Sharing the Work in Hard Times

Broadcast April 7, 2009 on WAMC Northeast Report:

I grew up passionately pro-labor. I have always felt that labor unions did a great service. I have never felt that any human organization, unions included, always did the right thing. We all get some things wrong, elect the wrong people who pursue the wrong agenda. But on balance, I think unions do an important service.

But unions also have responsibilities, and some of those are legally defined. Most of the time when regulation of one kind or another defines responsibilities, it is because someone got something wrong. Either the regulated industry or union got something wrong or the regulators did.

Unions have a duty of fair representation. That responsibility was announced because some unions didn’t want to represent some of their members. Some were corrupt; some were racist. So we make it plain that unions have a responsibility toward their members, all of them.

Recently labor unions in New York have been pelting the Governor with ads berating the Governor for aspects of his budget. Apparently the Governor wanted to hold on to as much of the labor force as possible, but he wanted the existing workforce to agree to a wage freeze. Many of us have been asked to do the same. And to keep people on the job, many of us feel its only fair and cooperate with a sense of shared responsibility.

Now when many of us, union, self-employed or management complained about the financial wizards who got us into this mess taking multimillion dollar bonuses when lots of people were forced out of work because of their misbehavior, our complaints made a lot of sense. We had a right to insist that they share the pain, not get rewarded for the damage they did.

So the unions would be perfectly justified, and I would cheer them on, if they insisted that cuts in salaries or jobs should be shared – with management. But of course the Governor did that straight off.

So the unions were faced with a different choice – would they agree to a freeze so that the maximum number could stay at work, or would they force colleagues onto the streets because the favored workers got their raises?

Under the law, the unions are entitled to make that choice. But it seems to me that the guys and gals facing unemployment lines aren’t being well represented in that choice. Unions have to show some statesmanship too, some willingness to spread the work and share the pain. They have every right to demand that the pains are shared. But there’s a big difference between giving up a raise and losing a job. I think the unions need to reevaluate the way they represent the people who’ll have to face the unemployment lines.

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