This column comes with an upfront disclaimer.
I recently lost my job because I had no union protection.
Had I been in the bargaining unit, the boss who “involuntarily separated” me from my post could not have laid me off without first canning everyone in my job classification with less seniority.
You know, last hired, first fired.
So take what I say here in that context. But it needs to be said.
Republicans in the state legislature now slobber over the chance to play the union card against the Democratic governor and Democratic members of the General Assembly. They warn that talks between union leaders and the governor’s office have set the stage to unionize all state workers.
In Colorado, which has never been pro-labor and which, like most others states these days, shows declining union membership that will never happen. But that isn’t the big lie here. The big lie is this: If you’re any good at what you do, you won’t need the protection of a collective bargaining agreement.
In an economy driven by bean counters, this will never be true. You fool yourself if you think otherwise.
A recent report showed Americans among the most productive workers on earth. That doesn’t stop wholesale layoffs in industries where work can done cheaper in foreign sweatshops.
So when the Republicans invoke the image of greedy “union bosses” running the state and sucking up your hard-earned money in dues payments, take a second to think about the other bosses to whom you inevitably answer.
The anti-labor fear mongers focus on attempts to make it easier to form unions among state employees and other groups of workers. Their underpants are in a wad over the fact that the governor’s people have talked about letting unions meet in state offices.
You wonder who loses if that happens.
The Republicans are hoping it is Democrats.
The GOP has a good strategy, said University of Colorado economist Jeff Zax. Union bashing works in Colorado because the people of the state see themselves as “yeomen pioneers,” Zax explained. We think we don’t need anybody but ourselves and our hard work to get ahead. We think we rise and fall on individual merit.
“There’s a lot Republican support from the lower middle class workers who are exactly vulnerable to (global) competition,” Zax said. “It’s a huge paradox in American politics.
“When firms suffer, management is less likely to take the hit than workers.”
The current benefits that most workers, unionized and non-unionized, enjoy owe to the labor movement, Zax continued. But, he said, the labor movement is in some ways “a victim of its own success.”
These days, if bosses don’t want a union, they don’t hire Pinkertons to bust heads, they provide perks that keep workers from needing to organize.
Don’t write Zax off as a union lackey. He’s anything but. Zax simply states facts. He’s equally ruthless in explaining how today’s global economy works.
“There is no right to a job in the United States and there should not be,” he said. “Just because unions can protect jobs doesn’t mean they should.”
The same goes for wages, Zax said. “If you’ve got Third World skills and a Third World education, you should make Third World wages.”
“If clothing can be made cheaper in China,” he added, “why shouldn’t Americans be able to buy it?”
Without union protection there are, Zax pointed out, “lots of stories of pain and anguish. But there is a lot of personal responsibility behind it.”
The Republican leadership in the legislature couldn’t have said it better. Their anti-union message presumes several things. One, we should blame ourselves if we get laid off, because we didn’t deserve the job in the first place. Two, benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans are luxuries to which we are not automatically entitled. And three, employers can be trusted more than union leaders. In other words, we are entitled only to what our bosses are willing to give, not to what they can afford nor to what we need.
If we buy that argument, then we also buy the fact that the public employees who maintain our roads, teach in our schools and keep the water running and sewers functioning deserve as little as we can possibly pay them. This is the dog-eat-dog spirit of free enterprise. It is the sense to which the union bashers in the legislature appeal. In fact, a right-to-work initiative that protects workers against unions may actually get on the November ballot. If it does, it likely will pass. We all want to think that if we’re talented, we not only get to keep our jobs, we get to prosper.
This is the lie we tell ourselves because we so desperately need it to be true. We wallow in the illusion that we control our destinies individually better than any group of workers standing together. We forget that most of what we have came from the collective effort of another generation of workers. We forget that it we do not stand up for each other, our bosses have no reason to do anything for us.
We forget all that until Wall Street demands a bigger profit margin from our industry or the corporation we work for leverages one too many takeovers or an overseas sweatshop offers to do what we do for half the price.
Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how well we did our jobs or how loyal we were to the company. Too late, we see that at some point neither merit nor productivity matter, only money. It is then that we see the truth:
We truly stand alone.
When that happens, the scare tactics of union bashers look as cynical, manipulative and self-serving as anything ever dreamed up by the bogeymen of organized labor.