe in service in the buddhist sense of the term. I don't take breaks, I just take 10 minutes for lunch. I give myself to the job.

I look at similar jobs in the private sector and realize how lucky I am. And because taxpayers pay for my wages and benefits I realize I am now a scapegoat for those private sector workers without job security or good benefits like health insurance. If they can't have it then I shouldn't either, they get worse benefits AND pay my wages through their taxes. I know I am going to pay more of my own benefits like health insurance, shared sacrifice is required in these times.

But as we go there let's look at the historical context for workers in this country. What has happened to workers, their wages and benefits over the last 50 years and what has happened to corporate profits and the income of the top 1%? What has happened to unions over the past 50 years? If private sector workers are pitted against public sector workers who wins?

Anybody who is paying attention to the full context of this story understands what the trends are and where this is headed. The situation in Wisconsin should be the occasion where the erosion of rights and wages for ALL workers ends. If this only is about public workers then ALL workers lose. Public workers must sacrifice for the sake ALL workers and make this a fight for restoring rights to organize ALL workers.

Posted by: BobFred | February 19, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
-Robbie Robertson

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows `cross the water...
King Harvest has surely come.

I work for the union,
`Cause she's so good to me;
And I'm bound to come out on top,
That's where she said I should be.
I will hear every word the boss may say,
For he's the one who hands me down my pay.
Looks like this time I'm gonna get to stay,
I'm a union man, now, all the way.

The smell of the leaves,
From the magnolia trees in the meadow...
King Harvest has surely come.

Dry summer, then comes fall,
Which I depend on most of all.
Hey, rainmaker, can you hear the call?
Please let these crops grow tall.
Long enough I've been up on Skid Row;
And it's plain to see, I've nothing to show.
I'm glad to pay those union dues,
Just don't judge me by my shoes.

Scarecrow and a yellow moon,
Pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town...
King Harvest has surely come.

Last year this time, wasn't no joke,
My whole barn went up in smoke.
Our horse Jethro, well he went mad,
And I can't ever remember things being that bad.
Then here comes a man with a paper and a pen,
Telling us our hard times are about to end.
And then, if they don't give us what we like,
He said, "Men, that's when you gotta go on strike."

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows `cross the water...
King Harvest has surely come.

Posted by: mulciber | February 19, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

My father-in-law could not join the electricians' union because he was Jewish. He worked for less. My son was a United pilot who was furloughed when he and his wife had a difficult million-dollar child. The union paid for their health care which would have destroyed them for their lifetime. A different airline and he would have been toast. My neighbors are red-state Republicans who are proud of their economic status from their work for the government. They think my husband and I were probably lazy because we worked in private business and retired after years of poor access to health care and no retirement. My neighbors hate unions and government, but they are hating themselves.
If the corporations succeed in destroying the unions, we are truly a 3rd world country working for the company store.

Posted by: LillithMc | February 19, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

For those of you railing against unions I would ask this; who benefits from high unemployment? This is the question that is never asked. The mythical free-market applies to everything except for the market for labor. Capital can aggregate it's power but labor can't? Why can't workers use the market for their own benefit just as capital does?

One final point. Employers benefit from high unemployment because an employer's market drives down labor costs. Yes, wages are sticky but as we are finding out benefits are not.

I have been a manager, I know how this works, I know how desperation for work can effect all kind of intangibles in the workplace. And I have have known way to many employers and managers who really really like what that kind of desperation does to women. THAT is the real bottom line of the labor market.

Posted by: BobFred | February 19, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

When I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I joined the Teaching Assistance Association AFT #3220. The benefits they had fought for - good working conditions, health insurance, tuition remission - helped me focus on school without having to worry about getting sick or taking out student loans. As a half-time TA (~20 hours per week) in 2004, I made only $10,000 a year. That is hardly living large. We took pay cuts to preserve our benefits, we made sacrifices and compromises just like the private sector.

