Anti-Union Propaganda Takes Many Forms

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 every heroic thing 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. They 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 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 and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Maien said on August 14th, 2010 at 11:37am #

    Your words may be true and correct and I may even agree with you on some points but really anyone who witnessed a work landscape where employees were all union (government, construction, oil and gas….) during the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s can tell you about the everyday waste of time, resources and the attitude of “ha ha! It takes me less than 2 hours to do the daily work and I get to pretend I’m working for the rest of the time! Ha! Ha! and I have great benefits, pension and I know longer have to seriously pay attention to my work!”.
    Just to play the devil’s advocate… perhaps unions became a handy tool for the corporate masters to insure that the bulk of workers became dumb, lazy and hugely demanding about their ‘earned’ entitlements, in order to label them another failed social experiment.

  2. lichen said on August 14th, 2010 at 3:34pm #

    Yes, everyone is entitled to a living wage job, a short work week, comfortable conditions, paid vacation, and other benefits, union or not. The pathetic, disgusting, polluting slave ethic of “hard work” does need to stop. Democratic workers cooperatives are much better than unions–why bargain when the workers can directly own the business without having to subsidize a rich ceo?

  3. beverly said on August 14th, 2010 at 4:51pm #

    Maien writes:

    “It takes me less than 2 hours to do the daily work and I get to pretend I’m working for the rest of the time! Ha! Ha! and I have great benefits, pension and I know longer have to seriously pay attention to my work!”.”

    If the work is being completed in 2 hours instead of 8, it may be the fault of management in the way the job is structured. Job duties might need to be increased for some and decreased for others to allow a more even flow of work throughout the day. This is especially true for many clerical hell jobs where workers’ skills and minds are not utilized fully (or at all). Many of these workers are given elementary tasks when they are capable of doing more complex job duties. This makes for a mind numbing, soul killing day, clock watching day.

    Further, the 40 hour week needs to re-evaluated. Sometimes it takes 40 hrs to complete work, other times it can get done in less time. Workers need more control over scheduling and planning their workday. Such control is just as important to a productive, satisfied worker as good pay and benefits – especially for jobs that aren’t that interesting or mentally challenging. I know my comments are a pipe dream. Even if “the man” allow more leeway in work schedule, he/she would require your pay be adjusted downward if you put in less than 40 hours.

  4. Maien said on August 14th, 2010 at 7:17pm #

    I agree Beverly! I was more focused on how unions were also subverted to meet the needs of the corporate elite. Thinking, creating and sound decision -making, were slowly taken out of school curriculum’s in favour of ‘viewpoints’ and simple skill sets. Graduates lack even fundamental knowledge of their world. Better, for the obedient consumers they are required to become. Not so good for nurturing healthy, creative and engaged humans. Television and gladiator sports play their part. Unions and Corporations and Industrialisation, technology all impacted the changing roles at work. Rather than working as an artisan, teacher, doctor… whatever…. each job has been broken down into single, repetitive acts. The specialisation that has been rampant for decades seems to demand several workers to do only parts of jobs, currently. Remember when your assistant/secretary trained for about 1-3 weeks on the job and multi-tasked. that position has been broken into so many different skill sets,each requiring diplomas. No responsibility/freedom for creating a whole product/service. The “soul-killing day” is a part of the successful efforts of the corporations to turn an individual into a mobile commodity. All part and parcel of the social engineering which seemingly is now coming to fruition. What continues to rankle is that addictive demand for “more” was not a hard sell to the working public. it was so easy to overlook the facts of growing entitlement when one didn’t need to bother explore. The corporate elite is successful because individuals have become demanding consumers sans common sense. I do not deny that there are also individuals who take pride in their work because they take pride in themselves… work ethic.

    I too, look forward to many more ‘worker communities’ owning manufacturing and production facilities. Successful workers will grow in number as responsibility becomes visibly personal. And it would seem that (thankfully) many more individuals are taking responsibility to build community versus corporation.