How to Decode Labor Unions

The history of the American labor movement is rich and diverse--diverse, exhilarating, depressing, inspirational, weird and heartbreaking. Ever since passage of the landmark National Labor Relations Act, unions have been recognized as the legal, government-sanctioned entities dedicated to working conditions of employees.
01/23/2015 06:34 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

The history of the American labor movement is rich and diverse--diverse, exhilarating, depressing, inspirational, weird and heartbreaking. Ever since passage of the landmark National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), in 1935, unions have been recognized as the legal, government-sanctioned entities dedicated to improving the wages, benefits and working conditions of employees.

Despite Corporate America's attempts at demonizing and debasing it, organized labor has proven it still plays an important role in the economy. During the affluent 1950s, when our middle-class was in the process of becoming the envy of the world, union membership stood at close to 35-percent. Today, with the middle-class under siege and continuing to be chipped away, it hovers at barely 11-percent.

The establishment of unions was predicated upon one simple principle: The time-honored belief that without some form of unified resistance--without the "strength in numbers" leverage that only collectivism can provide--workers would remain at the mercy of management's self-serving definitions of "fair wages" and "adequate working conditions." Simple as that.

When Douglas MacArthur was placed in charge of "reconstructing" Japan after World War II, he insisted that the Japanese establish labor unions (which they never had), fearing that, without them, management would become too powerful. It should be noted that General MacArthur was no "We shall overcome" liberal. He was a rightwing Republican.

But unions still draw fire, and, surprisingly, the biggest complaint involves their handling of discipline. People are confused by the distinction between a union "representing" its members and "defending" them. Accordingly, these observers tend to judge organized labor harshly (and unfairly), believing that unions are committed to defending bad employees--lazy workers, incompetent workers, pilferers, vandals....cops accused of shooting unarmed citizens.

As the former president of an industrial union, I may be able to clarify that distinction. I will use the real-life example of a long-term employee who was fired for theft. The man was caught red-handed trying to walk out with stuff that obviously didn't belong to him. A 17-year employee being deprived of his livelihood was a big deal. As union prez, it was my job to "represent" him.

First of all, we need to be clear. There's no way in hell anyone is going to "defend" theft. Other than a case of a desperate father stealing food in order to feed his starving babies, how does one go about defending one's right to steal, particularly from one's long-time employer?

What I did was represent this dues-paying member. And by representing him, all I really did was cover the bases: Make sure that the salient facts were accurate, that the man wasn't under duress, that he understood what he was doing, that his rights hadn't been violated, and that the punishment (in this case termination) fit the crime. Pilfering was a pretty much a non-issue in that plant. In fact, employee theft didn't even move the needle. So a theft discharge was fairly unique; there wasn't much of a road map from which to work. Chronic absenteeism was the chief reason people were fired.

As it happened, even though this guy was guilty, it was tough seeing him get clobbered. He stole $35 worth of maintenance equipment (some grinding stones, duct tape, and a clamp), and for that he had kissed off a $50,000 a year job with full benefits and pension. Making it even tougher, you could see he was genuinely contrite. He wept. Not only at having lost his job, but at having disgraced himself so abjectly.

Again, while no one is going to defend a man's right to steal, there are forms of punishment other than economic homicide available. Nowhere was it written that this man had to be fired. Indeed, in everyday life, thieves don't get the death penalty; they get put in jail. But my request that his 17 years of good service be taken into account, and that he be suspended for 30 days without pay, was denied.

The plant manager argued that that would send the wrong message. It would be telling people that everyone was entitled to one "freebie"--one occasion where you could be caught stealing and not have to worry about being terminated, only suspended. I found that to be a bizarre interpretation, given that the plant had no theft problem. But he wouldn't budge.

Afterward, people on the floor were annoyed to learn the union had "defended" the man, that their union had "wasted the membership's dues" on a thief. "How could you defend that guy?" a woman asked me angrily. I tried telling her that I had represented him, not defended him. "Bullshit," she said. "You're playing with words."

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David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition). He can be reached at Dmacaray@gmail.com