Volunteering there one day right before Christmas, a grad student called me. He'd just been fired because his boss wanted him to work for her over Christmas break even though she wasn't paying him, and he said no. (Would you work without pay?) He had a wife and two children, one of them developmentally disabled, and his health insurance was the only thing keeping them from huge medical debt. He was desperate.

Because of our strong contract and the strong backing of the TAA, we got his job back so he could celebrate Christmas with his family without worrying.

One last thing - worker productivity is so much higher when we don't have to worry about losing our jobs.

Posted by: Lyoness | February 19, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm a union member and very happy to be. Managers sometimes decide they don't like someone and fire them, despite the fact they do their job, and the union fights for them. Without a union, they'd be screwed.

For years, we union members were the only ones getting raises, and those were during good times. They were tiny 2 or 3% raises, but it beat no raise at all, like my fellow employees with different jobs and no union.

I support the protesters in Wisconsin who are willing to compromise on money but not give up their collective bargaining rights. We can't allow corporations to reduce us to serfs and peasants. Make no mistake, that's what they want.

Posted by: LilyNW | February 19, 2011 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Glad I found this on Twitter.

My father was an anthracite coal miners for apx 40 years. He told stories about how he worked in the mines at 14. He wasn't angry about it, he was glad he could get a job to help his family. He was around when the Frick mines and company stores ran everything. It wasn't all easy; strikes and violence at times.

The Union in my area was like family. Many immigrants and children of immigrants. The Union was always there for help, talk and entertainment. My Father became a union organizer and was my into into politics and politicians.

Over the years, most of my family joined unions; school, health, entertainment.

I thank the union for my parents ability to live a stable blue collar life. They sent to college three children mostly to keep them from the mines and to have more choices and control over our lives. Only one joined a union, two of self employed.
However, we still believe in people organizing.

Posted by: Realitycheck6 | February 19, 2011 4:41 PM | Report abuse

The first time I saw the White House I was picketing with my mother. I was 8. We were protesting the loss of merchant ships under a U.S. flag. They were all going foreign to get away from the regulations concerning safety and work conditions and wages.
Now we are at a time when we must decide if a person can expect dignity and fair compensation for a fair days work.
Unions need to focus on their member's rights to representation. And the leaders of our unions have to take off their suits and get into the trenches with their members. And if there is any indication of corruption it must be dealt with a heavy hammer! Stop giving the enemy of organized labor the ammo they need to attack us!

Posted by: d2h2w2 | February 19, 2011 4:56 PM | Report abuse

My Dad was in a union when I was growing up, until he became a manager at the refinery where he worked. I remember him going on strike once when I was little, but that's about all I remember about the union. Since then, we've become a right-to-work state and the union is gone.

Dad made $14/hr back in 1985, now another relative at that refinery works at the same pay rank and gets $20. If pay had kept up with inflation, he would be making $29.22.

Posted by: julie18 | February 19, 2011 5:01 PM | Report abuse

And another thing that's different is that my relative gets laid off whenever work is slow, then rehired when it picks back up. The boss tells the employees to collect unemployment until they call them back.

Posted by: julie18 | February 19, 2011 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Many years ago, I was a member of a union that included mostly unskilled (okay, mininmally skilled) workers and a small number or professionals working in the same industry. The union showed great concern for the unskilled, but provided little or no representation for the professionals, so that we were left to bargain individually. Fortunately, there was a union that covered our profession, so it was easy enough to insist on salaries comparable to those of the professional union.

In a way, this is the issue in Wisconsin. While union membership has been on the decline, the unions still help set some standards for salaries and working condition. In this way they benefit everybody. Without a union setting minimum standards, all workers lose and there will be a race to the bottom with deterioration of salaries and working conditions for everyone.

