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Never cross a picket line

| Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It’s not that uncommon. It might be outside a factory or an office or a store. You might be a customer or another employee. You will have to know what to do — so never cross a picket line.

It is the strongest action workers can take in an economy that is otherwise stacked against them. By going on strike, employees shut down the jobsite by refusing to work. Even if it doesn’t seem like you have a stake in their fight, you probably do.

The labor movement is not what it used to be. Union membership in the U.S. is down to 11.2 percent, from a high of 35 percent in the 1950s. Many people wonder why they should care. Unions may have once been necessary, opponents claim, but they’re not important now. They’re corrupt and greedy, run by “union bosses” who are ruining the economy. The underlying assumptions of these accusations are telling.

There is no hope in claiming that unions never did anything good for working people. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, union members fought and sometimes died for livable wages, decent working conditions, child labor laws, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, social security and the civil rights movement. The only hope of bosses seeking to break the might of the labor movement has been to claim that unions are now unnecessary.

Solidarity, however, is not something that goes out of style. Now, as always before, labor unions bring up wages not only for union workers but for all workers in their industries. They set standards for working conditions and act as a mechanism to enforce fair treatment for workers. Anything a boss gives workers can be taken away just as easily. Organizing gives workers a seat at the table to negotiate and make their demands heard.

The union, at its best, is an injection of economic democracy. It is run by its rank-and-file members with elected union leaders beholden to recall and the will of the membership. Different unions have achieved varying levels of success. No human organization is perfect, and whenever imperfections occur, bosses and owners are quick to jump on them in an attempt to show how corrupt and anti-democratic these unions actually are. In reality, the owners are just projecting.

“The union bosses are greedy.” When the owners making this claim are operating vast financial machines designed to extract every bit of value from the labor of millions of people, the accusation falls a bit flat. Owners fight to maximize profits, unions fight to maximize wages. What does it tell you that the worst slur they can hurl at union leaders is to call them “bosses”?

“The union is anti-democratic.” At their worst, unions are imperfect democracies that bicker amongst themselves. At their best, they are solidarity incarnate. Is there anything less democratic than the economic dictatorship of the boss over the workplace? Those who labor to produce all things have little control over the conditions or the fruits of their labor. The union is there to help them push for a bit more.

If one accepts that the unions are good for the working-class, there is one last hurdle — am I a worker? From the lowest paid employees being told that they are “associates” or “contractors” to the highest paid employees being told that they are “professionals,” much effort has been put into obscuring one simple fact. Everyone who labors for a wage has the same economic interests — a greater share of the fruits of their own labor and more employee control over working conditions. For this vast working-class, any union anywhere is in their interest, as unions drive up wages and working conditions throughout the whole economy.

A strike reveals something fundamental about the world — that the working-class makes the wheels turn. We have lesson after lesson showing us that workers can run industry in the absence of owners: the syndicalist revolution in Spain in the 1930s, mass factory take-overs in Argentina, the MONDRAGON Corporation run cooperatively by its 74,000 employees. On the other hand, those whose only claim to wealth is an abstract concept of property ownership enforced by state power need the workers. Without a host, the parasite withers.

So if you make your living by capital ownership and investment, disregard what I say. But if by the force of your brain and muscle you sell your labor for a wage, know where your interests lie. They may be waiters or steelworkers or physicians, but when union members are on strike, know that they are fighting for you too. When you see them, remember — never cross a picket line.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Billy McMahon

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  • Name

    Unions don’t serve any purpose except to force companies to hire under-qualified workers at above-average pay. Bust ’em up.

    • Jackie W.

      Thanks, Mitt. Couldn’t agree more.

    • kernals

      Just like in Red China or Commie Russia.

    • zerorez

      Yeah, then all you’re children are going to have to move to a foreign country for entry-level employment. Oh wait, that’s already happening.

    • Sea Pig

      Ignorant. Wrong. Idiotic.

  • Joepalooka1

    Unions have the right to exist of course; still, if I want their product I’ll cross their lines everytime. While quite a few of their individual workers are often times aspiring to more productivity and greater individual wealth and opportunity, by and large the unions themselves promote mediocrity….it’s just what I’ve experienced all of my life when striving myself to make a buck and looked on in amazement while the union encouraged limiting my own success as well as that of their own.

    • kernals

      We did very well when unions were strong.

