When I hear about the evils of unions driving American industry overseas and causing cities such as Detroit to fall into decay, as opposed to the virtues of corporate America’s sole responsibility for the greatness of this country, I cringe at the re-creationist nature of history implied.
There is no doubting the grand explosion witnessed during America’s Industrial Revolution. The great industrialists of history deserve a great deal of gratitude. Their ingenuity and stalwart one-mindedness enabled the greatest source of productivity ever witnessed in the history of the world. There remains, however, more to this story than just these great men and industries.
Consider the environment that made their success possible. I would ask, if it were not for the blood and sacrifice of Americans who went to war to guarantee American freedom, would this environment have existed? Are these not the same bodies who came home from war, populated the factories and operated the machines which produced the finished goods for these great industrialists?
From inception these people worked and made a living, offering much of their time, effort, knowledge, health and safety to a company in exchange for a wage. In regard to their employment, not one of them had a voice in their working conditions, value of their contribution or source of income when their working life was over.
Instead of individually airing there requests, grievances, concerns, etc. the logical solution was to develop a collective representation to negotiate for workers with the company. Much like ancient guilds, the American unions came into being.
Collective bargaining became the means for workers to negotiate their demands of fair wages for fair labor. Safe working conditions, pension benefits, etc. were issues ensuring workers had a better chance to enjoy some form of healthy retirement. Corporations fought tooth and nail against union organization because it necessarily cut into profits.
If one considers the law of supply and demand, the greatest source of consumers was the labor force. Without good wages, safe working conditions and the promise for some semblance of security in retirement, this potential market would likely have never evolved, the potential for real mass production may never have been realized and the Industrial Revolution may well have floundered.
As wages increased, America realized a marked disparity over the rates we see today in almost all other countries. Corporations naturally saw the potential for increased profits in manipulating this advantage. The laws in America became restrictive to industry, to restrain pollution, curb unsafe working conditions, provide prosperity to Americans after their useful working careers were over, etc. Bowing to the almighty dollar, corporations invented and employed lobbyists to ply and influence Washington politicians with money and other perks to craft laws and trade agreements allowing them to increase production offshore. In doing this, they essentially circumvented organized labor, environmental regulations, humane working conditions and at the same time were allowed to import their cheaply made goods without tariffs at extremely low income tax levels. This, then, became free trade in America.
In 20 years, tens of millions of jobs were exported to Third World countries, where child laborers are routinely abused, environments polluted to extremes and worker safety is of little concern. Yes, it’s free, yet anything but fair. In essence, these corporations have turned their back on Americans and their home country that made their very existence possible. Such is the nature of greed and the almighty profit.
There is much to blame for corporations offshoring, and unions are in no way blameless. There are many examples of union abuse, co-opting the power that a massive work force represents. Unions have been corrupted with greed and the quest for power above and beyond their useful purpose, but they share less of the blame than corporate and government entities in this regard.
There has and always will be a logical and useful place in America for unions in protecting American workers from unscrupulous employers. It is my opinion that without them, America would never have become the greatest country in the world.
Steven T. Tambroni is a native of Auburn, N.Y., who moved to Albany in 1998. Employed at MillerCoors 30 years, he has a B.S. degree in business management from State University New York, has studies in collective bargaining and is a 30-year member in good standing with the Machinists and Aerospace Workers.