John Laird: Labor leaders: mad in Michigan, seething in Seattle

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Union issues are heating up across America — especially in Michigan but also here in Washington — and it doesn't take a labor-law expert to understand the basics of what's going on.

In Michigan, both sides are wrong, as I see it. Union leaders and Democratic politicians are wrong to expect a continuation of an unfair system that (1) mandates union membership in many trades, whether workers want to join or not, and (2) uses union dues to support candidates and causes that many members personally oppose. I wouldn't want part of my pay confiscated and used in that manner. Would you?

As for other side, the union busters and Republican politicians in Michigan, they're wrong in the ways they're implementing change. Right-to-work bills have been ramrodded through the state House and Senate in the most unstatesmanlike manner.

First, this happened during a lame-duck session, before Republican majorities are reduced. Passage of such bills would be more difficult after next month's swearing-in. This unbridled haste is unconscionable, but not rare in politics or exclusive to either political party.

Second, as our state's Washington Policy Center points out, Michigan lawmakers passed right-to-work bills on the same day the bills were introduced, without committee hearings. Also, as WPC notes, a "nominal appropriation was attached to deny ability for voter referendum."

Clearly, GOP legislators in Michigan threw transparency out the window and acted against the best interests of their constituents. Again, not rare in American politics today.

So, politically, it's difficult to take sides on the Michigan matter. Neither side appears guided by common sense. But on the broader issue of labor unions' value in America today, ample evidence explains their steady decline.

More money, shining legacy

Union leaders make several compelling points, especially in the two dozen or so states with various forms of collective bargaining laws. Their No. 1 pitch, of course, is higher wages. Who wouldn't like to make more money? A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Labor notes that workers (all occupations) average $16.89 per hour in collective-bargaining states and $15.31 in right-to-work states. Specifically, unionized middle school teachers nationally average $55,863 in annual pay, compared with $49,306 for non-union middle school teachers. For computer support workers, it's $50,641 vs. $46,306.

Also, unions make strong arguments about secure employment and superior benefits, not to mention the allure of enlisting in a movement that has greatly improved workplace conditions for more than a century.

To many of us, though, that union legacy is confined to history books. And the disadvantages of surrendering your professional sovereignty — along with a not-so-small chunk of your pay to union dues — cannot be ignored. The final straw, for me at least, would be sending part of my hard-earned money to politicians and political causes I oppose.

Union leaders, of course, vehemently dispute my beliefs. I've heard all of their arguments for years; none of which altered how I feel. And a quick glance at what's happening up in Seattle strengthens my stance.

Just as this state — the epicenter of aerospace manufacturing — is poised on the brink of an economic recovery, and just as global orders for new airlines are starting to roll in, union officials for Boeing engineers say a strike is likely as soon as February. According to an Associated Press story, Boeing has offered raises of 3.5 to 4.5 percent each year for four years. The union wants 6 percent for each of three years. The company wants to replace a pension with a 401(k) for new hires. Not current union workers, mind you; just new hires. The union says no.

Unlike what's transpiring in Michigan, I have no difficulty taking a side in Washington state's union flap.