When regular people (and by “regular” I mean theater people—actors, actresses and directors who do Equity Waiver-type theater in and around Los Angeles) learn that I used to represent an industrial labor union, they’re tempted to sidle up to me and ask labor questions.
Oddly, over the years the two most common questions have been: (1) Why are labor unions so corrupt? And (2) Do you think unions have become too powerful? Because they sense that these questions could be taken as insulting or offensive, they usually preface their queries with a cheerful, “Don’t take this the wrong way,” or “Be honest with me now.”
I don’t know the inner workings of any union but my own, so I can’t answer that first question. Are there some “corrupt” (rather than wildly inefficient) labor unions out there? I suspect there are. After all, there are corrupt medical clinics, law firms, Catholic dioceses, real estate offices, financial institutions, and sheriff departments. Why wouldn’t there be corrupt unions?
Of course, what these people really want to know is whether most unions resemble the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) as it’s portrayed in the media and on the Hollywood screen. Even though I’ve personally known many Teamsters, I have no answer. All I can say is that, in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of America’s labor unions are honest.
However, one thing I do know about the IBT is that those notorious Teamster locals of yore—the ones in New Jersey and Ohio, where mobsters like Anthony (“Tony Pro”) Provenzano ran the show—are ancient history. Those so-called “trigger locals” are about as extinct as the stegosaurus. And even when they existed they represented a tiny minority of Teamster leadership.
I should also add that, based on my own experience with state and federal auditors—not to mention sharp-eyed union trustees, elected by the membership to non-concurrent terms—a local union Executive Board would have to be as shrewd and criminally intelligent as Bernie Madoff to remain dirty for long.
It’s disappointing that we haven’t learned that stereotypes get us in trouble, that making broad, sweeping generalizations about specific groups is very risky. If you think the Teamies are beefy, no-neck guys driving 18-wheelers, think again. You want to meet a “typical” Teamster? The next time you’re on an airplane, shake hands with your flight attendant. There’s a good chance he or she is a Teamster member.
As for the second question, because I’ve been asked it dozens of times, I have a ready-made answer prepared. I turn the tables on them. I ask if they know the percentage of American workers that are union members. Of course, nobody ever knows the figure, so I invite them to guess.
Their guesses are usually way off the mark—typically much higher than the actual figure. Some believe that as many as half the workforce is unionized, which is insane; most of them guess that it’s closer to one-third, which is almost as nutty. When I announce it’s an anemic 12.4-percent, they’re genuinely surprised.
How anyone could accuse America’s unions of being “too powerful” is mind-boggling. Not only does organized labor have a formidable array of adversaries lined up against it—from Wall Street, to the Chamber of Commerce, to the media, to the “low information voter,” to the U.S. Congress—there are 22 right-to-work states where union shops are outlawed.
Fact: Among industrialized Western nations, the U.S. has the lowest percentage of union members. Fact: The U.S. has so many qualifications and restrictions on the books, joining a union is a bureaucratic nightmare. Canada and Europe are infinitely more union friendly.
As follow-up, I ask these theater people to guess what the federal minimum wage is. Of course, no one can. Not one person I’ve asked has ever known the answer. Some guess $10 per hour; others come in way low, believing it still to be $5.00. For the record, as of July 24, 2009, it stands at $7.25.
These questions frustrate me because the people asking them are educated, “artistic” people, people who should, by rights, be better informed than that. Worse, many of them are union members themselves, affiliated with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) or AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). You’d think, as dues-paying union members, they’d be more savvy.
If people wish to reject unionism, that’s their privilege; a workers’ collective isn’t for everyone. But just as those who reject vegetarianism must acknowledge that it has certain nutritional and ethical virtues, people must realize that the only things keeping the American worker from being exploited by the marketplace are labor unions and the minimum wage.
Without those assets, working people would be in free-fall. Union wages are what contribute to the viability of the middle-class. It’s no accident that the decline in union membership has coincided with the hollowing-out of the middle-class; as unions decline, the disparity between rich and poor continues to grow. The statistics don’t lie.
Another reason these questions frustrate me is because it demonstrates just how vulnerable we are to misinformation and outright deceit. It shows how gullible we are, how we can be induced to believe, for instance, that one-fifth of our national budget is spent on foreign aid, when the actual figure is less than 1-percent.
This explains why health care reform can be so easily demonized, why people believe that Autoworkers earn $78 per hour, why “trickle-down” economics hasn’t been laughed out of existence, and why, even after all that’s happened, 32-percent of the population stubbornly clings to the belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the World Trade Center attack.
When a significant percentage of the population believes that labor unions are not only anachronistic, but “harmful,” it means we’re regressing; it means the bad guys are winning. And progressive politicians aren’t helping. Because they’re so terrified of offending their constituents, they gutlessly tip-toe around the subject.
I’m reminded of that angry senior citizen who stood up recently at a townhall meeting, in opposition to national health reform, and shouted, “I don’t want the government involved in my Medicare!” Dumb son of a bitch. If the stakes weren’t so high, and “low information voters” so pervasive, that would be hysterically funny.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org