Labor Unions: America's Last Hope

Cleaners, porters and matrons of theater union SEIU Local 32BJ demonstrate outside the Broadway League's office on Wednesday,
Cleaners, porters and matrons of theater union SEIU Local 32BJ demonstrate outside the Broadway League's office on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, in New York. The union representing hundreds of Broadway theater cleaners, porters, elevator operators and bathroom attendants voted Wednesday to authorize its leaders to call a strike if a new contract isn't approved by the end of the month, (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of old-fashioned "resistance." Indeed, without resistance (e.g., pushing back, taking an aggressive stand, demonstrating that you're willing to fight, etc.), things can get out of hand very quickly, whether we're talking about international relations, social intercourse, basic economics, children or adults.

Take the typical school yard bully for example.

The thing that keeps these bullies going is that no one resists them. No one is willing to fight back -- either by instantly reporting them to a teacher, or (taking matters boldly into their own hands) by punching them squarely in the nose. And experience has taught us that when you appease a bully, two things happen, both of them bad: the bully continues his dominance, and his bullying tends to become more frequent and extreme.

On Sunday, April 7, the Los Angeles Times ran a disturbing front-page story on the topic of worker victimization. The article pointed out that employers now believe (especially since the recession) that they are firmly in the driver's seat, that the economy has become such a lopsided "buyer's market" that they can now pretty much force their employees to do anything they wish. After all, who or what is going to stop them?

It's true. Businesses have won. They've increased their production demands, they've extended employees' work hours (after having laid off a segment of the workforce), they've taken to issuing ultimatums (If you don't like it here, quit), and they've done all of it while, simultaneously, having kept wages relatively stagnant. As for traditional benefits such as pensions, bonuses, sick leave and paid vacations, forget about it. Most of those have been abolished.

Clearly, things have shifted dramatically. Companies are now running roughshod over their employees -- not those in upper management, or those who hold computer science degrees from Stanford University, but the regular folks, those with high school diplomas who just want to work for a living, those regular folks who realize they have "jobs" rather than "careers."

Welcome to the underbelly of technology. Companies electronically time your coffee breaks, they electronically measure your output, they spy on you with cameras, they force you to attend indoctrination meetings and film you as you listen, and they send out emails threatening to fire you if you show up late to work. Things have shifted so dramatically, management now expects to run the table every time they pick up a pool cue.

Which brings us to the role of labor unions. It's no accident that this draconian work environment coincides with the precipitous drop in union membership. It's no accident and it's no coincidence, because the one thing a labor union brings to the workplace is resistance -- resistance in the form of worker representation and adult supervision. It's the school yard dynamic all over again.

A union contract requires a company to follow certain rules. Despite all their squawking, if management didn't understand the rules and didn't see the basic wisdom and fairness in them, they wouldn't have signed the contract in the first place. I've personally negotiated five contracts, and believe me, only a stupid management team is going to shoot themselves in the foot.

Yes, union jobs offer about 15-percent higher wages and benefits, and yes, union safety programs are infinitely superior to non-union programs, and these by themselves are tremendous advantages to becoming a union member. But a union also offers something less tangible. A union contract provides an employee with dignity -- with the right to come to work and be treated with respect. And that is no small thing.

If anyone is able to name another institution that can provide America's working class with the built-in dignity and economic advantages a union can, I'd love to hear it, because it ain't the federal government and it ain't philanthropic organizations. This is all about resistance. Without resistance, workers have no leverage. Without labor unions, the bullies will continue to win.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep.