The beginning of the end for unions?

Updated Dec 27, 2012
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Lost in the news cycle from last week was an unfortunate bit about a pro-union protester taking a swing at a Fox News “contributor” in one of the right-to-work rallies in Michigan.

It was an ugly bit of video.  The Fox News guy suffered a chipped tooth, but fortunately the stupidity of the moment didn’t escalate. The clip went viral on conservative websites and Fox News gave it good play. The rest of the news media, dependably, avoided it the same way they avoid anything that doesn’t fit the progressive agenda.

It wasn’t the only time union members have acted poorly this year.  And it makes me wonder that if “F-U” is their new motto, how much longer unions will continue to exist, or even have a reason to continue to exist in this country.

Lest anyone accuse me of being a right wing shill let me first say that I’m a big fan of unions, I used to be in a union, and when I made union wages I made a lot more money than my friends who weren’t.

In the construction trades the unions offer good training, wages, benefits and pensions. Union ironworkers rebuilt the fallen I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in record time. On 9/11 union police and firefighters charged up those World Trade Tower stairwells as hard as any soldier ever charged a hill.

But something’s gone wrong with the culture of unions in this country.

A century ago, unions fought for rights and reforms that benefited workers throughout the country, union and non-union alike: 40 hour work weeks, an end to child labor, a minimum wage.  The unions did well for their members, naturally, but non-union workers benefitted as well. Politicians and corporations realized that the unions had power and popular appeal and offered concessions to everybody to prevent more people from joining.

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Today, I can’t think of a single effort unions have led that has helped anybody except their own members.  Look at all the policy issues that cripple today’s middle class and tell me if the unions have anything to say:

These are meat-and-potatoes, working-class hot button issues, a golden opportunity for any real progressive element in society that wants to gain popular approval. But all we hear from the unions is “give us more or we strike.”… and a lot of F-bombs.

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As a result, the appeal of unions is at an all time low.  The current union leadership in this country has accomplished what yesteryear’s robber barons could have never done on their own — turned the majority of people in this country against them. That’s why right-to-work passed in Michigan, why Wisconsin voted to limit the power of government unions and why auto plants in the South continue to reject union membership.

How did such a worthwhile enterprise come to such an ugly end? In addition to ignoring the larger social issues mentioned above in favor of their own parochial interests, the unions have become a fourth and unelected branch of the government.

If you take all of the taxpayer dollars that went into the auto bailouts (and by the way, that includes Harley Davidson), add in Davis-Bacon labor agreements and the huge growth in the Service Employees International Union, it’s obvious that unions are largely dependent on government.

The growth of the SEIU is the most troubling of these trends. In 2009, for the first time in history the number of unionized government workers exceeded the number of union workers in the private sector. The very idea of a government worker’s union is fraught with contradictions. Former AFL-CIO president George Meany was against it, as was FDR, the president who did more for unions and government growth than any other.

We pay our taxes to fund the salaries of government workers who then take a portion of our money to organize campaigns to elect politicians who will give them more raises and block any attempts to rein in their power.  Is it any wonder that in 2010 the average state or local government worker earns $39.83 in wages and benefits compared to $27.49 for the average private sector worker?

I don’t begrudge the unions their pay scales.  For the people who say union members are paid too much, I’d say, private sector employees aren’t paid enough.  But unless the unions quit making Faustian bargains with the politicians and quit throwing punches at protest rallies, their numbers will only continue to dwindle in the private sector. And all it would take is one Supreme Court ruling to nullify the right for government workers to unionize.  Then where will the unions be?

At the beginning of the last century the government looked the other way as corporate goons busted up union rallies. Today, the media looks the other way as government-employed or government-protected union members smash up right to work rallies sponsored by private sector citizens. Does the irony meter go to 11?

Unless something changes, this really is the beginning of the end for unions.