Op Ed
June 8, 2007

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Times are changing, but unions remain vital to workers
by Bob Hemenway

After WWII about fifty percent of the work force in this country was connected to organized labor. Now, it’s down to twelve or thirteen percent.

Some declare that this is a good thing for the country; others deem it to be bad for the American worker. Yet, we don’t seem to manufacture a great number of products anymore. We have become more of a provider of services.

The Building Trades unions still are a skilled group of artisans that build the powerhouses, refineries and complexes along with hotels, chemical plants and Industrial plants of all kinds. These workers are the backbone of the construction industry. When they serve an apprenticeship they are, indeed, journeymen craftsmen.

These men and women demand and receive a good wage, and are the strong middle class of America

If you believe that the contractor or company that hires these workers is in a constant labor fight with these people, you are dead wrong. It’s always a two-way street. The contractor can reach into the labor pool and get a qualified craftsman with a phone call. The journeyman knows that he will be paid as per the contractual agreement. He or she also know that if the company that employs him doesn’t make money from his efforts, he will be back at the union hall in short order. A lazy or disruptive hand soon finds that he, too, has no place to go and so eliminates himself from the labor pool.

So what has happened to the unions? Most of the manufacturing industry that employed thousands of workers is gone now. It is the job of corporations to seek the lowest wage laborers and, if necessary, move the plant to a location where they are readily available. This has gone on for many years. At one time companies could offer wages that would move people, both to new locations and higher economically. When Henry Ford said he would pay a worker $5 a day, it moved whole families from the low-wage states in the south to the Detroit area. Recall the Depression times when hordes of people left their homes in the dust bowl areas to strike out for California just on the hope of work.

If working and economic conditions were the same throughout the world, there would be no reason for the uprooting of factories or people; but this just isn’t so. The problem is not resolved nor will it be in the near future of our country.

We are the richest and most generous country in the world, and even though we are now the most hated by a number of other countries, people are clambering to get inside our borders and cut themselves a piece of the pie.

Labor unions are learning to adjust but it has been a slow process. Most people understand that the union scale sets the pace for all workers and that unions help all employees everywhere regardless of the employee’s lack of affiliation. Why then the steady decline of the union movement? Could it be that they have raised the bar to the point of complete satisfaction of all workers? It’s, of course, much more than that, and the complexities and many facets of the union descent will require a considerable length of time to play out.

Does the union still have political clout? Of course it does. Not only does the member vote, most of them have extended families that march to the polls. Even though they don’t swing the big stick that they did in the past, many a political office holder is very happy to receive the union endorsement.

Has the pendulum now reached the top of the management arc and is it now starting back to a more central point? Perhaps it is. Time will tell, but the hard fact remains that the workingmen and women of America are better off because of the union movement.

Bob Hemenway has been a union pipefitter for 57 years. He is now retired and lives in Kansas City, MO.


              
              
                 

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