      • Ken_Meyer

        Unions prospered WHEN we were “strong”….and thereafter they DIMINISHED our strength. Obviously all those jobs didn’t migrate overseas without a reason. And, unfortunately, unlike the post-WWII years, we no longer lack competition in this world….a fact which American labor unions never seemed to come to realize.

        • kernals

          We had plenty of competition after the war, the boom was global. Offshoring was caused by American wages not union wages

          • Ken_Meyer


            Funny, as I recall, the economies – and economic capacities – of the other major industrial nations of the world (i.e. – Germany, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the Benelux countries, and Japan were in shambles following WWII….to the point that the U.S. offered economic aid to pretty much all of them via the Marshall Plan (albeit not all accepted). Beyond that, the economies of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and other present-day U.S. competitors were, at the time, rudimentary at best. With that in mind, I’m trying to figure out just who the “plenty of competition” you claim existed was represented by.

            Also, got news for ya’…it wasn’t just not “wages” that drove jobs off-shore. Rather, it was also the ridiculous operating restrictions (and resulting expenses) imposed by American unions on the entities that employed their members. Companies simply wanted to avoid the hassle…and who can blame them? Workers in other countries appreciated the employment opportunities offered them, while American union members sneered at them and/or abused those who offered them. And, of course, what goes around comes around.

            Even today, I have friends in “labor” in Europe (Germany, specifically) who are appalled at the adversarial attitude unions here in the U.S. maintain against they’re employers. They simply can’t understand why a labor organization would want to “bite the hand that feeds them”, so to speak, instead of promoting their mutual interests. And, frankly, I don’t have much in the way of a response; it appalls me as well

          • kernals

            Western Europe was rebuilt by 1955. And unions are supposed to fight for workers, and in this country it does mean they need to be adversarial.

          • Ken_Meyer


            I’d dispute that…even disregarding the point that 1955 was a full TEN YEARS after the war. And, of course, Europe represents but a fraction of the countries competing with the U.S. today.

            But, beyond that, you remember a lot of competitive foreign automakers invading this country in 1955? What about steel producers? Electronics? In short, I think you really have to s-t-r-e-t-c-h to claim that we had “plenty of competition after the war”; the simple fact is that, for a very long time, WE DIDN’T!

            As for your remark that “unions are supposed to fight for workers, and in this country it does mean they need to be adversarial”, the fact is that they would NOT have to be adversarial…although in the vast majority of instances, they ARE. As for “fight[ing] for their workers”, perhaps…but if they’ve been “fighting” for them, then they’ve been “fighting” a losing battle. Face it; their efforts have been worse than for naught; they’ve COST literally millions upon millions of their members – well over half, as a matter of fact – their jobs over the last few decades.

            That’s the reality. You can try to spin it any way you want, but the facts are that, no matter how much the [so-called] “labor advocates” may want to think otherwise, in terms of protecting their interests, unions generally have not been good to the workers of this country. In fact, over the last 40 years or so, they’ve been down-right detrimental to their most basic interests; i.e. – that of retaining employment.

          • kernals

            1955 is 10 years after the war, the postwar boom lasted from 1945 to 1973. You are right, unions have been fighting a losing battle, that’s only because we have allowed corporations pursuit of profit to reach the point where it’s harming us because we haven’t tried making laws that would give workers more say in how companies are run or tried to stop the flood of products from 3rd world countries. And you still can’t blame unions for the loss of manufacturing jobs, outsourcing started in earnest in 2000 when the unionization rate was low.

          • Ken_Meyer


            I had my first overseas assignment in 1978, and outsourcing was in full-bloom even then; just about every major U.S. manufacturing firm one could think of had overseas facilities in operation. If anything, I’d say the flow has somewhat reversed since the turn of the century; look at all the “transplant” auto manufacturing facilities that have found a home in this country. The point that they tended to settle in less “unionized” states can’t be ignored either. Or that when they did alight in a “union” state – such as Indiana – they tended to locate in areas where union influence was minimal.

            As for your “making laws that would give workers more say in how companies are run or tried to stop the flood of products from 3rd world countries”, just how would you go about that? Do you think companies – after their experience with unions over the last 3/4s of a century (think “GM bankruptcy”, then “Hostess”, then “Northwest Airlines”, and so-on and so-on) are going to voluntarily concede “say” in how their enterprises are run? Meaning do you think they’re going CHOOSE to commit business suicide? Or that if laws are passed attempting to promote same, the companies simply won’t move TOTALLY outside our borders? Also how are you going to stop the influx of “3rd world” products when this country is highly dependent on NECESSITIES (minerals, rare earths, agricultural items, fuel, etc) that these nations provide? Do you REALLY think that we’re in a position to win a trade war?

