I have never belonged to a union, and I’m not from a union family. But in February, when Governor Scott Walker declared war on the unions in Wisconsin, I felt a strong need to be there when Massachusetts residents, both union members and others, rallied in solidarity. Unions are under attack in this country right now, which makes sense if you feel, as I do, that the middle class, which they built, is fighting for its life.
Have I ever seen unions behave badly? Of course. Event load-ins at the Hynes are always a blast, with the union rep scaring the crap out of a bunch of young performers as they bully our production people into paying massive fines we can’t afford for using a non-union audio company we can barely afford. I’ve seen a member of the musician’s union eat three helpings from an opulent spread of salads, pâté, artisan breads and expensive Italian cold cuts and then later complain to his union rep that he didn’t get the hot meal in the contract. I’ve seen an Equity rep screw actors out of front page news coverage by not accepting 23 ½ instead of 24 hours media notice. But the rules are the rules, and they’re in place for a reason, and I can dismiss the rigidity when so much is at stake, and so much has been sacrificed to put them in place.
Are there patronage hacks in municipal unions?* You bet there are. But for every one of those there are thousands of hardworking men and women who work for every penny they earn, which they use to support their families and fuel our economy. And with all the ire of late about their pensions, I wonder if people know that in Massachusetts, as well as several other states, workers do not participate in Social Security. So that pension is it.
Have I worked on campaigns, standing side by side with union rank and file for a pro-union Democratic candidate, knowing full well that the people I’m standing with will vote for the other candidate, against the union and against their own interest? Yes, more than once. But I understand it. I know this will sound condescending, but the other side has a brilliant way of making it seem like things are being taken away by other people who have little, as opposed to giant corporate interests who have almost everything. It’s their stock in trade, and they’re exceedingly good at it.
These indignities and abuses aren’t important in the scheme of things. What’s important is that unions be kept strong, to counteract the forces of a purely capitalist society. The examples I listed above are simply small acts of bad manners and self-destructive behavior. When corporations behave badly, they can and do destroy lives. Big difference.
When politicians with business experience (mostly Republicans) run for office, they often employ that tired and inaccurate analogy that says the government is like a business, and try to sell themselves as the CEO. This is bullshit. The government is NOT a corporation, and should never, ever be run like one. In fact, I would argue that a union leader is more qualified than a businessperson to run the country. Unions often do what governments should: stand for each other. Labor unions keep corporate greed in check. They wouldn’t be needed if Christ Himself ran businesses, and if corporations had consciences instead of shareholders. But He doesn’t and they don’t.
In an era when income inequality is outrageous, those of us who earn a wage can’t afford not to support unions. They really ARE responsible for weekends, and paid sick leave and vacations, and all the other things those cute bumper stickers proudly assert, in addition to safe working conditions and living wages where they still exist. They made capitalism work for the middle class, and in turn made our economy work, but because of those forces that propel and enable corporate interests in our system, they’ve gradually diminished in stature, and have in the past year, been cut off at the knees. This isn’t right, and I pray it can be reversed. My hope is that events in Wisconsin have shifted the tide, since many regular people seemed to sympathize with the protestors. I hope that Governor Walker’s political career goes down in flames, and serves as a reminder to others who would launch such attacks on the middle class.
*Anyone who knows the actual story is dead now, but my maternal grandfather was a patronage hire for the Turnpike. My father was an elected official. When my grandfather was laid off by Ford after 20 years there, he couldn’t find another job. His English wasn’t great, and he wasn’t the most personable or educated guy, but he was a hard worker. My father got him a job taking tolls. He worked there until he retired, and lest you think he was a hack: as the story goes, when Dad drove out to tell Papa that my brother was born, Papa made him pay the toll.