Posted on 19-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Looking at the protests in Wisconsin (funny how it is fine to kick public employees in the butt for a deficit shortfall, but an allegedly frugal governor can still make the situation worse via tax cuts to the his pet interest groups…oh yeah…evidently tax cuts don’t contribute to deficits), got me thinking about what I felt about unions.

Generally my feelings are largely negative.  Coming from an upper middle class background where almost everybody I know is on the side of management I was not reared in pro-union lore.  Then there is the downside of politically militant trade unions, the frankly crappy record of unions on race and gender issues, the ease by which they were suborned by organized crime and how some unions became sinecures for corrupt fat cats.  Add to that the inefficiency unions can cause, notably in the auto industry.  Friends who have had the misfortune of working with UAW have regaled me with rants about the difficulty of working with the union.

But unions did not arise in a vacuum.  If employers had treated workers fairly and provided safe working conditions, unions may have been cut off at birth (for that matter we would not have needed regulations like OSHA).  Also as public company CEOs have shown in the last decade that there is no limit for their greed, it has become harder for me to begrudge a man for making a middle class wage  based on the objections of a multi-millionaire.

Yet my feelings on the subject are still mixed.  It is in essence the age old problem of worker safety and fair benefits versus efficiency and competitiveness.  How to find the balance will depend on your own personal experiences and prejudices.  Ezra Klein of the Washington Post asked his readers who belonged to a union to post on their experiences.  Since the management perspective dominates the media narrative in recent years, it can be useful to read the other side.  This is obviously not a representative sampling (and there are a few anti-union posts), but still makes an interesting read.  One that stuck out to me is quoted below:

When I was a little younger I had the privilege of working for UPS and Fed Ex at the same time. Fed Ex will fire you if they find out that you work for UPS, but they never did. UPS is of course a union job (Teamsters) and Fed Ex is not. The difference was night and day.

At UPS I got a decent hourly wage, thousands of dollars yearly as a tuition benefit, good health insurance, and a pension. At Fed Ex I got the same hourly wage (a little bit more to be honest) and jack squat for benefits (literally nothing).

At UPS I got treated with a lot of respect, even though I was just a dockworker. If I felt sick or had something else I needed to attend to, I’d give the office a call and they wouldn’t even ask me why I was missing work. They just told me to do what I needed to do. At Fed Ex calling in sick was treated like treachery. They let you know that you were an at-will employee and treated you like it.

And safety? Holy toledo. When I got hired at UPS they put me through a week of classes where they taught me proper lifting practices, how to safely and efficiently perform virtually every task I could possibly be asked to do, how to deal with hazardous materials, etc. When I showed up at Fed Ex they pointed to a trailer and said “empty it”. They didn’t even bother to give me the customary “don’t lift with your back”. UPS performed routine safe practices evaluations where a supervisor would watch you working for a little bit and give advice on how you could be safer and less likely to injure yourself. Fed Ex didn’t bother. I ended up teaching proper lifting mechanics to a lot of guys I worked with there simply because I was worried about their health. Fed Ex didn’t give a rat’s ass if they blew out their backs, but I kind of liked the guys I worked with so I did what I could.

Twice while I was working at Fed Ex I nearly got crushed by heavy equipment due to the incompetence of the supervisors there. Both times I saved myself with a little running dive but it was close. The accidents were easily preventable but nobody cared and so they kept happening. After the second near-miss I didn’t show up for work the next day and didn’t bother to come back.

I don’t work at UPS or Fed Ex anymore. I’ve got a good union job in a different line of work these days (thank the Lord for college!), but I know what difference a good union makes

With rising economic uncertainty, stagnant middle class incomes, exploding salaries for upper management and corporations cutting benefits at a time of rising profits we could face some labor unrest in coming years.  Whether that leads to a revival of labor unions is still an open question.

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Posted on 19-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

There may yet be hope for Bahrain.  The Persian Gulf kingdom ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty has been rocked by protests in recent days from its Shiite majority underclass.  King Hamad then responded to peaceful protests by sending in the goons and using helicopters to strafe mourners at funerals.

And now the police have been abruptly withdrawn.  Pearl Square in downtown Manama, the heart of the protests like Tahrir Square in Cairo, now belongs to the protesters.

Like many if the Middle East dictatorships the al-Khalifas appear to have been split among the hardliners (led by the King’s uncle and long time Prime Minister) and the moderates (led by the crown prince and perhaps the King).  The tensions between the two camps were documented by the WikiLeaks cables.  Now the balance seems to have veered sharply towards the moderates, possibly helped along by admonishments from President Obama.

If the good news holds it appears that the virus of democracy is proving harder to suppress than previously thought.  The inbred royals ruling Bahrain’s neighbors must be looking at this in alarm.  People tend to discount the value of social networks in the recent bout of Arab unrest.  Personally, I think YouTube deserves far more credit.  Without the horrifying videos of police brutality, it is unlikely that Bahrain’s hardliners (who still value their ability to be integrated into world society) would have backed down so quickly.  The absence of such videos in Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia (no to mention the greater willingness of those despots to shed blood) poses a bigger challenge to regime change in those countries.

Next up Algeria?  Yemen?  Who knows….we live in interesting times.

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