The first time I can remember thinking about labor issues was in middle school, when the workers at Kroger, the grocery store my family had always shopped at, went on strike over wages and benefits. We stopped shopping there and my parents steer clear of it to this day. I got another chance when the long and bitter strike at The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press resulted in the banning of those papers from my home. Both the children of United Auto Workers members, my parents told me that we should support organized labor.

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Peter Cunniffe

I’ve always agreed with them, believing unions to be a legitimate and essential means for workers to get a fair shake as a collective that they couldn’t get from employers by themselves.

But while I still believe people have the right to organize and collectively bargain, in the past couple years I’ve found myself more and more at odds with the goals of many unions and my fellow liberals who adopt their positions uncritically.

The union I’ve had the most direct experience with is, naturally, the Graduate Employees Organization. I was here for the last GEO strike several years ago and despite my long support of unions, found myself baffled by the demands of student instructors who taught little and, in my experience, did a second-rate job of it at best. Last month another round of contract negotiations brought a day long “work action” by GEO in pursuit of childcare no one else gets and yet more money for substandard teaching. I’m sure all those principled students who wouldn’t cross the picket line were humming one of those catchy union ditties as they lay in bed.

The issue of free trade divided me from many (though not all) union members as well. Free trade is often attacked by unions for transferring jobs, especially good paying industrial jobs, overseas. Growing up around Detroit, I know that is an accurate critique and how hard the waning of an area’s big local industry can hit the economic and social fabric of a community. I do sympathize, but communities will adjust and outside of autoworkers, Americans are better off when they can buy cheaper cars and workers in developing countries where some of the jobs were relocated are getting sorely needed economic opportunities.

Recently the U.S. imposed tariffs on steel imports at the behest of steelworkers unions and the swing-state voters in their membership. Normally an ardent free trader, President Bush said this action needed to be taken to prevent the collapse of the U.S. steel industry. But why shouldn’t an industry collapse if it is no longer competitive? Steelworker unions obviously cared about the jobs of their members, but the fundamental problem of steel production – like much heavy industry – becoming less and less economically viable in this country is not going away. The government has only postponed the day of reckoning the steel industry must face while angering our trading partners. Now other manufacturers will have to pay an artificially inflated price for steel and threatened retaliatory tariffs from other countries will hurt our exporters.

Another disturbing development is the Teamsters push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that will provide only a trickle of oil years down the road that cannot compete with the foreign gusher. But James P. Hoffa sees a chance to cozy up to George W., like Jackie Presser with Ronald Reagan. Then, as now, a Teamster chief made a pact with a president openly hostile to unions. Presser did it to fend off investigations into corruption and criminality within the union. What Hoffa is getting from a man who, according to the AFL-CIO, “shows little regard for working families and their unions,” remains to be seen.

Finally is the problem of teachers unions. I should say up front that I think teachers are, by and large, grossly underpaid. But higher salaries will never be justified to taxpayers if we can’t seriously test the achievement of teachers and dump the ones who aren’t performing. Tenure, the benefit most fiercely protected by teacher’s unions, needs to be done away with. Teachers who can’t cut it, or who plod along in mediocrity year after year, have no business teaching. I say this because I firmly believe in the importance of public schools and want to see them improved, especially by attracting better teachers with better salaries. I have no doubt most tenured teachers are good teachers, but nothing motivates success like accountability. We grade students because we know accomplishment matters. We should expect the same from teachers.

Despite my growing alienation from union stances, I still think unions are important and believe there are many areas of the economy, especially in the service sector, that badly need them. But too many unions have become protectors of the status quo or just politically opportunistic, out of step with the reality around them. The economy is a dynamic force and hanging onto outmoded ideas and industries to provide job security to a few ends up hurting everyone in the long run. Those of us who support unions should not shy away from looking critically at their stances and thinking about not just how union members are affected, but how the rest of us are affected as well.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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