            As for your “still can’t blame unions”…why not? Companies moved operations overseas for a reason…and that “reason” is the labor environment unions set-up and maintained in this country; i.e. – one which is based on artificial subsidy (a “free lunch”) and non-competitiveness. Again, what goes around comes around. When you think about “the unionization rate was low”, think of the “unionization rate” as a turd in a punchbowl. Little as that turd may be, it STILL spoils the taste of the ENTIRE bowl of punch! That’s what unions – as they operate in this country today – have functioned; as turds in the country’s economic punchbowl. And, as you have come to realize, what they have adulterated is none too tasty.

          • kernals

            The number of manufacturing jobs peaked at 19 million in 1979, it for the next 20 years it stagnated at 18 million then in 2000 it started collapsing, It’s now 12 million. 2000 was the year outsourcing exploded. Germany does fine with Codetermination. Those companies you mentioned went bankrupt due to mismanagement. And your last paragraph makes no sense.

          • Ken_Meyer

            Yeah, it “stagnated” for “the next 20 years” – at a time when the nation’s population was growing by leaps and bounds – and THEN “started collapsing”?!” Right! [grin!]

            That said, I’ve developed a little personal knowledge of the way things work in Germany and, while a minimal form of “co-determination” HAS worked in the past for Germany (the jury seems out on it today, however….notice the current German economic situation), that “co-determination is NOT – repeat NOT – based on the union model, and most particularly not the union model as practiced in the U.S. Again, unions in Germany are NOT as adversarial as they are in this country; they actually want their employers to SUCCEED…a concept which, in practice, seems to be an absolute “union” heresy in the United States!

            One of my best friends is a non-union (there are union ones as well) works council representative at his company in Germany, and he’s absolutely appalled at the antagonistic behavior of unions he sees in this country….to the point that he can’t understand why ANY employer would want to interact with them. That’s the impression this country’s unions have made on the rest of the world. And the “success” unions have had over the last 4 decades underlines the idea that the “impression” has a big basis in fact.

            As for your contention that “Those companies [I] mentioned went bankrupt due to mismanagement”, no doubt you’re correct…in that in each case, they allowed the unions far too much control, and they suffered for it….as did the workers employed by them. In the case of Hostess, the company warned the participating unions that not coming to reasonable terms would bankrupt the company; the Teamsters saw the light and made concessions. The Bakers, however, said “screw you” to anyone and everyone who had anything to do with Hostess. The result? The company went bankrupt, and virtually EVERYONE lost their job. That you’re idea of “mismanagement”, is it? Wat should management have done? Shot the union leaders? I say that because I see no other way in which they could have dealt with the situation in a way that preserved their workers jobs.

            As for GM, one can’t help but remember that the secured debt holders were screwed in favor of the UAW….setting a precedent that no doubt has scared tens of thousands of MORE jobs out of the country. And, of course, it was “bad management” that the company had to be engaged with an outrageously over-compensated and lazy “union” workforce which prevented it from having the funds to invest in the areas of technology and marketing needed for the company to remain competitive. “Mismanagement” alright…they let the unions in! Are we beginning to see a pattern here? [smile]

            Which brings us to Northwest Airlines. If you recall, the AMFI mechanics were told that if they struck, the airline would probably go bankrupt. Well, they struck, the company replaced them, and still went bankrupt…..costing the mechanics even the loose change that might have been available to them through the bankruptcy process. “Mismanagement” again, ‘eh? Damn right…the union should have been dealt with when it was small enough to cut it off at the head! Even a large portion of the mechanics involved – those who did NOT want to commit “job suicide” thought what the union was doing was crazy…there was even a website/blog put up at the time by the dissidents entitled “AMFI-Nuts”, questioning the sanity of those who thought they could somehow get the airline to serve up another “free lunch” it didn’t have the money to pay for.

            Now, as for my last paragraph “mak[ing] no sense”….well, it occurs to me that the only person who it would “make no sense” to would appear to be some bozo who ENJOYS serving his fellow workers “punch” with that virtual turd that organized labor has become in this country in it.

