Guest commentary: Founders knew the value of unions to our land

By Al Churchill

For a while now, unions have been taking a public beating without much pushback.

During earlier protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to emasculate collective bargaining by public unions, Sarah Palin said, “… these union bosses that are acting like thugs are misleading their union members.”

Mitt Romney once referred to a couple of National Labor Relations Board members as labor “stooges.” Other right-wingers constantly express similar language and themes.

But the facts say otherwise.

No unionists were arrested in Wisconsin for protest activities. Also, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a study, concluding that almost no property damage occurred during the protests.

It is fact that we do not put up with thugs or “bosses” in my UAW union. With a preamble that is lifted, in part, from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the UAW Constitution concretely establishes the membership at large, not elected officials, as the “boss“ -- the final authority. The UAW also has an internal grievance procedure that acts as a bill of rights for every UAW member. American revolutionaries, who fought a war for the right to establish a similar, then radical, social contract, would give proud approval. Tom Paine would smile.

That being said, “boss” is not the appropriate term to describe a productive, responsible union leader. “Elected leader” or “official” is much more polite and accurate.

For those on the political right it is, too often, a rite of passage to savagely denigrate unions and their members. The Brits felt the same way about the Sons of Liberty.

We do understand thugs though. In 1914, during what has been called the Ludlow Massacre, United Mineworkers strike leader Louis Tikas was held by militia members while a rifle butt was broken over his head. He was then shot in the back. During that strike, two women and 11 children were asphyxiated when mine guards machine-gunned the miners’ tent city and looted and set fire to the tents.

In the late 1940s, Walter and Victor Reuther were both injured by shotgun blasts fired through the windows of their respective homes. Walter’s arm was never the same and Victor was blinded in one eye. Union history is replete with similar thuggery.

But I digress.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress met in a friendly Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia rather than meet in the state house where loyalist Tories resided. The hall was the home of an association of tradesmen, whose purpose was to foster the well-being of their families through their craft association. There is no evidence that the founders ever disagreed with that goal or the existence of craft associations.

Certainly James Madison understood the need for colonial carpenters to band together when he wrote the 10th of the “Federalist Papers.” Written to encourage ratification of the Constitution in New York, that essay dealt with “factions” and the need to diffuse power among the various interest groups then present in the colonies.

Madison understood the timeless and universal significance of original sin; namely, we are all imperfect -- all of us, labor and management included. He believed that too much power in the hands of too few people inevitably leads to oppression. So America -- indeed the world -- needs strong, countervailing unions.

Madison would support a strong union movement today as a counterbalance to the massive power of American and transnational corporations. Indeed, the founders would enthusiastically encourage America’s citizens to support and, when possible, join an American union.

Why not? At the start of every meeting, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag that is prominently displayed in our union halls. Shipping jobs overseas because of cheap foreign labor, transnational corporations are noticeably less patriotic. Indeed, some have set aside loyalty to the country that nurtured them. Unions and their members have not.

The weakening of our unions severely undermines our standard of living, our democratic freedoms and, not so subtly, invites despotism and tyranny into the American heartland. Jefferson and Jackson would not be happy. Nor would a later American, Abraham Lincoln, who had nothing in common with today’s political right wing.

Solidarity forever.

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Thu, 05/09/2013 - 9:13am
The world has changed a lot ever since World War II. Communication and transportation are two items that now are almost instantaneous. Robotic manufacturing, just-in-time logistics, and the material make-up of our products have all lead to productivity changes. The very essence of quality has also changed from a build and inspect system, to an everyone is an inspector system. The phrase that comes to mind is 'change or die'. Unions at one time served a very useful purpose. But rules have changed and what was once under negotiation by the union is now imbedded into government regulation. Workplace safety is now imbedded in OSHA and EPA. The big gripe against unions is their reluctance to change. Work rules, or as it was commonly called in the railroad industry, featherbedding, need to be adjusted to keep up with the times. The human desire for perceived best value has enabled off shore product to invade our country to the extent that many products once made in the US are now all made off shore. Textiles, electronics to a large extent, and airplanes have vanished or are made in many other countries. The very cost structure on anything means that we are no longer competing against just ourselves, but are competing worldwide. If an entity is reluctant to change, or if it resists change, then it should die.
Ed Haynor
Thu, 05/09/2013 - 10:39am
I don’t know Al Church, but I wish I did. His commentary is an excellent reflection on reasons for worker rights as well as the need to diffuse the effects of today’s power brokers who are killing the American dream. Even though many of the rights workers have fought and died for are ingrained in American law, those rights now are under attach by right-wing extremists. Included in this are radical state and national jurists who are making court decisions that are bizarre at best. For instance, activist judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled recently that the National Labor Relations Board cannot require employers to put up posters explaining to workers that they have the right to unionize, because this violates the employers’ “free speech.” If this decision is left to stand, one could assume that this ruling also means the government can’t tell companies to put up signs warning of DANGER on high-voltage areas, either. This ruling is potentially very dangerous and very anti worker. Those who represent workers need to be active players in political discourse including media commentary. Mr. Church, although retired, is as good a writer representing workers as I’ve seen in some time. If I had my way, he’d receive the Pulitzer Prize for his essay.
Fri, 05/10/2013 - 7:43pm
Thank you Mr Church, your article puts some prospective on the history of the labor movement and why unions exist. Both of my grandfathers were in the sitdown strikes in Flint, one at fisherbody and the other at chevy plant 4 ( as a union man you will understand the significance of this). The easy answer is that times have changed and unions have out lived there purpose, saddly that is not true, look overseas to the plants that these multinations have built from the profits of their American workers, low wages, unsafe conditions, long hours, etc. Then ask why the us plants can't go back to that. The honest answer in the current enviroment is that it can, if there is no check on the power of bossman, In the current political enviroment the easy answer to the economic problems we face is to blame the unions, and ignore the poor decisions that were made in the excecutive sweets, to whin about the wages and benefits of working people while ignoring the huge sumes squandered on excecutive compensation and so on. Yes unions must make changes in how they represent thier membership, but to paint union leaders and their membership as thugs, crooks and cronies and the root cause of all economic evils is to be pretty short sighted.
Sat, 05/11/2013 - 11:25am
Mr Church is really stuck in the past! Having worked all my life in the union construction industry, I've seen it all. Sure, I enjoyed good wages but worked with many, many who were there for only the pay check and because their dad, brother, uncle, etc. got them their job and the union protected them. The union almost 100% of the time was/is absolutely polar opposite of my and many of my "brothers" political views. I've seen lots of discrimination against blacks and women. I've been a victim (numerous times) of insane work rules that had nothing to do with safety or quality. The only thing it did was to show union power (or lack of). I've worked many times in the auto plants and saw UAW folks waste much time and $$ not allowing outside contractors to do their jobs because it would be contrary to the way the UAW would do it. The unions were once needed but now are nothing more than an extension of the democrat/communist party. Given the chance, most union construction workers would take freedom over union any day. Union bosses run the show and have little to do with the (peasant) workers and their thoughts & views.
Bob Moriarty
Wed, 05/15/2013 - 7:28am
Outstanding article Al! You hit it right on the head. We don't elect "bosses" we elect leaders! I would like to shake your hand one day.