Sunday, May 17, 2009

Look for the Union Label

Over the last nine months, as the world financial crisis has deepened, I've been in a number of conversations in which someone has floated the idea that unions are dinosaurs and no longer necessary. The irrational demands of organized labor are the reason we all have to pay so much for goods and services, and a big reason why some businesses are foundering. Union members get paid not to work. Union members get cushy jobs that many people would love to do (but can't because they're not in the union) and they're overpaid to do them. To hear people talk, the unions are the evil Goliaths and the poor corporations are the pitiable Davids.

I was reading this article in the Times this morning and my first thought was, "This is why unions are still important." Yes, there is a pilot's union with which the major carriers have to negotiate: thank God! It should come as no surprise that "Sully" Sullenberger is a union member. I understand that these low wages and absurd hours are one of the ways that the regional airlines can afford to operate—they have to keep their expenses down so that they can keep their ticket prices down—but they're ignoring a very real (and potentially very high) cost of doing business. Even if you can justify the idea of Asian children working 16 hours in a sweatshop or Wal-Mart employees being cheated out of their health care benefits so that the rest of us can buy tube socks for $1.99, are peoples lives worth having a $50 plane ticket? Or $100 or $150—whatever the cost, if their personnel are working for this little money under these conditions, it just doesn't seem to be very cost-effective.

To be fair, there was another article a last year about the difficulties smaller communities are having trying to get or keep routes—for these cities and towns, the major carriers are not even an option. Am I saying that Hagerstown, MD shouldn't have any air service at all or that their flights should be prohibitively expensive? Of course not. But I think it's safe to say that the problem is a system that is operating inefficiently, that the needs of the workers are being minimized (or even ignored) and the consumer is being put at risk. Surely, there must be a way to run an airline without a pilot having to drive or fly for hours to get to her/his starting point!

I appreciate that it's a complex issue and I don't think that unions are the salvation of any industry—while nothing specific comes to mind at the moment, I know there have been instances where I thought a union's agenda was detrimental to the negotiations. But I truly believe that they can be an effective tool in identifying the problems and potential solutions. Their ultimate goal—to protect the rights of individual workers—is especially vital when virtually every industry is struggling under their own economic burdens. In difficult times, it's just too easy for management to say, "If you don't like my deal, I can find someone else who'll do the job for less;" and they'd be right. While that might not be be a huge problem in a grocery store, is that any way to run an airline?

1 comment:

Nando_em_Brooklyn said...

The thing that most anti-union people forget is that unions built the American middle class.
Without unions most of us would be servants to the top 10%.
I get that there are excesses. I'm all for controlling excessive pay. I'm of the opinion that we should start at the top. Cut excessive executive pay and multi million dollar bonuses.