Posted by: su10 | February 19, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I've been a member of a union (as a pharmacist) and worked in a bakery supervising union line workers. Most Hospitals and other health care organizations are only interested in making money; not the customer, not the patient. If you're not in a union you're at their mercy. Unions are a response to incompetent corporate management trying to take advantage of people in order to maximize profits. See:

Posted by: joelgingery | February 19, 2011 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Great discussion. I find myself in the middle. I remember the angst of my father as he went on strike at a pipe shop. The union did win concessions. Dad never made more than $10 per hour, disabled with lung disease in 1988, death in 2003. Forty two loyal years to the same company. We had health, and he was very thrifty. My brother and I went to college. The only thing I remember him adamant about. Now, my job requires that I deal on the management side with police and firefighters who, through legislation, have maintained their pension fund since 1954. It is less than 35 percent funded. It has about 150 retirees and another 160 lined up. The City has no control. Just a mandate of fixed funding by the Legislature. It is a moral quandary. See, police and fire do not have to pay social security tax and this pension was to compensate for it. But, it has been horribly managed and, frankly, beaten by the market. Professional advisors are helping, but it is a mature plan with cash disappearing. So, what to do? Budget constraints are there. If we reduce size of departments, the pension problem becomes worse. They are willing to concede, if the City will, after fighting against it for 50 years, agree to help keep this a going concern. So, do public servants have it made? Hardly, especially in this unique case. Remember, I am management and will advise the local government how to handle after all legal and moral consideration. The reality is they will be forced to take massive cuts, and the City will have to increase contributions that are taxpayer palatable. I am in Alabama, so easier said than done. The Governor called a special "ethics" session in November and prohibited any public entity from withholding dues for any organization that may be political, even indirectly. Targeted at teachers, and it will work. Union busting. This pension is a product of inattention. The older guys putting the burden on the young, and time running out. But don't let it run out before "I get mine". This all said, I believe in collective bargaining. If these public servants had not bypassed the City to get the legislature to pass a bill and a mandate, they would be in better bargaining position. Now, the strongly Republican legislature will not touch it. These guys can now retire with no promise, on this trajectory. But, the City must remain protected. Moral hazards all the way around. It would be easier working with a "union" than through a legislative act, whose 1954 remedy is to prorate benefits if the fund runs out of cash. In ten years, that will happen. Lawyers are lingering, a political solution is desirable. No ERISA here, as government plan. Bottom line, management and labor should work together to avoid such catastrophe. Union representation would be nice, from my perspective. At-least they would have clear leadership.

Posted by: Danny1966 | February 19, 2011 7:09 PM | Report abuse

I've worked for a company with unionized support staff (electricians, plumbers, custodians). The majority of us were non-union professionals (scientists, technicians, administrative and management staff).

Because of the union we had procedures which we had to go through to get any piece of equipment moved weighing more than 25lbs. It would take months to submit a request, get approval and finally get something moved from one end of a lab bench to another. If we moved it ourselves, the union would file a complaint against us.

The union went on strike while I was working there, and camped out at the one entrance to the employee parking lot with pickets, megaphones and video cameras. We all had to cross that mess up to four times a day. It was harassment, plain and simple. We took turns cleaning the facility (lots of practical jokes involved!), and were able to completely rearrange our labs in one afternoon while the union folks were marching outside.

After about eight weeks of picketing management gave in to the union demands, and they got guaranteed wage increases for five years. Our wages were frozen. I, and 13 of my fellow scientists, left for greener pastures within the year (no more unionized companies for me!). A few years after we left that facility was shuttered and all of the employees were laid off; it had been the single largest employer in a mid-sized town.

DD is a teacher and by virtue of that an involuntary union member. It's costly for her (roughly $900/yr in dues) and did nothing to protect her job last year when her district ran short of funds. As the newest hire, she was let go despite having exemplary ratings as a teacher (last hired, first fired union seniority rules). Luckily her principal was a strong advocate for her, and she was able to find a job in another district.

There was certainly a place for unions in the early 20th century when workers were being abused on a wide scale. Now too often they seem to protect the inept at the expense of others.

Posted by: Beagle1 | February 19, 2011 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I have friends and family in and out of unions. Two stories.

