Friday, 14 June 2013

Workers digging their own Holes

Men fight for liberty and win it with hard-knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves. -D.H. Lawrence


 
Those who support unions and those who are anti-union often look at one another in bewilderment, scratching their heads in wonder at how the other could honestly hold their beliefs. This situation does beg some consideration.

 
Union supporters have obvious reasons for their support, including the desire for better wages and benefits. Anti-union workers are a different story. These workers typically earn less than union workers and enjoy fewer, if any, benefits. So why don’t all workers support and want to join unions?

 
The reasons are likely deceptively simple. A thoughtful blog[1] on the topic has recently posited that the basic rationale underlying the lack of support for unions amongst non-union workers is resentment and the desire for relative success. Relative in the sense that people seem content if they are earning little, just so long as someone else is not earning more. Based on the argument that satisfaction with one’s lot is relative to the lot of others, the root of the resentment for union workers becomes clear. Rather than trying to rise to the wage and benefit level enjoyed by their union counterparts, many non-union workers are content to support policies and politicians who would seek to bust unions and reduce all workers to the same lower level, thus removing the relative disparity in their incomes. The aim is not the public good. The aim is to hurt your neighbour until he is brought down to your level. One can’t help but be reminded of a timeless Bob Dylan classic, in which he warbles:


 While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in[2]


But besides resentment and interpretations of success on a relative scale, there’s likely another reason for the support of non-union workers for anti-union policies. Politicians against organized labour have gone to great lengths to cast unions in a negative light, presenting union members as villains bent on destroying the economy before escaping in their golden parachutes. A sterling example of this kind of political rhetoric is found in the following statement by Mitt Romney when speaking of Obama:
 

"he wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."[3]
 

The take home message here seems to be that public sector workers are far too plentiful already and eliminating their jobs will help the “people”. But what if the opposite is true? What if hiring more public sector workers and expanding the membership of public sector unions would lead to improved wages and benefits for more workers, to more dignity and self-respect and to a generally happier society? What if reducing public sector union jobs will lead to lower wages and prolong economic woes?

 
Politicians like Mitt Romney and Tim Hudak would be loath to entertain such ideas. Instead they spin and do their best to foster the resentment of non-union workers toward union workers, blaming the organized workers for the ills of society. And when a segment of the working population is already predisposed to resent unions, convincing people that unions are to blame for such broad problems as economic woes is an easy sell. Unions which have always fought for the rights of working men and women have, in a cruel twist, been presented as an out of touch elite group of workers which work to harm the “common man” or the “people”. If this lie is told convincingly enough and often enough, the resentment naturally follows.

 
Only when this resentment is resolved will the lies of anti-union politicians be rejected. But how to resolve the resentment? Whatever path unions take, it seems evident that they are not only working against anti-labour politicians, but an increasingly anti-union public, and much of the battle for the future of unions will be waged in the sphere of public relations.

 

 

 

 

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