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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Labor's Love's Lost

Once upon a time, families saw their fathers and husbands go out the door to work on jobs such as mine, not knowing if they would return home that evening.  I work at an underground limestone mining and processing plant in Missouri.  Unlike previous generations, the issue of workplace fatalities is not foremost in our minds. 

Today, we receive email notices of any fatalities that take place at other mining operations in order to make us aware of the dangers that lurk.  We have safety representatives from our union that meet with management's safety department.  Safety milestones are met with awards and/or bonus payments. 

Today's workers face a different workplace than our fathers and grandfathers.  Much of that is the result of their efforts to unionize nearly 75 years ago.  I am thankful for the foundation they laid in helping build a safe and prosperous company.

I can only imagine what it was like at that time.  The Great Depression was raging.  Their work was extremely dangerous.  The owners knew five men were waiting to replace any one of his workers, so pay was low, conditions were poor and too often a worker was seen as expendable.  Workers were caught between the twin specters of unemployment and the hazards of work.

The effort to form a union was contentious, but it wasn't born of greed; it was a move for self-preservation.  The workers at that time lived and died holding the short end of the stick.  Their efforts to stand together, in their eyes was no different than children standing together to fend off the playground bully.  They did not seek to conquer, but only to establish a truce.

I am honored to serve office in the union they established.  I understand that there is a balance of power between our union brothers and management.  I do not seek a power shift, but to maintain the status quo that has allowed our company to flourish.

I am also a realist.  As new businesses are started around this state and our nation, those workers will be able to reap many of the rewards that unions have previously fought for, such as a 40 hour work week, overtime pay, workplace safety, healthcare and other benefits.  In such an environment, I understand that the need for a union may not be seen. 

In that light, the continued decrease in the percentage of workers who belong to a union is expected.  In fact, something would surely be wrong in the workplace if unions weren't on the decrease.  But we must be cautious in believing that there is no longer a place for unions.  Unions exist to offer balance between owners and workers, even in non-union workplaces.  The potential to bring in a union is always in the mind of non-union business owners.

With all that said, I believe the national union leaders have lost their minds.  I won't go to the extent of quoting Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa Jr., since I try to refrain from including the type of language he used yesterday while introducing President Obama at a campaign rally.  [You can follow this link to read it yourself]  In essence, he seemed to be either inciting violence (at worst) or using crass language (at best) to claim that workers should be at war with the Tea Party and Republican leaders.

What Hoffa and other leaders such as AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka have forgotten is that they work for the workers, the workers don't work for them.  In today's world, the greatest benefit to union workers is a rising economy.  When the economy is growing, unemployment decreases, wages increase, businesses expand creating better opportunities for workers and our 401(k) accounts or pension funds thrive.

Instead of fighting for what would do us real good, they are out fighting a losing battle - trying to turn the tide of decreasing union membership.  Instead of encouraging Washington to find ways to grow the economy, labor leaders are looking to change the rules and make it easier for workers to unionize (even without a majority vote) while giving government mediators the ability to impose a contract against the workers wishes, force companies to recognize smaller partitioned groups and dictate where a business may locate new production.

It's time for our union leaders to stop fighting yesterday's battles and do what is right for workers today.  Just as it would be counter-productive for our nation to close its borders and stop importing foreign made goods, its futile to believe that we can return to the 1950's hey day of union membership.  That day and the need for it has passed.

It's time to find a future for Labor in America.  We can understand our place as the proper counterweight offering balance for the American worker in a growing economy, always ready to act when and where the need arises.  Or we can become parasitic dead weight, dragging the economy down with us.

In today's America, do we want to ride in the back of the bus toward prosperity or the front seat on the road to austerity.  That choice is up to us. 

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