Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Unions are one-for-all and all-for-one, except when they aren't

I've always been puzzled by the contradiction that unions present.

The general concept of joining together to advocate for things like wage scales, benefits and working conditions has a basic premise in the 'strength through numbers' idea.

Clearly, if all workers are standing together and refusing to work until some objective is reached, they are in a better position than if it was just a single person fighting for a position.

But too often, there comes a point at which the 'one for all' cry is abandoned and it's 'every man for himself.'

I once interviewed the president of a local police union during a time when the city was threatening layoffs if they didn't get wage concessions. I asked the president what he thought his members would do if the choice was to keep everyone employed at a 3% reduction in wages or to keep the current wages and lose 25 officers. His response, surprisingly honest, was that "sadly" he thought the members would pick the layoffs.

When I challenged this and asked how a union - united - could throw some members under the bus instead of suffering a shared sacrifice among all, he wouldn't make a judgment, just share what he thought the outcome of such a choice would be.

This union president is not alone in his thinking - this is what many unions choose when faced with a similar choice of cuts or layoffs.

And this is what puzzles me so: how can an organization formed to support the one-for-all approach to employment so willingly sacrifice some members so others can keep a certain level of gains. Wouldn't the idea of unionism require a general sacrifice of all in order to keep all employed?

The unions selectively apply this one-for-all approach, resulting in hypocrisy.

For instance, the Wall Street Journal is reporting a new AFL-CIO ad campaign to boost union image and membership (subscription may be required for full article):

The AFL-CIO is launching an ad campaign that seeks to bolster the labor movement's image—the first such effort in more than a decade—as unions try to reverse a slide in public approval and membership.

Labor officials say the broad campaign, which is being rolled out initially in three cities at a cost of $1.5 million, isn't political and remains separate from the AFL-CIO's election mobilization, when the federation is expected to spend tens of millions of dollars to support President Barack Obama.


The ads, which avoid contentious images of strikes, attempt to characterize unions as representative of all workers. "Most people…see us as a valuable check on corporations. But as to whether they see us as fresh and innovative and changing with the times, those ideas aren't really on people's minds," said Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who is heading the ad campaign.

She added the campaign is an effort "to reach out to all Americans whether they're in a union or not."

One 30-second television ad that is scheduled to air for the first time Tuesday in Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas, and in coming days in Portland, Ore. ...

So when it comes to spending $1.5 million to do a little self-promotion (in only three cities), the argument will be that it's for the good of the entity - the union itself - thus benefiting all members.

We've all heard the rhetoric: that an attack on one union is an attack on all; that any effort to reduce union wages or pensions is an assault on the entire middle class; that unions maintain the standard of living in a community and if their standard is reduced, it negatively impacts everyone. Basically, they're promoting the all-for-one concept.

But these same individuals will agree in negotiations and approve contracts with two-tiered wage scales where newer members don't get the same wage scales and benefits as the older workers.

The same union leaders who complain about cuts to wages and proclaim that having employees pick up a portion of health care costs is unreasonable, don't offer to reduce the dues their members pay in order to offset the cuts being proposed.

In fact, when have you ever heard of a union leader saying he'll take the same cut in pay he's negotiated for his members? Has that ever happened?

This contradiction - of being one-for-all and all-for-one, except when they're not - is part of what contributes to the image problem and declining membership unions are experiencing. Well, that and their unsustainable public union contracts, their behavior in Wisconsin and other areas, and their growing irrelevance (based upon the successful implementation of laws to address much of their early grievances and issues)....

I once read a rant from a local union leader who, in criticizing the Tea Party efforts, said he wouldn't want to be member of group that would have him as a member. Apparently, the hypocrisy of being a union leader and a member of group that not only had him as a member, but elected him to a leadership position, was beyond him.

It's the hypocrisy the unions need to be worried about. While many will overlook the other negatives, hypocrisy is hard to embrace - and, when given an option, too many people will refuse to pay for it.

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