My brother in law drove for concrete company. He's an alcoholic and at his worst his job absolutely knew it but the union shielded him he eventually got several dui and was laid off. He's been collecting unemployment for about five years now and doesn't even try to look for work. He's 50 and blames it on age discrimination. He's sober now mainly because he can't afford it I think but two years ago my wife called her friend who was looking for drivers at her company and he never bothered to call we later found out that the route wasn't to his liking. Now the government is spending to get him his cdl. Will he follow thru with it? Who knows.

Secondly we have a good friend that's an urban planner for her town. She's a very hard worker like most union members and makes a decent living too. She's also had two kids in the last four years and one was a preemie that cost her town $500k. She also is having a second lap band surgery later this year. The point is that we are all paying for that should she get it, sure she should because she's a great worker and a better person but healthcare costs in the public sector are even more unsustainable than the private sector.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 20, 2011 12:15 AM | Report abuse

My sister, mother, and wife were or are all in unions - my sister was in SAG, my mom is in the NEA, and my wife was a shop steward with OPEIU.

NEA has had a tremendous impact on my mother's quality of life. She has a disability, and her contract protects her in the event that she can't work. It's given her regular pay raises and pays her what she's worth.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for labor and hope it can be revived in this country for the benefit of everyone.

Posted by: awaxman | February 20, 2011 12:18 AM | Report abuse

"If unions go away (which I believe they will), what's the incentive for the company to treat their employees right?"

To get better employees than their competitors, to create happiness and productivity in the workplace. The reasons are endless. Look at Zappos- here's a company with a large number of employees in jobs that many would consider lacking in intrinsic motivation, such as warehouse and call center jobs, that has an engaged, motivated workforce. It would never happen in the old fashioned union worker vs. manager mindset.

However, let's not forget that over 50% of union members in the US are public employees. Who are they being protected from?

Posted by: staticvars | February 20, 2011 1:08 AM | Report abuse

My domestic partner is a union member and thanks to her contract, I can buy health insurance through her employer's plan for one quarter the cost of what slightly less good coverage would hit me for on the individual market. Yes, I like and believe in unions!

On the other hand, I work in politics and get depressed when I see, as I often do, unions being timid, myopic, or simply out of touch with cultural/racial/technological trends. Union vulnerabilities have a lot to do with their allowing themselves to be mesmerized by the very immediate needs of their existing members (who do pay the dues) without realizing that there's a big world out there which they must influence if they are going to maintain the ability to work for the people they represent.

Posted by: janinsanfran | February 20, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I've been in two unions in my life. The first was a graduate student union organized by the UAW. I remember being annoyed by the grad students that were organizing it; frequently they were from the English and History departments. I was in physics. There is a huge disparity between the sciences and the liberal arts in TA workload vis a vis compensation with the liberal arts getting the short end of the stick. I felt conflicted since I felt well cared for, getting a stipend and my education paid for. I also felt like being a grad student wasn't a career and that grad school was supposed to be a little like boot camp, so a union wasn't necessary. But the union was organized and WA is an enforced collective bargaining state for state workers (this was at the UW) so I joined. I don't feel it changed my experience in grad school much, but I think the liberal arts students were relieved.

The second union was SPEEA, where I'm still a member. I have no complaints. I wouldn't say my opinion has changed as I never had a negative impression of unions so much as the particular conditions where once I questioned whether my interests were sufficiently aligned with the union as a whole.

Posted by: JasonFromSeattle | February 20, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

I am the sole-proprietor, and only employee, of a freelance writing/consulting business, and also a charter member of the Canadian Freelance Union (CEP Local 2040).

There are obvious benefits to union membership to me as a freelancer: access to current market rate data, group benefits, dispute resolution services if I should need them, and opportunities to network with other people in my field, as well as with brothers and sisters in other unions. What is less obvious is that there are advantages to my clients as well; ones that they often recognize and value when hiring a union contractor.

As an example, I always give my clients the option of having my "union bug" placed on any work I do for them, and they almost always ask me to use it. Despite the way in which the media typically presents a picture of some nearly universally held, union-bashing attitude by the public, more often than not my clients see the benefit of letting their customers and partners know they hire union contractors. I should point out that I don't cater to a left-wing clientele; in fact, most of my work is for apolitical, small to mid-sized businesses. Nonetheless, even clients who I know to be personally right-of-centre still like to show that they use independent union writers.

