Thursday, December 1, 2022

Capitalism Series, Part 1: Unions

I find the easiest way to contemplate the bigger problems is always to follow the money. 

We've all heard that money and power corrupt and while of course that's not true of everyone, I'm becoming more and more convinced that the greed for money and power is the root of most of the bigger problems. 

One of the things I always go back to is a line from Michael Douglas' speech at the end of Aaron Sorkin's The American President regarding some politicians' interests: "making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it." Using that tactic has allowed them to continue to profit (either financially or politically - most likely both) off of fear and anger. 

Unions are once again in the news: Starbucks, UC grad students, the railway workers, etc. I've said it before, unions are the area in which I stray most from the Democratic Party and the progressives. Here are a few reasons why: 

  • Lack of accountability for union leaders. I first wrote about this during the grocery store worker strike of the early aughts. The workers had been paying into a union fund to subsidize health care costs, but the union leaders ended up spending that money elsewhere, leaving the workers with no support when health insurance costs continued to rise. The workers had to strike (during the holidays, as I recall) and live off even less in order to make up for the union leadership's bad acts. While I understand that the leadership is elected by their members, many members have enough information to vote in their own best interest. 
  • Lack of accountability for workers' poor performance. It was very clear to me that in Sylvia's middle school, they placed all their best teachers in the eighth grade and all their worst teachers that they couldn't fire in the sixth grade. That did NOT get her off to the best start in middle school. Of course, I don't believe that teachers should be fired for saying "gay" or encouraging critical thinking, but I also know that there are some that are simply not good at their job, and the effects on their students is too severe to keep them in that position. 
  • Unions create more hierarchy. In my acting days, there were a lot of auditions that were union only, but of course, the only way to get a union card (at that time) was to get a union gig, but how would you get that without the opportunity to audition? It was a catch-22 that created a those who have and those who haven't to divide the acting community. I know some employees that have to belong to a union, but that union isn't supporting them (see first bullet above), and there are also millions of workers in jobs that aren't covered by a union, and therefore, do not get some protections that others enjoy. It's pitting workers against workers. 
  • Divides instead of unites. If we want to protect the labor force, then we should protect the entire labor force. All workers should have a modicum of control over their schedules. Everyone should get some paid sick time. The problem with unionizing one Starbucks at a time is the that the baristas at Peet's are not protected. It might help some but not all workers get a fair deal, making them wholly unfair. 
  • Corporations do not change their stripes. Some corporations end up using "independent contractors" or close down stores to avoid unions. Lyft managed to get a proposition passed in California excluding them from CA's attempt at stopping the former. Or they use the increased wages at the bottom as an excuse to raise prices - and yet somehow, the C-suite can always afford bonuses and raises! 
Unions were a critical step in creating some of the federal laws that we have today to protect labor, like criminalizing child labor and mandating work breaks. But let's think about where we were at that time: we didn't have the internet or the ability to spread the word beyond our own communities. Keeping it local was the only way workers stood a chance. 

But times have indeed changed. 

Why are we limiting ourselves to one Starbucks, one industry, or even one country? Don't all workers everywhere deserve protection? Why are we continuing to be so small-minded about how to change the world? We're not thinking big enough. 

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