Unions for Dummies

Honor Labor.  Mahlon Mitchell, President of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Honor Labor. Mahlon Mitchell, President of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

With Labor Day coming up it seems like a good time to examine unions and their place in our society. Ever since Scott Walker effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin I have heard many statements about unions that were just plain untrue or at best showed a basic lack of knowledge about what unions are and how they benefit workers.

During the Wisconsin Uprising one motif that I heard often and that completely baffled me was something along the lines of this: Why should public workers get paid so much and have so many benefits when I can’t even get a raise? I found those kinds of comments jarring. I was not used to a Wisconsin in which my fellow citizens disparaged others for doing well. I knew that Scott Walker had effectively instilled his divide and conquer strategy into the citizenry when I heard such things. Personally, I don’t envy my neighbors their success. I strive for better success myself. The simple answer to this is that instead of trying to take away what others have you should try to uplift yourself and one of the easiest ways to do that is to join or form a union.

Let me state up front that I am not in a union and never have been. I currently work for a small company that does not have a union and none of my previous jobs were in places that had unions. I have always been supportive but have never had the opportunity to join one.

So let’s start with the most basic question: What is a union? We have all heard the United States referred to as the Union. We have all heard of the European Union. We have all heard of labor unions. A union is simply a group of individuals or separate entities that have joined together for their common good. When the thirteen original colonies banded together they were safer as a group from the tyranny of England. When European countries banded together they had a collective economic power that none of them had as single countries. Likewise, when a group of workers band together in a union they have more power than if each of them tried to represent themselves in negotiations with management.

When I lived in Denver I worked for a printing company that did not have a union and none of the workers seemed motivated to even try to form one. The reason was simple. That particular company offered a competitive wage and treated employees fairly. There were no issues with job safety, employees were not overworked, and everyone was treated with respect. It was a company that seemed to genuinely care about its employees, the quality of its product and, of course, making money. What I didn’t realize at the time was that a union probably would have gotten us an even better wage and even safer working conditions and the company would have gotten an even better product and they still would have made plenty of money.

The unfortunate reality is that most large companies and their owners are not like that company in Denver. They care more about quantity than quality, care little about employees except as expendable “human” resources, and are beholden only to increased productivity and more revenue. Small businesses generally seem to differ in this respect, but larger companies have to answer to stockholders or to wealthy owners who simply want to make more money. There are exceptions, but for the most part management is about the bottom line and getting the most revenue from the least expense in the most efficient manner possible. Giving employees more money, vacation, or other benefits cuts into that bottom line, even if only minimally. The same company that will spend millions on new equipment to improve their product or efficiency will not understand that investing in employees through better pay and conditions can also result in improved quality and efficiency. Study after study has shown that employees who are treated well and with respect will work harder and have more loyalty to the company.

If I were the owner of a company I would want to make money, too, but I would like to think that I would do it by being fair to everyone. But most employees in a capitalist system cannot depend upon the benevolence of upper management and owners. If they want to protect themselves and get a share of the wealth they are not likely to do it on their own. This is where a union becomes necessary. Some would argue that employees should not share in the wealth as they didn’t share in the investment and that they should just be thankful they have a job that pays them at all. But the reality is that their hard work is an investment in the company. Without the employees on the front line no company can exist, let alone thrive.

Imagine a scenario in which a man realizes he can make money by providing a service to people in his town. He can provide this service once a day, it takes a lot of work, and each day he can charge the customer $500.00. He then comes to you and says that he will pay you $100.00 a day to provide this service. You’re out of work and need the money or you’re working a job for $10.00 an hour, which comes out to only $80.00 a day, so you take the job to help with all of your bills. Your new boss eventually hires dozens of others to provide the same service and after some time he is paying 200 employees $100.00 every day. He is now spending $20,000.00 each day, but is pulling in $100,000.00 a day. He no longer has to do the hard work of providing the service; he only has to manage the employees and the money. Eventually you go to him and note that he seems to be doing very well and that you now have another child on the way and would like to make a little more money. He may tell you that he can give you another $5.00 a day even though you were hoping for $50.00. Or he may tell you that he can’t offer any more at all. He knows that you need the job and will likely take whatever he offers. If you quit (or strike by yourself) he can easily replace you with someone else who will appreciate making $100.00 a day, or maybe he can get them for $90.00 a day or less. With unemployment the way it is people will take almost anything now. But if all 200 of the people working for him banded together in a union and threatened to walk out on him at one time he would have to negotiate fairly because he has 200 customers counting on this service every day and replacing all 200 employees at one time is more difficult. By ourselves we are pretty much powerless. Together we can work toward a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Take a look at the fast food business, where rumblings about unionization are just now starting. Many of the companies in this industry are making obscene amounts of money and continue to expand every day. It is great for the stockholders, those with enough money to invest in companies like that, but how have the employees benefitted? Most fast food companies pay minimum wage or close to it, limit hours to avoid paying any kind of insurance or other benefits, and typically work their employees very hard while they are there. This is why we are starting to see fast food strikes in cities around the country. The employees are waking up to the fact that they have been taken advantage of and they are starting to organize. They are the ones doing the hard work on the front lines but they’re seeing little or none of the increased profits. If they can unionize they will likely do better for themselves while the companies will still continue to make significant profits.

But unions aren’t just about wages. They also can do things like negotiate better insurance plans, push for greater workplace safety, and provide high-quality training in trades that require specialized knowledge.

Are unions perfect? No, of course not. There have been some instances where corruption has overtaken very large unions. Power can corrupt in business and in altruism as much as it can in politics. But you don’t destroy the institution because of the actions of a few. You deal with the corruption and those who have fallen prey to it. You clean house and you move forward stronger. Opponents of unions will also give examples of horrible employees who were protected from losing their jobs because of unions looking out for them. For every one of those horror stories, though, there are hundreds where the union saved the job of someone who would have been fired unfairly. Finally one often hears stories of union rules that seem nonsensical to most of us. For example I’ve known actors who belong to the actors’ union who were unable to act in plays that they really wanted to be in and that may very well have advanced their careers or their artistic growth because the productions were in non-union theaters. But these are the exceptions. For every story like that there are hundreds of stories of miners or truckers or others who benefitted from the power of their unions to represent them.

On Labor Day we celebrate workers. We celebrate the labor that is really the bottom line of every business and that enriches everyone in this country. We celebrate blue-collar men and women who toil on the assembly lines and other workplaces of our country. I believe we celebrate them better by doing our best to support unions in our workplaces. Even if you are not in a union you can support them with your voice, your pocketbook, and your vote. Happy Labor Day.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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