            Unfortunately for so-called “labor” advocates in this country, that turd punch’s taste has gotten to be too much for employers….they’ll do about anything to keep from drinking it. Take an expensive lock-out? Or absorbing a costly strike? Sure…no matter how costly or expensive, it’s STILL cheaper than being put out of business, which is about all unions have shown a talent for over the last few decades.

            If a worker should want to lose his job, he should join a union. If he wants to keep it, me thinks he should avoid it like the plague.

          • kernals

            UAW wages are 30% more than non union wages, labor costs make up 10% of the cost of making a car, so you are saying GM went bankrupt because it’s production costs were 3% more expensive and not because their cars were so outdated that in order to move units they needed to underprice Toyota by $10,000. Hostess increased executive compensation while forcing the union to make concessions and they lost market share because Americans stopped buying chemically synthesized junk food. And Co-determination is based on the union model, 20% of Germans belong to a union and unions make up half the seats on company boards. One of the largest, IG Metall, recently announced it would support the UAW in organizing the VW plant in Chattanooga. And a growing number of people disagree with you, 53% of Americans support organized labor and unions have a 67% election success rate, they have in the past 2 years managed to unionize the pilots at Jetblue and Delta and the flight attendants at Virgin America meaning there is now no non-union airline in this Country. They also just unionized home health care workers in Minnesota and have managed to organize several faculties at colleges around the country.

          • Ken_Meyer


            Do you ever think before you speak? I.e. – your claim that “labor cost make up 10% of the cost of making a car”. Tell me; outside of the cost of the raw material IN SITU (the raw, untouched ore, etc), what costs AREN’T “labor”? Do you think steel is produced for free? What about rubber? Transistors and microprocessors produce themselves? Is transport conducted solely by “free” automatons today?

            In short, your whole claim is ludicrous.

            As for your claim that “UAW wages are 30% more than non-union wages”….h.m.m.m.m.m! Is that what the members of the UAW have been claiming as well – particularly the “new” hired – relative to what the transplant auto plant workers are making? Funny, but I hear them complaining that they’re being paid LESS than their non-union counterparts! Weird, ‘eh?

            As for your claims about Hostess, etc., I suggest you read up on the subject. I think you might find that the Bakers did NOT make concessions, KNOWING that they’re not doing so would place the company in bankruptcy, costing ALL the employees (the Teamsters as well) their jobs….and that’s exactly what happened. As predicted, as occurred.

            Lastly, having worked with “works councils” myself in Germany, let me inform you of a couple of things. First of all, they are NOT the corporate governing “boards”, as boards of directors are known in this country. Secondly unions do NOT “make up half the seats” even on the works council; in fact, membership in the council is an entirely separate thing relative to union membership. “Worker” works council representatives are elected by ALL the workers, whether they belong to a union or not, and they do NOT have to be (and quite often aren’t) union members themselves. Often, in fact, “labor” works council representatives take positions diametrically opposed to those of the unions. Thirdly, I think if you look at the rate of union participation in Germany, you’ll find that over the past few decades, it’s followed the exact same path as that in the U.S. I.e. – it’s less than HALF today compared to what it was a few decades ago.

            Again, I suggest you do a little reading before spouting-off on topic you apparently know little about. Sound like a plan?

            Have a good one!

            P.S. – I got a kick out of your talk of airlines and unions. Exactly how many “union” airlines have prospered over the long term now? What percentage of the overall number of airlines are they? [smile….like to talk about United, would ya’? How about PanAm? Eastern? Frontier? ATA? How long a list do you want?….grin!]

            P.P.S – Also got a kick out of your mentioning the UAW in Chattanooga and “organizing”, particularly in light of the UAW’s agreement with VW that, if VW remained “neutral”, and the UAW still lost the NLRB election, it (the UAW) wouldn’t make any additional organizing attempts for at least a year. Showed the “integrity” of unions, didn’t they? [‘nother “smile”]

          • kernals

            In the us, union membership fell by 80% not half. German’s decline in membership is natural, manufacturing jobs shrank while non union service jobs grew.

