Sunday, March 20, 2011

Strength in numbers

Politics has always had a heavy hand in the meanderings between workers' rights, labor rules, and the bottom-line concerns of management.  As a child, I learned about Sir Alexander Bustamante and his leadership in unifying Jamaica's dockworkers in order to get concessions for better work conditions, and subsequently starting the island's first trade union.  Even then, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that workers would band together to negotiate with employers for fair salary, guarantees and working conditions. Certainly having been fired - because my supervisor did not think our personalities "meshed" - and having worked  as a government employee, I appreciate even more the benefits of unions protecting the rights of workers.

The industries that built this country - steel, mining, car manufacturing - would hardly be possible without having relied on the workers who valued their jobs - largely because of the security unionization provided.  The state sponsored union-busting in Wisconsin and other states rocks the very foundation of commerce and industry that drives the economies of every developed country.

Recently governors like New Jersey's Chris Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker seem intent on vilifying unions as a lead-in to balancing their states' budgets on the backs of working class people - those most protected by unions. It seems inane to me to lambaste unions because they have worked for the purpose they were intended; and to malign the benefits workers have managed to negotiate fairly - rather than meeting at the table in good faith.

For sure, it is not lost on me that some unions have become bullies that try to hold municipalities, school districts, and industries hostage. Teachers' unions argue for tenure and want to make it impossible for principals to fire poor performing teachers.  Municipal employees want to contribute as little as possible to their health insurance and retirement costs, even as private sector workers buckle under medical care costs and few have employer supported retirement funds. It is true that issues like these leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth and make it easier for union opponents to make their arguments. But bad taste or not, unions have an important role to play in the marketplace.  Union leaders have a responsibility to restore the integrity of the bargaining process, and political leaders have a responsibility to maintain the rights and interests of the working class.  There is no better way to do that, than to preserve the rights and existence of unions.

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