America has a strong sense of pride in it’s labor unions and their history. The problem is that key parts of history and the corresponding updates to the cultural ideology of unions are missing. While unions once helped rescue the working class from indentured servitude in the first major century of industrialism and helped pave the way for a middle class, they were eventually co-opted by the same kind of state-sanctioned corporations they were created to protect individuals against. Over time unions helped to break the middle class and pave the way for outsourcing production outside of American borders. Yet the most horrific development in labor unions is the fact that they have essentially become a tool of protecting the states employees against consequences. Whether it is a teacher or a police officer, unions often artificially extend the career-life of individuals unfit to serve in their public positions.
I have a pretty good idea that this is true because in 1994-95 I served as both a steward and the secretary of a local AFSCME chapter. I was employed by the Jasper County Care Facility outside of Newton, Iowa as a kitchen assistant and later as an assistant in the area that was populated by people suffering profound mental illnesses. I was eighteen years old and full of gusto, so adding the union duties to my busy schedule was an exciting challenge and experience. As a secretary I mostly just took notes at a meeting. But as a steward I acted as a sort of attorney for union members facing reprimands or filing grievances. It was a lot of fun. Yet most of the time, I was defending employees who I knew to be awful workers, often deserving of their circumstances or worse. The chance to exercise cleverness and argument was far more important to me at the time than the reality of the situation and its circumstances and consequences. Being young is awesome, as long as you learn how to stop eventually.
Recently a criticism based on the same observations of public employee unions was made by Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In an 11 page report he contends that labor contracts created by union officials in Baltimore work to undermine accountability and create a culture of bad policing. According to the Baltimore Sun:
Walker said “offensive provisions” in the union contract, a three-year pact expiring next year, violate “best practices” across the country and should be revised to boost professionalism in the Baltimore Police Department.
“In Baltimore, and in other cities and counties across the country, police union contracts contain provisions that impede the effective investigation of reported misconduct and shield officers who are in fact guilty of misconduct from meaningful discipline,” Walker wrote.
Among the provisions Walker cited include the “do not call list,” the expungement of internal records and the makeup of hearing boards.
The contract states that officers cannot be disciplined if prosecutors place them on the “do not call list” — a list of officers who are not called to testify due to credibility issues. The Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which provides procedural protections for officers accused of misconduct, also prohibits officers from being disciplined for being on the list.
“Police officers possess the awesome power to deprive people of their liberty through arrest and to take human life,” Walker wrote. “The highest standards of integrity and honesty must be expected of all officers.”
Walker said the union contract also allows officers to have unfounded, exonerated or unsustained complaints expunged after three years, violating “new best practices.”
These facts and observations suggest that corrupt and unethical practices are likely present at almost every police labor union across the country, to varying degrees locally. It is likely true at in every labor union for public employees, in general. From small town Iowa to Baltimore. Unions are less about protecting employees from predatory employers as they are about protecting them from reasonable consequences and accountability- for a fee. If the whole process helps to arrange society for the benefit of the ruling elite, all the better.
Unions are not what we think they are. They have not been so in a very long time, if they ever completely were to begin with. But I think we can pinpoint the historical turning point in which unions began their slide from valid voluntary collectives to coercive and compulsive corporations with agendas that have nothing to do with the individual or betterment of humanity.
I wrote the following piece in April 2010 as a Facebook Note:
Labor Unions As An Example of Government Regulatory Failure
In my discussions with friends from many ends of the political spectrums a few arguments always come up that are used to justify increased government involvement in business. While on the surface many of these arguments appear to have merit, they are often riddled in chicken/egg scenarios. To get at the larger issue, let us explore the argument that government support of labor unions and the resulting regulations have improved the position of the laborer.
In the dawn of America’s industrial revolution many laborers were treated abhorrently by employers. These same employers were indicative of the kind of business philosophies that promoted slavery and state sponsored sexism, and did so fallaciously under the banner of free markets. In the early years of modern industrial labor it became an imperative of the workers to respond likewise through associations known as unions so as to advance their cause. Labor unions struggled in their first century, largely in part to the inherent racism and sexism of flawed union policies. Then something happened that shaped the environment of organized labor as well as popular opinion and political attitude in this country forever- The Haymarket Affair.
For those not already familiar I suggest a more thorough study of the event. On May 4, 1886, August Spies gave a public speech in downtown Chicago on behalf of organized labor, although a large crowd had gathered to hear his plea, by all accounts the speech entailed no incitements and the gathered remained attentive and calm. Police had also gathered and when they eventually began to peacefully disperse the crowd a small explosive was thrown from an unknown member of the crowd, killing one officer and injuring others. The scene quickly became chaotic and bullet ridden resulting in more tragedies on both sides of the law. Although the bomber was never identified, August and other fellow anarchist labor organizers became scapegoats of a reactionary local justice system. The resulting national publicity of these events created a sour political and public climate for labor unions around the country.
Four years later the American Railway Union organized a strike of 125,000 workers in several states which resulted in a standstill of railway transportation vital to commerce. The federal government responded by invoking the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Although in all appearance the act appeared to have been created earlier to break up monopolies and cartels on behalf of the general populace as well as laborers, its first usage was to forever weaken the position of unions. Although the union members decided to ignore the federal injunction to return to work, the government responded by refusing postal service and sending US Marshalls and the US Army in to forcibly end the strikes. The strike was eventually broken and organized labor quickly learned that legislation intended to regulate big business was to be used ironically to foil the attempts at free market labor associations.
In the future labor unions would instead turn towards government itself in order to gain political clout, but these concessions would always be accompanied by legislative acts that could be used on behalf of big business. Specifically those whose financial support of political candidates earned them special privilege; given both on the barrel and under the table. In this way government itself became sort of a big business that continued to grow itself through regulatory means. Each new sub-sect of government creating a niche for the elite, where wealth, power and privilege became centered on a growing oligarchy that masqueraded itself as free market democracy.
There is nothing inherently bad about big business; free markets are an extension of human nature just as are the gaps in peaks and valleys of individual success. The problem itself lies not in big business, but in business tied to government through the act of regulation. Though on the surface, acts of legislation appear to work in the interests of free markets and the general populace, they can always later be reinterpreted or misdirected to work towards special interests. Regulation is not the answer to preventing the potential atrocities of big business, such as human rights and environmental issues. The growing response to the latter has created large markets for eco-friendly businesses whose good practices alone have caused their success. Human beings, for all of their flaws, generally want what is best and will naturally support those things through the independent distribution of their own resources and wealth. This is how we were able to shape our civilizations in the first place.
It is inevitable that there will always be those who have a natural need for power, wealth and privilege. That alpha nature is also a part of our biological success and evolutionary heritage as a species. Civilizations and all of it failures and glories has given us full spectrum of history to see that if we allow ourselves to succumb merely to the whims of these alpha oriented humans than our modern societies become riddled in inequality on all playing fields. We cannot expect self replicating associations of these individuals to coercively pass our wealth, our planet and our future through their hands and get a fair product in return. It is not in their nature, but that is not what worries me. What worries me is it in the nature of ordinary humanity to be led willingly into a fools bet for our liberty, lives and the future of our species?
I invite you to do your own research into the history of unions. From loose collectives of workers- to politically managed groups of fee-payers- to mobster business plans- to the monstrous corporate entities that they have become today. While the idea of loose collections of individuals protecting themselves against the worst tendencies of capital investors is a good and noble archetype with some great history, it is not todays reality. The reality is that unions have helped destroy American production jobs in the private sector while propping up the employees of government and protecting them against reality. Those who once worked in well paying jobs are now those living in poverty and taking the heat from unaccountable police. See the connection?