          • Ken_Meyer


            Quite a complete rebuttal! [smile]


  • 3-time CEO and ND grad

    I prefer to cross a picket line if I have the choice. Unions are the choicest of anachronisms left in our economy today. Do airline pilots (making over $100,000 a year) need protection from their employers? Do professional athletes need protection from their employers? Does anyone really think that a union can do more than our paternalistic government already does? Today a union serves no purpose other than to create artificial scarcity of demand, to facilitate laziness and sloth, and to artificially raise costs and therefore prices. It is baseless protectionism at its finest. Why have union populations plummeted over the last 25 years? Why have jobs migrated to more laissez faire economies over the last 25 years? Think long and hard about that. When you have actually participated in the economy in some meaningful way, the answers become incredibly clear.

    • kernals

      Our median income has been stagnant for 40 years. That’s enough reason for me.

      • Darth__Vader

        Real wages are a poor measure of evaluating worker compensation. Why? They don’t account for changes in technology and the relative increase of value.

        For example, consider a worker in 1960 who purchases a top-of-the-line TV. That TV would have been black and white, weighed 40 pounds, and been able to deliver 3-7 channels depending on where you lived. A worker in 2014 who goes out and purchases a top-of-the-line TV gets 4K definition, the ability to watch thousands of channels, the option to purchases hundreds of thousands of premium options (movies on demand, etc.), and it’s wired to communicate with the Internet.

        In other words, real wages do not measure real value. Even though the two workers paid the same relative amount, clearly the worker in 2014 got more for his money.

        • kernals

          The worker in 1940 had no television, likely didn’t have a refrigerator or a washing machine, no air conditioning, and took 10 hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles. The worker in 1970 had color television, definitely had a fridge and a washing machine, had air conditioning in his house and possibly his car, and could fly from New York to LA on a jet powered plane and he made twice as much as the one from 1940. Improving technology is no excuse for wages being stagnant.

          • Darth__Vader

            OK, let me try again. Let’s take long-distance calling as an example. In 1977, it cost 50 cents per minute to make a long-distance phone call on AT&T. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $2/minute today. Yet thanks to advances in technology, even with AT&T’s most basic plan, the cost for long-distance is 7 cents today.

            So let’s say a worker made $6 per hour in 1977. He would get 12 minutes of long-distance time for his labor. If that same worker made the same real wage in 2014, he would make $24/hour and get 342 minutes of long-distance.

            And that’s precisely the point: even though the real wage is stagnant, the worker has gotten far, far more value for his dollar. That’s why changes in technology matter when evaluating real wages.

          • kernals

            Far more is a bit of a stretch, computers and phones may be cheaper, but gasoline, food, healthcare, and college are more expensive.

    • FDR

      Country clubs “facilitate laziness and sloth,” Mr. CEO, but I’m sure you belong to one.

      • 3-time CEO and ND grad

        I don’t belong to a country club. And I’m sure they do facilitate laziness and sloth…but not at the expense of someone else. That’s the key difference, obviously.

    • Sea Pig

      You clearly took the blue pill.

  • Tim

    Maybe all you conservatives know better than the Catholic Church. Or maybe you are a bunch of cafeteria Catholics.

    “All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labor or trade unions.” On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), #20.

    “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labor unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions, to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions” (par. 305, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church). The Vatican Compendium continues to note that “beyond their function of defending and vindicating, unions have the duty of acting as representatives working for ‘the proper arrangement of
    economic life’ and of educating the social consciences of workers” (par.307), and are prompted “to engage in renewal.”

  • Darth__Vader

    “A strike reveals something fundamental about the world — that the working-class makes the wheels turn. We have lesson after lesson showing us that workers can run industry in the absence of owners: the syndicalist revolution in Spain in the 1930s, mass factory take-overs in Argentina, the MONDRAGON Corporation run cooperatively by its 74,000 employees.”

    Is this a joke? This is on par with President Obama holding up Yemen and Somalia as examples of where our counterterrorism strategy has “worked.”

    Incidentally, MONDRAGON is capitalist: the workers happen to be the owners. There’s not a single capitalist out there who would say that the owners shouldn’t be able to run their company as they see fit. What most of us object to is the idea that your labor — for which you are compensated by a wage — intrinsically gives you the authority to tell the owners how to manage their property (the company).

  • Citizen 1

    It is my opinion that we are all about to witness the downfall of the USW. If it is not over this strike now it will be over the dues they pay after. These guys talking about poor working conditions. If its that bad pick up the phone and call OSHA. OSHA is stronger than any union as far as safety goes. USW members are going to realize they are funding people at the top that have ZERO say so in anything. Its a dream and good people are funding them. Unions in the 50’s, I can see it. Today… no value.