Whitman County Gazette - Serving Whitman County since 1877

By Frank Watson
Freelance Columnist 



October 17, 2019

The United Auto Workers Union strike against General Motors has entered its second month with no end in sight. They are using tactics developed years ago when the big three automakers ruled the industry. Rather than strike across the board, the union would target only one of the three. That way they could keep 2/3 of their members employed while they brought one to heel. Then they would use the results to bargain with the other two. I’m not sure those tactics would work today. Times have changed. Big corporations are no longer allowed to run roughshod over their workers, and government regulations have made some union issues obsolete. I think the days of big unions are over.

There was a time when large corporations ruled both economically and politically. US Steel, Standard Oil and other large corporations had the full support of the federal government. In the 1890s, Coeur d’Alene miners demanded wage increases, and the confrontation turned violent. Mine owners used their political clout to call in federal troops to break up the strike. Big corporations had the power to do almost anything they wanted, and big unions were the only buffer between unfair corporations and workers. Labor organizations obtained a fairer share of corporate profits for their members and were also successful in improving working conditions. Safety was secondary to production until unions demanded

otherwise. It was unions who ushered in an eight hour work day and other benefits we now take for granted.

Times have changed, however, and now many of the advances that were originally union initiatives are guaranteed by government. Work place safety is currently the purview of OSHA and monitored by government inspectors. The 40 hour workweek is standard with overtime pay mandated by law. Sick leave, to include maternity leave, is regulated by both federal and state governments. Workers are protected from discrimination for a myriad of reasons. Employers may not terminate employees without just cause, and whistle blowers have special protection. The current demands, however, are much different. The union wants a voice in plant closures. That’s not going to happen.

The global market and “right to work laws” have made giant inroads into organized labor. Foreign car makers have nonunion factories in the US. While the role of big unions is declining, I still see benefit from local employee organizations. I worked in a supermarket while I was in high school. After a few months I was told I had to join the International Union of Retail Clerks. I was given no choice. Our parent affiliate signed a contract with the union and that was that. Union membership had no effect on my job or my relationship with our store’s owner. When I had been there for about a year, we were notified that a labor dispute back east somewhere resulted in a nation-wide strike, and we were not allowed to go to work. We were offered a few dollars a day to carry picket signs, but no one at our store accepted the offer. The store remained open with a skeleton crew of meat cutters and managers until the strike was resolved. I was fourteen years old and didn’t understand. Why did an east coast labor dispute impact our little hometown market? Years later, I still ask the same question. As a school teacher in rural Eastern Washington, I frequently disagreed with state and national teachers unions. We dropped out of the union because our issues were not the same as the rest of the state. We knew everyone on the school board and could better resolve our differences without outside interference.

We have laws that prohibit monopolies and ban collusion among companies to avoid competition. It is time to limit unions from representing more than one employer.

(Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and a long time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free lance columnist for over 18 years.)


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