Happy Labor — Or Should We Say ‘Co-Dependence’ — Day

Written by Wes Walker on August 30, 2013

Happy Co-Dependence Day!  I won’t call it Labor (Labour) Day because, who actually spends the last long weekend of summer hobnobbing with Union reps?  It’s like so-called “Turkey Day” — people are glad for the day off, but don’t seem to care about why they get it.

Are Unions still fighting important battles like dropping the workweek to 58 hours like they did in 1872? They were (in a way) victims of their own success.  The ironclad security with unionized jobs and pensions collapsed when the Unions’ monopoly over the labour force died.  Once overseas companies could build competitive products for less, out-competing the locals, that was it.  Game Over for the Golden Age of Union domination — in most sectors.

I’ll call it Co-Dependence Day because Unions have helped change the nature of the relationship between workers and employers with values exactly contrary to the pioneering spirit of our predecessors.

People like to talk about Societal gains the Unions have made (isn’t it always “benefits granted?”) such as overtime, holiday pay, working conditions, et cetera.  You might be tempted to believe that these gains came with no cost at all. But, as the good people of Detroit might tell you, payment sometimes comes later.

Are unions a taken-for-granted, underrated good news story?  Their fans would say so.  They’ve certainly played a part in changing employer attitudes toward things like workplace safety and shift lengths.  

But the massive, powerful political animals Unions have become over generations … is that a good thing?  Or are they another example of Benjamin Franklin’s warning that those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither?  Might this change to our culture provide life in a “guild-ed” (oops … “gilded”) cage.

There are areas in which the ascendency of unions should raise red flags.  

Their political involvement, for one, uses money collected from its members to support causes that individual workers may or may not agree with.  In many cases, membership in such politically aligned unions is compulsory.

Politically active entities — like your SEIU — are not uniquely American problems.  In Ontario, the Teachers play kingmaker for the Provincial Leadership, who (surprise!) pays their benefits.  Should it shock you that these teachers receive frequent raises and are very, very well compensated?  Their pension plan’s total assets were $117 Billion (with a “B”) in 2012.  According to International Monetary Fund’s figures, that’s a little more than the entire GDP of Morocco, (rated 61st overall). This pension isn’t for all Canadian teachers, just those from Ontario. Why do you suppose those teachers get special attention from elected officials, even when auditors say the money’s run out?

The second red flag relates to why Detroit looks the way it does today:  Change.  

When companies and governments in a flourishing Detroit negotiated their contracts, money was no object. Why?  Because they had a lot of workers, and only a few retirees.  The retirees also didn’t have the lifespan we have today.  Back then, promising to keep paying them after they retire didn’t seem like a big deal; they could afford it.  Then they went broke.  
Payouts eventually can’t keep pace with income.  

It’s really unfair in a couple of ways.  Our grandfather’s pensions only worked if there were more people working than taking.  Problem is, we don’t know the future.  Both sides agreed to an empty promise that tied the hands of future shareholders, and kept them from staying competitive with foreign players.  It also hurts pensioners counting on those benefits, if their company goes belly-up.

With public servants, it’s even worse.  In Detroit, voters from this generation were forced to watch their city crumble while it paid for benefits given to workers decades earlier.  Remember that Ontario Teachers pension I mentioned?  It had a net value of $119 Billion last year, and it’s poised to own 18% of Saks.  But somehow, despite an 11% return on their investments, they ran a cumulative deficit of $45.5 Billion.  Last year alone they had more than a $9 Billion shortfall… If even that crowd can’t keep up with public pension costs … who the hell CAN afford them?  

At least when Employers pay into a retirement plan the deal is immediate, and no balances or unknown obligations get carried forward.

These are political and financial problems.  But there is a more human one.  People have been conditioned to look to an employer for their security and identity.  They want to be “paid what they’re worth” rather than for the value of a particular task.  The modern relationship between worker and employer is now resembling the Feudal relationship between Lord and Serf.  What happened to self-employment? To the “American Dream”?  They are deliberately being bred out of us.
Innovation relies on the exchange of work for perceived value of the work, not the person.  If I can make my work more valuable, or do more of it in less time, I get paid more.  It’s a merit system., the same merit system that unions kill with a thousand papercuts…

“Paid what I’m worth??”

Your income has nothing to do with your intrinsic value.  Is your job your identity?  That’s caste-system thinking. If worth is tied to money and position, no wonder we treat the wealthy differently than the poor.  It explains the cult of celebrity, and the tragic willingness of the young to take self-destructive shortcuts to fame and fortune.

As we commemorate MLK’s landmark speech, let’s pursue the same excellence and satisfaction in honest labour that he counselled.

Image: Courtesy of ParrishPlatzBlogspot.com; http://parrishplatz.blogspot.com/2012/10/