By Dan Hazen / Herald Forum
I have nothing against labor unions conceptually. As a ’70s child growing up in an old-school-Republican household, my exposure to unions was limited to Walter Cronkite’s reporting on Jimmy Hoffa, the AFL-CIO, FBI investigations plus my father’s running commentary about “crooks.”
Toward the end of that decade, as a requirement to pass his class, Mr. Michaels (a vocal member of the teachers union) required us, his students, to read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. Unions became a more complicated and nuanced issue for me. Great teachers, like Michaels, are hard to find.
In almost 50 years of work, I’ve never had a job that required me to join a union, or even afforded me the choice so, when it comes to this topic I’ve spent my life wedged somewhere between Cronkite’s headlines and Michaels’ reading list. But what I have yet to encounter is a union member who is unreservedly positive and grateful for their organization. The most positive tales sound like the way people talk about dentistry, liability insurance or physical therapy: “glad it’s available when I need it, but I’m not a fan on an average day.” I think I get it.
What I don’t get is the increasing news I’m seeing that indicates that people (especially younger people) are looking to labor unions as some sort of vaccine against injustice or a silver bullet solution to income inequality. Look, collective bargaining is likely the best and most effective tool to prevent corporate greed from exploiting people. Left to our own, humans in charge of other humans will inevitably exploit each other. But that’s also the counterpoint: unions are large, money-handling organizations with people in charge of other people, and based on the less than stellar reports from members, they’re no angels.
This was driven home by the experience of a young Marysville school teacher (whom I love) who was handed a pink slip a few weeks ago. Budget cuts. I know it’s complicated, but the essence of why that teacher losses his or her job and another teacher keeps theirs is nothing more than playground politics: the other teacher got there first. Union rules significantly influence who gets fired first.
Keeping one’s job is not about merit (my beloved teacher was quick to point out that using merit as a criteria for who stays in an educational setting approaches impossible … but that’s another subject) and it’s certainly not about what’s best for the students; it rarely is at an institutional level. Everyone from governors and superintendents to classroom teachers and custodians says it is, but when things go pear-shaped, they shrug and say, “I can’t do anything about it”.
School district administrations, labor unions, governments, churches, corporations and even non-profits are born and nourished in a Darwinian ecosystem. It’s simply about surviving and growing. Our vision statements may be well meaning and well written, but the intent is self-preservation, and the rules of the group are written to ensure it. The gap between vision and intent is a rarely examined wilderness that accounts for much of the failure and frustration in our post-modern world, both personally and collectively.
Unions can do a good job of protecting members from management. Thanks for that. They are not so good at protecting members from each other. So be careful what you wish for.
Dan Hazen is the community pastor at Allen Creek Community Church in Marysville.
The Herald Forum invites community members to submit essays on topics of importance and interest to them. Essays typically are between 400 and 600 words in length, although exceptions for longer pieces can be made. To submit essays or for more information about the Herald Forum, write Herald Opinion editor Jon Bauer at email@example.com or call him at 425-339-3466.