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Guest column

The decay of labor unions

By WILLIAM COLLINS Otherwords Bashing unions Makes me quake; We've all got A lot at stake.

Here in investor-laden Connecticut, labor scored a rare coup this year. We became the first state to require most service-sector employers to provide paid sick leave.

Sure, all governments and most big companies already offer this basic benefit, as it's simply the civilized thing to do. Unfortunately in America, civilization is fading fast.

This decay is no accident. It's a campaign with a long history. While most of the world, including Native Americans, developed over the millennia into community-based cultures, the United States was different. We were a remote outlet for individualism, enterprise, and greed. Escape from stultifying Old World community standards lay on our shores.

Thus as Europe, and even parts of Asia, painfully developed societal responses to industrialization and technology, America lagged. We're entrepreneurs, by God! Anything goes! Survival of the fittest!

Of course we eventually discovered the limits of rampant individualism. The Great Depression and World War II forced us at last into more communal action. Government regulation expanded and unions blossomed, and with this assistance millions clawed their way up to the middle class. The 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were America's economic heyday.

But since then, our true rugged- individual identity has gradually reemerged from beneath those thin layers of communal solidarity. We again don't want others telling us what to do, be they governments, unions, or other nations.

And so as a community we've largely failed to respond as banks have regained their dominance, as big business has gained control of our press, as wealthy individuals have captured government policy, as jobs have been shifted overseas, as war has become an instrument of national policy, or lately, as the Supreme Court has given corporations unfettered permission to influence elections.

Even now, there's precious little outrage as several Republican-dominated state governments try to restrict collective bargaining, as famously anti-union Walmart becomes a national icon, as Boeing moves production from union-friendly Seattle to "right-to-work" South Carolina, or as Gov. Jerry Brown, of all people, vetoes a farmworker bill in California.

Yes, the current flap over public unions has to a significant degree been labor's own doing. It has often used its commanding bargaining position to extract health care and retirement provisions that average citizens can only look upon jealously. Not smart. Such overreaching not only gives anti-labor politicians cover to destroy public unions altogether, and it also emboldens opportunistic business leaders to parlay that hostile climate into assaults on private-sector unions.

The overall result of this war on labor is lower wages for all, the disappearance of good jobs, an unyieldingly high unemployment rate, skyrocketing corporate profits, and more Americans without health insurance, a pension, or a full-time job.

And even if you have a decent job today, it doesn't mean you're not painfully affected already, or that you won't be let go tomorrow. OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.




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