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The threat of unions to workers

A banner encouraging workers to vote in labor

A banner encouraging workers to vote in labor balloting is shown at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. on March 30. The retail union that failed to unionize Amazon workers at the warehouse wants the results to be thrown out, saying that the company illegally interfered with the voting process. Credit: AP/Jay Reeves

Sitting far away in the White House, President Joe Biden recently cheered for a union to be formed at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. By a two-to-one vote, workers said no thanks, that they weren’t all that upset by this whiz of a company and would rather work out any differences without another organization in their face. As quoted by The New York Times, a couple of them said paying dues for fewer results did not appeal to them.

Despite this setback in trying to help union campaign contributors, however, Biden still embraces a really, truly bold idea of how to strengthen them while depriving workers of their rights to choose. The scheme is to outlaw right-to-work laws in those 27 states that have them. What those states prohibit are private union contracts that say you can’t get a job at a company unless you pay these union dues that some identify as a moral obligation. After all, it’s said, the money serves all workers by wrestling successfully with the urges of greedy CEOs, and you ought to pay for what you get.

What the money actually does in some instances is provide an embezzlement fund for such people as a former president of the United Auto Workers and other criminally convicted union comrades who stuck $1 million in their pockets awhile back. They’re not alone, seeing as how millions more have been swiped by union executives over the years.

Dues have other advantages, however. For one thing, unions then get money to support the campaigns of politicians making laws employees want. Along with the possibility of genuine sympathy, that could be a reason we have a Biden plan for an extreme, national $15 minimum wage that a lot of companies would not be able to pay. One million workers could lose their jobs. Innovative Jeff Bezos, the primary owner of Amazon, already pays that minimum wage and is for such a law that would weaken his competition.

Unions having a tight handle on government can also be seen in teachers unions being able to keep so many schools closed to in-person teaching during the COVID-19 crisis. According to most experts, the schools are safe and students can be adversely affected for the rest of their lives by the absence of in-person instruction.

None of this means that unions haven’t ever played a positive role. Trade unions got started in this country as early as 1794 and have informed our culture ever since. They may have been overly under the influence of socialists, communists and anarchists for a while, but they certainly were crucial in converting early industrialism from its worst aspects. They fought back against inhumane treatment at what sometimes could be a deadly cost and made a major difference in wages and working conditions over the years.

Despite my criticisms, the unions’ impact on government has had numerous positive effects, not least on the end of child labor. I might mention I am also hugely grateful for the five-day work weeks and eight-hour days that laws demanded. Unions did discriminate against Black workers and women like so much of the rest of America before World War II, but then improved and contributed to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Private unions have been going away, dropping from a high of 35% of all workers in 1954 to 6.2% in 2019. I don’t want them dead but neither do I want politicians hurting workers in general on their behalf and I do think they need to be less dogmatic. Some should more carefully consider that helping to meet their companies’ competitive needs can often be the best way to meet employee needs.

Jay Ambrose wrote this piece for Tribune News Service.

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