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Where people stand on issues like this generally are based on their experience. People that come from a labor background and live in blue collar neighborhoods are likely to support unions. People that have spent most of their lives in the technical and professional world will be less likely to see the value of unions. I have lived in both worlds. I began my life in northeastern Pennsylvania in neighborhoods filled with laborers. Later I moved to the Washington, DC area and got into software development and lived in the technical world of programmers, engineers, and scientists.
I worked in factories from 1968 to November of 1971. My experience in that area is over forty years old so maybe its value is limited, but this is what I remember. There were three kinds of factory shops. There were shops where unions were not allowed at all. There were open shops where the workers had a choice, they could join a union or they could work without being in the union, and there were closed shops where all workers had to be in the union.
It was clear that the best jobs for a laborer were in the closed shops. The pay was generally better and the working conditions were likely to be better. I was very happy when a friend of the family got me into the vending machine factory. The factory was on San Souci Highway in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania across the road and just down from the McDonald’s.
Then I was shocked that the first thing I had to do was pay an initiation fee to the Teamsters Union. A laborer by definition lives paycheck to paycheck and there isn’t a penny left. More times than not there were days left at the end of the money so when I learned I had to come up with this money before I got my first paycheck I thought it was really unfair. I believe I had to borrow the money to pay the fee.
Then I found out that the union required dues to be taken out every month. This was during the time when Jimmy Hoffa was in jail and the union was going on about freeing Jimmy. I thought my money was going to a mobster. My attitude toward unions wasn’t all that good, then I started working in the shop and my opinion began to change. The company foremen didn’t just order people around. There was a place to go if you thought you were treated unfairly. When inflation started eating into my paycheck, I knew the company wouldn’t care but the union would be there to negotiate when the contract was up. There were cleanliness and safety concerns in the workplace. Believe me there were some factories that would do a little as they could get away with when it came to cleanliness and safety.
I understand the other side of the coin. I know very well that we, the people, make contradictory demands on American companies. When we have our investor hat on, and we all do. I’m not talking about the Wall Street guys; I’m talking about everyone with a 401-K or a government retirement plan. When we have that hat on, we want the companies that we invest in to maximize their profits. When we have our consumer hat on, we want companies to sell their products for the lowest price. Companies don’t need our urging to want to maximize profits but we do encourage them to do so. Companies do have to respond to the demand to keep prices down and they do that in several ways. They will use cheaper materials in the creation of their products, which is likely to reduce the quality of the product. They will pull the clever move of quietly reducing the size of a product and sell it for the same price. That’s why a gallon of ice cream isn’t a gallon of ice cream. By far the greatest option a company has is in the way it handles its labor force
There are two main moves companies make to control their labor costs. First, they will reduce the number of workers and require the remaining workers to be more productive. Second, of course, is to outsource the work to somewhere with a cheaper labor force and no labor laws. Both practices hit the laborers hard.
Now remember our attitudes support the companies’ desire to find these solutions to our demands. In my opinion companies became creative with how they handle their laborers when the personnel department became human resources. They only entity that stands between the laborers and the maniacal need for profit is the labor union. I think it is needed now more than ever.