Some of my readers are aware that I was involved in our long-term family business for about half of my working career, and still do work in that field. One thing I left behind, however, is industrial relations, or dealing with a trade union. Our company had one for many years in Chicago and again in Chattanooga; it outlasted my family’s time in the business, albeit not by much.
It was an experience for both me and the trade union, to say the least. The complexities of collective bargaining under our labour laws, to say nothing about handing grievances, tried everyone’s patience. Trade unions are interesting in that many of their goals–and in certain cases their principal goals–are “non-economic,” i.e., working conditions, termination (or lack thereof) and similar ones. In a broader perspective, I found out that there were many de facto members of the bargaining unit, either by immediate interest, sentiment or both.
In the middle of all this, I’d hear people say that “At one time, unions served a useful purpose to improve working conditions…” To some extent, trade unions are a victim of their own success, due to their political activity. Today we have unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation, OSHA and other government-mandated benefits, many of which were lobbied for by the trade unions. But the more benefits workers have from outside the contract, the less useful unions are.
Recent events have shifted things around a bit. What got me interested in this topic from the “other side” was the ongoing campaign by the British trade union GMB West Midlands to organise amazon.com’s distribution facility in Rugeley. Living in an area with two amazon.com facilities, I know people who have worked there and what comes out isn’t pretty. To cut to the chase amazon.com is a brutal place to work with fairly draconian work rules. From the looks of it they’ve extended that to Whole Foods, which they recently acquired, and they’re thinking about organising too. For the first time in my adult life, I publicly came out in support of a trade union organising a workplace.
That support is buttressed by the actions of amazon.com’s leader, Jeff Bezos. Today’s tech executives are a highly moralistic bunch, and Bezos is no exception. He plasters the Washington Post with “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” but his employees are hard pressed to answer nature’s call. (Wonder if they get time off to vote, like ours used to? Perhaps it depends on how they vote…) His company has no problem butting heads with left-wing stars like Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant over the homeless tax. (It’s interesting how the most fertile ground for socialists these days is in big blue-state cities…)
The blunt truth is that progressives can’t have it both ways: they can’t blithely support social justice warriors on the one hand (well, the ones that are shilling for them) and brutally exploit their workers on the other. Neither can they claim the moral high ground. Bezos and his colleagues in the tech community need to stop the duplicity and face reality. If they’re really going to claim they’re better not only than anyone else but with all who have gone before them, they need to start acting like it and not like the Second Gilded Age magnates that they really are.
In the meanwhile, Bezos has revived the need for trade unions. I hope and pray they are successful with organising as wide a variety of his operations as possible.