Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Downside Of Trade Unionism

Walter Reuther (1907-1970)
My dad belonged to a union--albeit a very weak one--The International Typographical Union. Printing technology undermined the ITU.  But he (and we) no doubt enjoyed bargained-for benefits.  I have fond memories of the annual summer "Company Picnic" at Hoyt Park in Madison, which his union partially sponsored.

The history of American unionization is pretty bloody--like the rest of world history. Walter "The Redhead" Reuther started growing Detroit's UAW beginning around 1934 until his death in 1970. For a readable account of him, see William Manchester's "The Glory And The Dream" beginning on p. 388. Men like Reuther were fighting for living standards and basic equity back then. They played offense and they mostly won.

Private sector unions like the UAW grew first and the public sector unions--always lagging in growth--followed. Decisions like Wisconsin's to allow public sector unions to collectively bargain led the way in 1959.

I'm old enough to be grounded by memories of the days when public sector workers were not the best paid workers on the block--we called them "State Workers" in Madison--but they gained steadily. Teachers, professors, clericals, even janitors.

When trade unionism in the private sector began to ebb, it exposed inequalities enjoyed by State employees. Here in California, state employees built a cozy relationship with the California State government which may have peaked but has not subsided. It's not really the fault of individual state employees that they enjoy benefits away and above others--it's a collective thing.

We saw a violent defensive play in Michigan today.  Gone are the days of playing offense in a growing economy. The general public--if they get the facts--will not sympathize like they did in the 1930's. It's just the wrong time of the life cycle.


  1. Reuther's death looks a bit sketchy: link

  2. I have nothing against collective bargaining. In fact, strong unions are usually a symptom of bad/failed management.

    It's also true of public sector unions. In the case of public sector unions, members join to legally bribe politicians to vote for their salaries and benefits. It's not quite like the private sector scenario.

  3. Unions made Detroit what it is today.

  4. My old man was a member of IAM, working for Pratt&Whitney. The guys of his generation took their job of building jet engines very seriously. When our generation started working some became union rats, doing sloppy work. The plant was an open shop[as should all plants!], and the hard working guys left the union. They couldn't stand seeing the union protect the scofflaws.

  5. I think "Right To Work" bills are inevitable. It sucks to be on the wrong side of history.