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DAVID ROSMAN: When celebrating Labor Day, thank those who made the workplace better

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:01 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 28, 2011

“There is not a unionized company today that didn’t deserve the union.”

Quite frankly, I cannot remember which labor leader said that, the missing Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, the AFL-CIO’s George Meany or someone else. However, as we approach Labor Day 2011, those words need a bit of modification.

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“There is not a unionized company or government entity that did not deserve the union.”

Americans devalue our teachers, government employees, police, firefighters and minimum-wage labor force. Like the homeless, these workers have disappeared; they have become nonpersons.

We have become anti-union. This must stop, and stop now.

We need to hear these words because all labor, and the American middle- and lower-income classes, are under attack. Even if you are not a member of a union, all workers in the United States have benefited from the fair and safe working practices that our unions have fought for. How?

The list starts with a 40-hour work week, minimum-wage laws, benefit packages and fair-labor and anti-discrimination laws.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s oversight of work sites and offices is a direct result of unions calling out corporations on sometimes-purposeful safety violations, causing loss of life or limb.

Labor has opened doors to trained men and women through apprentice programs to make sure the quality of work performed by any worker meets real standards of excellence.

Companies with known or alleged poor treatment of their employees appear to be the same companies that prohibit organized labor — mostly retail chains. These companies pay minimum wage and don't permit employees to work a 40-hour week, thus not giving them benefits.

I admit there were, and most likely still are, crooks in the upper echelon of the American unions. I can say the same thing about corporations and about local, state and federal officials.

After all, we are only human, and the possibility of misbegotten wealth is a shiny thing that turns our attention away from the real moneymakers — employees. Almost no one is immune.

Yes, corporations and unions are considered “persons” in the eyes of the court, but a union will not support an issue or candidate without asking its members first.

I am still waiting for someone to show me proof that one Fortune 500 company sent out notices to its shareholders asking for their support before making political donations.

I have had the pleasure of meeting and training under three of the greats of contemporary American business training — Tom Peters, Robert Waterman and Peter Drucker.

The one great I did not have the pleasure to meet was Robert C. Townsend. Never heard of him?

This is from Townsend’s 1998 eulogy in the Los Angeles Times: “As head of Avis Rent-a-Car from 1962 until ITT Corp. acquired it in 1965, Townsend took the company from one that lost $3 million a year to one that made $2.8 million in profit.”

Townsend said in a BBC interview that when he walked into the Boston offices in 1962, he was told that the company had no one of value. When ITT purchased the company, they identified a multitude of potential presidents and vice presidents for ITT companies.

Townsend did something right.

What he did was treat his employees fairly and honestly. He encouraged them to purchase shares — ownership — in the company they worked for. They did, eventually owning Avis.

He never hired at the low end of the scale, but within the upper reaches, believing that he would get better employees. And he did.

Townsend lived Avis’ tagline, “We try harder.”

Townsend’s 1970 book, "Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits," is my teaching guide for organizational communication.

Townsend really knew how to manage Avis, so they did not deserve a union nor did they want one.

Next weekend, amid the picnics, parties, softball games, naps on the deck and fishing, all celebrating the “last” weekend of summer, think about the American laborers who made, delivered and sold you those things that make your life better, and thank them.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. He was an organizer for the American Association of University Professors on Denver’s Auraria Campus from 1998 to 2000. You can read more of his commentaries at InkandVoice.com and New York Journal of Books.com


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Comments

Jimmy Bearfield August 31, 2011 | 12:28 p.m.

Are unions the reason why tech companies have resumed offering perks such as free lunch five days a week, free iPads, game rooms and signing bonuses? No, it's because those companies want to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Face it: Gone are the days of graduating high school (or not) and going straight to a factory job whose wages and benefits are propped up by the threat of a strike.

More than one out of every four Columbians is here simply because they want to acquire the skills necessary to command more than the minimum wage. The more desirable their skills are -- such as engineering and medicine -- the better able they are to negotiate for higher wages, benefits and perks, and the less need they see to join a union.

I appreciate what the unions did generations ago, but make no mistake: That was then, and this is now. Unions have become irrelevant.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 31, 2011 | 1:29 p.m.

JimmyB says, "The more desirable their skills are -- such as engineering and medicine -- the better able they are to negotiate for higher wages, benefits and perks, and the less need they see to join a union.

I appreciate what the unions did generations ago, but make no mistake: That was then, and this is now. Unions have become irrelevant.
______________________

I couldn't agree more.

The key to great wages is choosing something that interests you, is in demand, but few others wish to do. The last of these is the most important; there are good free-market reasons why minimum pay jobs pay the minimum...too many people can, and are willing to, do those jobs. Teachers suffer similar market-maladies. Conversely, specialty careers pay the big bucks because few are willing to put in the time/effort to train for them...or, because the jobs are dangerous (high steel, fishing, etc.).

I simply do not agree with Rosman that unions provide better trained workers. Rosman is dragging out an old notion that USED to be true, but is no longer true....kinda like anti-evolution folks trotting out the Piltdown man hoax to "prove" evolution is false; both arguments have become untrue as time has progressed. As for jobs, college-level training and an apprenticeship with another non-union specialist fits the bill quite nicely. Today, unions are relevant only in the sense they have crapped in their own nests and come close to bankrupting their own pension/benefits gravy train and the entities that fund them.

In short, they are unaffordable. They ran themselves right out of business...and abroad in many cases. The original reason for Labor Day is now irrelevant; rather than honor Unions, it's just another day off in celebration of ALL those who work for a living.

