Of all the obnoxious myths about labor unions (e.g., they’re too strong, they’re too weak, they’re mobbed-up, they’re anachronistic, they’re undemocratic, etc.) the one that most rankles is the claim that union members don’t make good employees because, being protected by a big, bad labor union, they have no incentive to work.
People with even a modicum of common sense have to see how absurd that premise is. Jobs in the community that pay the highest wages, offer the best fringe benefits, and provide the safest and most comfortable working conditions (in other words, union jobs) are going to attract the best people, the most qualified people. How could it be otherwise?
In truth, based on everything I’ve personally seen and heard, I’ve always been stunned by the converse of that dubious claim. I’ve always been impressed by how hard union people were willing to work, especially on those occasions where slacking off, taking a breather, or flat-out throwing in the towel would’ve made far more sense.
Take for example the graveyard shift of Kimberly-Clark’s tissue converting (Kleenex) department in Fullerton, California. These folks worked like demons, like frenetic, crazy people, doing everything in their power to keep the machines running—up to and including violating department safety rules.
Mind you, no one would have been reprimanded or even frowned upon for having succumbed to human nature and allowed a distressed production line to shut down as a result of a plug-up or other mechanical malfunction. No one would have uttered a peep. Fear of punishment didn’t factor into the equation.
Nor did personal gain. These were hourly workers who received the identical pay whether the production line was cranking out product at 260 clips (boxes of Kleenex) per minute, or whether the machinery was lying there cold and eerily silent, dead in the water. It all paid the same.
Moreover, there were no bonuses for record runs, no commissions, no incentive pay, no extra money of any kind. The crews could set a shift production record, a department record, a corporate record, and receive no more compensation for the hours they worked than had the machine lain idle for that entire period.
Given that there were no incentives and no fear of punishment, why were these people—men and women, young and old, white, black and Latino—willing to sweat their rear ends off at three o’clock in the morning to keep the production line running? Because they were good workers—workers who would be attracted to a job that offers exemplary wages, benefits and working conditions, which is to say a union job.
So how did the bizarre myth of substandard union workers ever get started? Presumably, it was invented and circulated by anti-union people looking to undermine organized labor—undermine it the same way virulent anti-government people try to undermine the feds by portraying them as predatory and destructive.
Consider another myth, the one Sarah Palin is peddling. Palin has gained a following by regularly lambasting the federal government as inefficient, intrusive and wasteful. In her Alaskan hillbilly twang, she intones, “The government isn’t the solution; the government is the problem!” Catchy as those that slogan is, Palin must know that her state receives the highest per capita amount of federal aid in the nation.
Like the myth of substandard union workers, Alaska’s image of flinty self-reliance is fake. Despite the pseudo-libertarian gibberish, it couldn’t survive without federal assistance. Indeed, Alaska is to the U.S. government what Albania used to be to the USSR: A client state.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org