Katharine Gregg: Why unions are important to the nation

For the Monitor
Published: 10/1/2018 10:33:54 AM

Unions, it would seem, have become a dirty word. That makes me sad. I was a member of the Service Employees International Union back in the 1970s and later a member of the NEA. I know many unions have been and still are associated with corruption and organized crime. As a teen I remember Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union as the quintessential “bad” union, but later I plowed through a good bit of Irving Bernstein’s The Lean Years on labor’s struggles in the 1920s and ’30s. I particularly remember the brutality of the coal strikes, the evictions companies forced on workers and the violent repression of the police. It seemed – and still seems to me – that unions are the voice and muscle of working people.

Sadly the strength of unions has declined enormously. Corruption and lack of political support have turned many working people against them. Yet unions are fighting for our benefit.

At the moment an interesting ballot question is being fought in Massachusetts between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and hospitals, which claim that limiting the number of patients assigned a nurse would, among other things, require hiring more nurses, an expense that could cause some hospitals to close down. Here seems a clear case of the importance of a union, attempting not only to improve the working conditions of nurses by reducing the number of patients they are assigned, but to benefit the public through greater care.

We Granite Staters are known for our fierce independence. Right-to-work legislation has been very popular, though not yet successful. It’s a sly piece of legislation, for it suggests that unions are making it difficult for people to work and so drives many further away from trust in unions.

Right-to-work doesn’t mean, as it might suggest, that workers are forced to join a union. It means they can’t be forced to pay union dues, but even without paying they are not excluded from benefiting from union negotiations. What will happen, however, is that as more employees choose not to join and pay the dues, the unions will have less money to negotiate benefits for all.

We hear that right-to-work will draw businesses to New Hampshire. The unstated reason is that companies will not have to worry about union negotiations for fair wages and benefits. The question then becomes, where do the profits of those businesses go? Not, sadly, into the pockets of working people.

The overall economy of the state may rise, but there is no guarantee that wages of the working people will rise as well.

Many Granite Staters worry about the effect of unions on small businesses, which form the backbone of the New Hampshire economy – carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, all of whom are in fact supported by unions. There are also important local branches of national unions: engineers, communication workers, air traffic controllers, firefighters, teachers, transit workers, municipal employees – all these receive the benefits of unions.

But will these unions and their negotiations for good wages and benefits actually discourage local businesses from hiring or larger businesses from locating in New Hampshire? This is probably the bottom line in many people’s thinking. If businesses face strong unions, will they be deterred from hiring or from coming to the state at all?

It’s a tough question: increase the attractiveness for business by keeping wages and benefits low or make job opportunities attractive and bring in working people.

It should be easy to answer the question regarding big companies – the BAEs, the Hitchners, Cole Haan, Sig Sauer, Erie Scientific, to name just a few. These companies, whether New Hampshire-based or not, are surely wealthy enough to support union negotiations on behalf of their employees.

I’m not a small-business owner, so I don’t personally know how close to the margin these businesses operate. I understand they rightfully wish to profit from their expertise and management. But their employees need to profit as well. I don’t believe a fair minimum wage would put a skilled, well-managed business out of business. It seems to me that with experience a worker should be compensated for his or her increasing skill. Unions can help.

We’ve allowed the prevailing wisdom that what’s good for business is good for working people to distort what’s really going on. That’s been the thinking since Reaganomics, but by now we know it’s not true. Yes, we want small businesses to succeed, but we want them to compensate and benefit their employees fairly. If there are unions to support them, we should use them. With larger, especially national or international companies, the answer is even easier: They can easily afford to offer their employees fair wages and benefits. And unions are the way to get them.

(Katharine Gregg is a poet and essayist living in Mason. She can be reached by email at kggregg@myfairpoint.net.)

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