I should know better than to blog about anything to do with politics, but I just cannot help it. Two things hit my radar screen recently that prompt this irrational, and probably ill-advised outburst.

I have always struggled with the concept and the reality of labor unions. When I was in high school I worked in a supermarket and was a member in good standing of the Retail Clerks Union International. I did not like being a member of the union and would have declined membership if it had not been so soundly “encouraged” by my fellow employees and even my manager. There was a good amount of pride in being 100 percent.

The union did give me 15 cents an hour better wages than the guys who worked down the strip center from me at the non-union Winn Dixie, so there was a benefit, even to a part-time kid. When I completed my training for a tour in the Florida Air National Guard I returned to the store and soon became “management.” I had to work a lot of hours but paid no more union dues.

At that time there was another union operating in the stores, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. All things considered, it was not difficult managing with the two unions but the meat cutters’ rules could be pretty onerous. If I got caught rearranging steaks in a refrigerated display, I could expect a visit from the meat union’s agent. He usually came with two of his, let’s just say, “large” associates. I stupidly refused to ever be intimidated by them (chalk that up to my youth and inexperience).

Nearly a decade after I left the retail business for the good life in roofing, the two unions merged to form United Food and Commercial Workers. The concept of a labor union seems fair enough. It is easy to understand why hundreds, even thousands of workers need to band together to ensure decent pay and safe working conditions. It is logical that a company would do well operating in an environment where the expectations of its workforce were crystal clear and they do not have to negotiate with each individual. Unions, I have always thought, should provide training and other support that companies often cannot or will not provide.

In other words, in my perfect unionized workplace, the workers are compensated and otherwise treated fairly and the company looks to the union to bring in great workers and help keep them trained and happy with their work. This should provide a productive and competitive workplace. OK, so it has not always been a marriage made in heaven, but the concept is not all that bad.  

What bothers me about unions (at least my perception of them) is their attitude. Their several pushes at the federal level are all aimed at forcing their will on both business and their workers. That seems like a bully’s response to the problem of shrinking membership rolls. Their stock is way down from the glory days and is poised to retract even further. Just to be fair, firms that contract with labor unions have not always been squeaky clean in their dealings with their unions and fight nearly any governmental initiative that would favor unions.

Recently a couple of municipalities in California rolled back pension benefits for their employees. Around the same time the governor of Wisconsin survived a recall vote that was staged primarily by public employee (and other) unions. I think it is about time there was a little pushback. Maybe backlash is the better word, but it appears that folks are upset at the entitlement mentality of public servants and their unions. The rest of us are all out here working our you-know-what’s off and many of us have taken pay cuts and lots of folks have no work at all, but we are expected to keep paying our (public) employees as if nothing is amiss.

 I think unions would be just fine if they would return to their roots. They simply must change if they are going to survive. The notion that firms they deal with can realistically provide “job security” as part of their contract is nonsense. How can they guaranty any particular level of business over broad periods of time? Likewise, firms that negotiate with unions who have been willing to sign suicide pacts promising benefits for life need to wake up. That includes the federal, state, and municipal governments (the nation’s largest employer).