I'm not arguing that there isn't a lot of very serious anti-union rhetoric out there these days, there's certainly plenty of it in Wisconsin right now, and it is being embraced by a lot of people. However, when hiring union isn't being discussed in political or theoretical terms, but as part of an everyday contract, I have not found it to be a controversial subject. My clients are successful business people who know what the pros and cons of hiring union are, and even if the impact is less for a short-term, contract consultant than it would be for a shop full of regular staff, I know it's not overlooked in their decision making process.

In a roundabout way, my union membership has become a good marketing tool with potential clients. It sets me apart from others in a competitive field, and it gives my clients an opportunity to make a statement about their business practices. In effect, there is a "win-win" aspect to it that is too often ignored in the press by focusing on only the combative side.

Posted by: mvcorderito | February 20, 2011 4:16 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in a union home in Northern California - Dad, a newspaper writer; Mom, a kindergarten teacher. We were far from wealthy, but had what we needed. Thanks to his union, Dad received decent health care when he developed colon cancer several years into retirement. Mom receives $1,600/month as her monthly pension. Comfortable enough but less than I'll get from Social Security (fingers crossed) in 10 years. (I'm a legal secretary.)

In my past life as an struggling opera singer, I never joined AGMA, but benefited from it. Thanks to singing three productions with AGMA- affiliate companies, the union provided me with a small amount of money for medical needs. At the time, I was working part-time with no medical insurance.

Lastly, following in Mom's footsteps, my sister is a teacher, albeit middle-school math. Her recent experience only reinforces my belief in the need for unions. It has nothing to do with money or benefits, but the very issue being fought over in WI - the ability to come to the table. In recent years, teachers - for some reason - have been made the great scapegoat in union bashing. What few, if any, ever discuss are the school administrators. My sister presently works under a terrible principal - as she puts, one who dictates rather than leads. Rather than pay for subs, teachers are expected to cover one another's classes. The teachers have no problem with this except, of course, when they have classes of their own. We're not talking elementary school. We're talking math teachers being expected to cover history classes - at the same time that their own classes are in session. How is this humanly possible? The principal offers no solutions - only demands the teachers to "make it happen." (Let's not forget that these teachers are also teaching solely "to the test.") At her school, the general feeling is that, if not for their union, many of the teachers would be out on the street - not because of their performance as teachers, but solely because of their ability (or lack thereof) to meet the insurmountable demands of their principal.

Posted by: GordonsGirl | February 20, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I worked as a grocery checker in Southern California in the early 1970s while putting my then-husband through college. I was a member of Retail Clerks/AFL-CIO local 770 which provided my family with adequate health insurance and ensured a living wage. During that time it was the union that worked to help women break the barrier to management-level positions. In 1973, I served as a strike captain during a month-long strike that closed many stores -- including the one in which I worked.

In the late seventies I spent 6 months in North Carolina where the retail industry was not unionised. There, retail jobs were turned into near-robotic positions with little responsibility or trust and no security. All line positions were held by women and Blacks and all management positions by white men.

I've not been a union member since and, though I see situations when Big Labor can be as unconnected to workers as Big Business, I am a VERY strong supporter of the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. And, of course, a Democrat.

Posted by: jane37 | February 20, 2011 6:48 PM | Report abuse

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemoller (1892-1984)

Posted by: gerhard88 | February 20, 2011 7:33 PM | Report abuse

After high school, determined that I was through with schooling, I moved to Houston, TX and was hired at a large machine machine company that built oil well equipment and airplane engine parts. It was a union shop, and although I didn't have to join (Texas is a right-to-work state), I didn't know any better and signed up. It wouldn't have mattered if I didn't though, and my experience would have been the same either way.

The parts this company produced were huge and most machining processes took a few hours. This meant there was a lot of waiting around.

