Why I Changed My Mind About Unions

The organized tactics of intimidation by the public employee unions in Wisconsin last week came as no surprise to me. I'm from New York, one of the most union-friendly states in the country, and I've seen the negative effects of unions my entire life.

I dislike unions. But I didn't always feel that way. My first job as a 16-year old grocery store shelf-stocker was a union job. I grew up in a union household; my father was an employee of one of the Big Three automakers. Although he wasn't active in union politics, he worked in a "union shop" and was required to be a member. He always credited the union for the standard of living and benefits he enjoyed. When I was in grade school, the social studies curriculum taught the evils of management and the glory of organized labor, with morality tales like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. Management had locked the doors to prevent non-unionized employees from leaving; when the place caught fire, workers were forced to jump to their deaths or be burned alive. Who could argue against the progress unions had made in safety and wages? In our blue-collar universe, there was one simple explanation for everything: management bad, unions good.

The industrial economy of Western New York imploded in the 1980s with the closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, which had once employed over 20,000 people. I'd heard stories about union people who worked in the steel mill or the auto plants who would punch the clock and than find a place to sleep all day, or would get drunk at lunchtime and return to work and still not get fired -- but those stories never really registered with me when I was a student. No one ever blamed overpriced union labor for forcing the big industrial employers out of the region; it was always foreign competition or management greed or rich fat-cats. It didn't matter to me; I was going to college, anyway.

I'd never heard word of criticism about unions in my life until I was in college and worked summers for a small, independent contractor with only two full-time employees. Those guys were courteous, professional, diligent craftsmen who worked very, very hard -- and they hated unions. Before long I'd discover why.

Right around the time I graduated, it happened that my Dad needed a ride from work. I went to pick him up. I was wearing a shirt and tie that day, and when I went in to get him he gave me a tour of the place. I'd never actually seen heavy industry in action, and it's very difficult to visualize without seeing it firsthand. I looked around, fascinated, while he leaned toward me, shouting explanations over the din of the machinery and pointing has he talked.

Then, some longhaired, leather-jacketed maggot with a scruffy goatee drove past on a forklift. Neither one of us knew him, but seeing an older man explaining things to a young kid in a tie, he must've thought I was a new hire, and shouted out "This f___ing job suuuucks!" as he drove past. He couldn't get fired for that, thanks to the union. And I am certain that he was making more money back then than I've ever made in my life, and I have three college degrees.

A few years later, studying for my Master's degree, I lived in a low-rent apartment. A tenant in one of the other units was a union roofer. From November to April, he'd get $400 a week in unemployment. It seems that in our state union employees didn't have to look for non-union work. If the union didn't call, the unemployment check was a certainty. But the phone stayed off the hook all winter to make sure the union couldn't call anyway. He wasn't idle, though; he worked "under the table" all winter doing side jobs tax-free while collecting unemployment. In the summer when he did union work he'd tell stories about the roofers getting drunk and stoned at lunchtime and making $22 an hour.

That really frosted me. Why in hell was I bothering to get a postgraduate degree while a semiliterate guy who barely made it through high school got $400 a week for not working half the year? The scales fell from my eyes. Management wasn't the root of all evil. Union workers were just as lazy, greedy, and corrupt. I now saw the union as a grand rip-off. The union working man wasn't some noble, virtuous saint, fighting the good fight against the Robber Barons, as I'd always been taught. He was a drunken, stoned, uneducated, vulgar slob, ripping off a piece of the action for himself. And in my state he had the full force of the law and the state government behind him. So private sector employers fled.

The unions have chased the private sector out of the Great Lakes "Rust Belt." But the government can't go out of business, and the unions here have a stranglehold on the government. If you want to make money in New York State, don't be a fool and go to college. Get a government union job instead.

Last year, a Buffalo city cop retired with a pension of $105,000 per year after making $189,000 in his final year on the job. If he lives another 20 years he'll cost the taxpayers $2.1 million for not working. The union contract allowed employees with the most seniority to get first dibs on overtime; it also allowed them to calculate their pensions on the overtime-inflated salaries. Also last year the New York Post reported that some unionized janitors in New York City public schools earned over $140,000, including one who made $181,000. Public sector union contracts here allow union stewards to be paid their full salary while they do union business full-time -- thus, they are paid by the taxpayers to lobby against the taxpayers for more taxpayer money. It's insane.

Buffalo is a place where actual union thuggery, violence and vandalism still exists in the 21st century. In 2010, members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17, an AFL-CIO affiliate, pleaded guilty to Federal racketeering charges. According to The Buffalo News, the union members were charged with "death threats and stabbings," "throwing scalding coffee at non-union workers," "telling a construction company official they were going to his home to sexually assault his wife," and "pouring sand into the engines of 18 pieces of [nonunion] construction equipment, causing $330,000 damage." What employer in his right mind would want to do business here?

I don't deny that some unions have made contributions to worker safety and quality of life. But it's simply not true that management is always bad and unions are always good.

As Sen. Barry Goldwater observed in Conscience of a Conservative, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of association for union members. But "[e]mployers are forbidden to act collusively for sound reasons. The same reasons [should] apply to unions...Let us henceforth make war on all monopolies -- whether corporate or union. The enemy of freedom is unrestrained power" -- whether it be unrestrained management power or unrestrained union power.
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