Coffin, 3-10-2015

Guest column: Labor unions hardly saintly but vital to workers’ rights

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, March 10, 2015)

By James Coffin

When I heard that Wisconsin had become the 25th right-to-work state, it sent a chill down my spine. But what really jolted me was the realization that I was actually bothered by the precipitous decline of labor unions in the United States.

You see, I grew up in a family, in a region and in a religion that were all less than enthusiastic about labor unions. Anti-unionism is part of my DNA. And DNA doesn’t mutate quickly.

I grew up hearing stories about the less-than-savory track record of unions. And I’m fully convinced that they have indeed been guilty of thuggishness and coercion — and I understate. They’ve too often defended the indefensible and advocated for the absurd. In fact, I’d suggest that unions are real-life examples of the truth of Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So why did I feel a chill when hearing about the further shrinking of their influence? Why? Because Lord Acton had it so totally right, that’s why.

The reality is, no individual or collection of individuals is shielded from the siren song created by unfettered power. Abuse of power is a temptation for owners and managers just as verily as for union leaders.

We mustn’t forget that for centuries feudalism’s serfs were mere pawns in the hands of the power-wielding land owners of the Middle Ages. Black Southern sharecroppers escaped slavery only to be “re-enslaved” by the men whose land they worked. The wealthy owners of the Industrial Revolution’s sweatshops were the epitome of power’s ability to corrupt.

It doesn’t take much historical digging to find that in the U.S. horrendous working conditions often existed right up until … well … until labor unions became sufficiently strong to wrest considerable power from the kings of industry.

Despite my discomfort with what I consider the less-than-saintly legacy of the labor-union movement, in great measure the post-World War II American Dream became a reality for millions of wage earners because of unions.

Shorter hours, sanitary working conditions, greater workplace safety, health-care coverage, vacation pay, retirement benefits — with few exceptions, these didn’t initially come about because management decided of its own volition to improve the lot of laborers. Rather, such improvements emerged because employees engaged in collective bargaining.

I have no doubt that unions have often gone too far in their demands. So when the kings of industry realized that they could find people in far-off places who were willing to work for a mere pittance of the wages and benefits Americans expected, they jumped at the chance to “outsource.” Never mind that the working conditions in many of those far-off places were reminiscent of the sweatshops of the Industrial Revolution.

The beauty for industry is that $2-a-day workers aren’t likely to strike. Because there are no unions to be placated, such niceties as fire escapes and sound construction practices for multistory factories don’t even appear on the radar screens of owners/managers. Not until hundreds of burned and crushed Bangladeshis created a public-relations problem back in the U.S, that is. Remember 2013’s Bangladesh catastrophes?

I’m no pimp for the labor movement — it has some big problems — but when you’re a little guy, and you’re totally at the mercy of a big guy, it’s nice to have someone with clout in your corner. Even if your defender is rough-and-tumble and doesn’t have the genteel manners your mother tried so hard to instill in you.

After saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lord Acton added: “Great men are almost always bad men.” It’s an astute observation: Good and bad often come in the same package. It’s true of owners/managers as well as of union leaders.

When both categories of these simultaneously-good-and-bad power brokers co-exist, there’s at least some level of check and balance. But when collective bargaining becomes enfeebled or non-existent for wage earners, the Great American Dream increasingly becomes the Great American Mirage.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.