Labor Day message 2009

Balance of powers

The Soviet Union and the United States were always watchful and wary of each other, keeping all of us on our toes. The reason we did not just smash them was most likely that we couldn’t without suffering great losses ourselves. We may have not liked that situation but it was the scenario that kept us from engaging in large conflicts.

Which brings me to unions and management. Unions and management work  well when there is a parity of power. The union has a right to withhold services and picket the employer and the company has the power of the purse. As long as that balance exists there is relative peace. It’s not that on one side there are  the good guys and the other side are the bad guys. It’s just that common sense usually prevails when both sides realize they have something to lose, and the other side has the means to hurt them.

Having been elected to a position in a union many years ago I got to know how union leaders think. It’s not ideology that drives a good leader, it is specific goals. Unions grew out of a downtrodden work force. Some of these early leaders were rough people and they were not averse to using means that we would now consider excessive. But as in all movements the second and third generation become educated in the law and they become educated in the skills of communication. As they polish their skills, they look and sound more like their management counterparts.

These people can craft arguments as well as any of the people they have to negotiate with, making them equals. As I said earlier ideology is not what governs their demands. Unlike Communism, which was ideologically driven (and a dismal failure) most union leaders and rank and file workers will tell you they are capitalists, even if they do not control much capital. And the truth is most unionized workers own shares in the company where they work, and/or other companies.

To some, the workers rights of the 40 hour week, paid vacation, and fringe benefits somehow evolved. They did not evolve, they were hard won by the power of collective bargaining. Interestingly, most workers today are not unionized, and many of the basic abuses of companies have been relegated to retrogressive management. Enlightened company management sees the benefit of fair treatment, sometimes just to avoid the prospect of having a union, but more often, because well treated workers tend to contribute better to the bottom line.

To celebrate the Labor Day weekend we have to appreciate the way unions shaped the workplace, mostly for the better. And while every company may not need a union, every company needs to know that, that power to get a union is in the hands of their employees.

Ernie Fazio