At one point I became a forklift operator, assigned with moving parts from one machine to another, or to a staging area to be moved to another area in the plant. During an eight hour shift I would say that I worked between two to two and one-half hours total. The rest of the time I would just sit there on the forklift waiting for the next part to be moved.

I soon got bored so I would regularly get down and attempt to sweep the floor. The shop steward would see me and berate me for trying to take the sweeper's job from him.

Always interested in how things worked, I would stray over to a machine and talk with the operator in order to learn what they did and how this all fit together in either an airplane engine or on an oil well. (They were blowout preventers and ball valves.) I was berated for this too because I was interfering with the machine operator and supposedly posed a threat that I might one day take his job from him. About half the time I spent with just one operator and we were usually discussing music.

Eventually I began sleeping on the forklift, which caused the foreman to beat the roof supports of the forklift with a metal tube to wake me.

Finally, I started bringing books to work and would spend five and six hours sitting on the forklif reading. Neither the forman nor the shop steward would now complain.

I worked the 10:00 pm. to 6:00 am. shift, and around 3:30 one morning I noticed one of the machine operators sitting by his machine doing nothing. Afraid that he had already requested another part and that it was my fault he was without one to machine, I asked if he needed me to bring him some more work. (He was machining large titanium flanges for jet engines.) He shook his head indicating no and waved me off, saying, "I've met my quota for today; if I do any more work today, there may not be any more work later on." Much like me, yet voluntarily so, he just sat there doing nothing for two and a half hours

After just eight months I decided that college was probably a better idea.

Needless to say, this company is no longer in existence even though airplane engines are still being built and oil wells still suffer blowouts needing blowout preventers.

Posted by: msteck1 | February 20, 2011 9:15 PM | Report abuse

No one here seems to mention the union bosses, the fixed union elections (if the bosses get caught cheating the remedy is a new election, gosh, now that's a real incentive not to cheat) they hand these locals from father to son like small businesses and if any of the members complain they find themselves out in the street.
As to the earlier post "first they came for the socialists..." I think if you get beyond that catchy tune and check your history book you will find thaty first Stalin showed up and collectivized the Ukranian farmers, by starving them to death, tens of millions of them... then sometime after that somebody "came for the socialists"..
The unions are corrupt, they steal the health and welfare money, the bosses take multiple paychecks and pensions, they have anyone who opposes them fired.... that's who you're getting into bed with when you join a union these days.
Imagine the arrogance of a guy who thinks that it is his job to shut down the government of the State of Wisconsin and secure in the knowledge that with a phone call he can send the Democrat state senators scurrying to Illinois. Imagine being the governor of the state of Wisconsin and having this thug call you up and tell you, "we'll give on the pension and bennies but I'll be damned if you are going to stop collecting my union dues!.... and by the way I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE AND WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE!".
All these misty eyed "I love my union..." posts ignore the fact that most of these folks wouldn't pay dues to these thugs if they weren't forced to.... in the 1920's the unions were bottom up organizations nowadays they are top down and if you buck the bosses they crush you.
I realize that anybody who disagrees with the WaPo elite is stupid or somesort of Nazi and that the simple act of disagreeing with the politically correct talking points means that everything you say is like an annoying buzz to about a third of the population but hey, silly me, I disagree.
There's a safe little harmony and any tone deaf independent thinkers are immediately pronounced "unscientific" ... I think today's left engages in a sort of group think which massages the current notion and crushes any dissent. (the current notion always just happens to be "pay the academics more money") It's a comfortable space, anyone who doesn't get on board is crushed. The important thing in academia isn't being thoughtful, it's being accepted, being included. Outside the box, independent thought is too risky for modern scholars. We have cushioned our elite so carefully that it has become too risky for them to say anything, too risky to think about anything outside the mainstream.
It would be sweet if a guy like Ezra could break the mold here, ask a few tough questions but I guess it's not fair to ask him to take any risks with his sinecure.
Ezra, tell me again how cheated the state workers are, lie to me, I promise to believe...

Posted by: Cheesy1959 | February 21, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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