Or perhaps it's just another day off...

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson August 31, 2011 | 11:20 p.m.

Mr. Rosman is right to tout the past accomplishments of private-sector unions, in improving working conditions, wages, and benefits of American workers. I am proud to be the son of a Teamster. I am the beneficiary of their work, and their struggles.

I am also a former government employee. I disagree with Mr. Rosman's apparent premise that a union is a union. I think private-sector and public-sector unions are apples and oranges. The former protects the employee against the greed and avarice of the company. In the case of the latter, the company is the government, and ultimately, the taxpayer. I don't see an equivalence here.

If I am a UPS driver, for example, I cannot use union dues to help elect my boss. The company's board of directors, and/or its shareholders, pick my boss. My union protects my interests vis a vis theirs.

A government employee, however, can unionize and make massive monetary contributions to the selfless, compassionate fellow or lady with the big "D" after his or her name. (The unions seldom pick the "R"s, although a boatload of their rank and file do) If elected, this enlightened, selfless, caring fellow or lady is now the boss. Is that an optimal situation for the taxpayer?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 1, 2011 | 6:42 a.m.

Pop quiz concerning the history of private sector unions.

Without accessing a bio for John L. Lewis (UMWA, CIO), which of these states claims him as its native son?

Iowa
Kentucky
Pennsylvania
Utah
West Virginia

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller September 2, 2011 | 11:24 a.m.

I am somewhat surprised that no one has offered this point for discussion: "President Franklin D Roosevelt openly opposed bargaining rights for government unions.

"The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place" in the public sector. "A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government."

AFL/CIO President George Meany also opposed public sector employee unions.

What would FDR think of the Wisconsin hooliganism by the union organizers and the rank and file and by the Democratic Party legislators who left the state in support of the hooligans?

(Report Comment)
mike mentor September 2, 2011 | 11:51 a.m.

Look what the unions did for Detroit!

■In 1986, the President’s Council on Organized Crime reported that five major unions—including the Teamsters and the Laborers International Union of North America—were dominated by organized crime.

Labor racketeering has become one of La Cosa Nostra’s fundamental sources of profit, national power, and influence.

FBI investigations over the years have clearly demonstrated that labor racketeering costs the American public millions of dollars each year through increased labor costs that are eventually passed on to consumers.

Labor unions provide a rich source for organized criminal groups to exploit: their pension, welfare, and health funds. In the mid-1980s, the Teamsters controlled more than 1,000 funds with total assets of more than $9 billion.
_____________________________________________________

The author even trotted out an example against his argument. Avis went from a money loser to a money maker by empowering the workforce without the unions to skim theirs off the top.

Then he failed to provide evidence of his statements that union leaders are no worse criminals than the rest of us.

Well Mr Rosman, the FBI disagrees with you.

(Report Comment)
David Rosman September 2, 2011 | 2:16 p.m.

Mr. Mentor - Avis did not need a union because Townsend treated his employees fairly and honestly. This is an argument for employee rights and relations, not the elimination of unions for companies who mistreat their employees.

And I also seem to remember a large number of corporations that have been accused and investigated for corruption and organized crime. In fact JKF and RFK considered using the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro. As I said, no one is immune from the shiny apple. The FBI’s corruption divisions have found corporate wrong doings and affiliations with organized crime to the same extent as they have unions. Talking to an FBI spokes person yesterday, I was told that unions hold no crime advantage over private corporations or government officials.

I am afraid your argument is not valid.

Ms. Smith - I bellieve the right answer is Louisianna where Lewis was Governor.

Karl - You are correct about both FDR and Meany, but these comments were made during and immediately after WWII. Meany would eventually support the unionization of the postal workers.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor September 2, 2011 | 5:08 p.m.

@Mr Rosman
Thanks for joining in the discussion. While I disagree with your suggestion that organized crime has as deep a hold and tradition with corporations as it does with the Unions, it does seem that we may have a small area of agreement in that the most successful way to do business is to empower your employees in order to get the most out of them as evidenced by Avis's success. I feel that you can accomplish this goal without Unions as Avis did. I agree that there was a time when the Unions were necessary. I am reminded of a coal miner relating the first day on his job back in the 20's or 30's. He was to drive some mules down to haul the coal back up. Before he headed down, the boss man told him to, "Make sure you don't drive those mules in any bad spots where coal or rock will fall on them." "Well, what about me?", asked the miner. The boss man said, "I can hire another man, I have to buy more mules."

Thankfully, we are not in this same situation with the development of OSHA and such. So, I will give my respect to the contributions that the unions made for the working man as we made our way through the industrial revolution, but they have outlived their usefulness. What really burns me is that in places there is no choice given to the worker. A worker should not have to join a union as a condition of employment. It violates the constitutional principles of the first amendment that say I should be able to assemble and petition the government with whomever I choose. How would you like it if the Missourian contributed part of your pay to the RNC without offering you a choice?

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger September 2, 2011 | 6:43 p.m.

Massey Energy.

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson September 2, 2011 | 9:27 p.m.

Mr. Rosman - your response above, to Mr. Miller, was a pretty flimsy dodge of the substance of FDR's and Meany's stances toward public-sector unions. Surely, you know that 1937 was neither "during" nor "immediately after WWII", if Mr. Miller's citation is properly dated. So, it is not only a flimsy dodge, but may well be inaccurate, as well.

You responded to several of the posters' comments - good show. What about my (and others')opinion that private and public sector unions are fundamentally different? Does that opinion have merit? If not, why?

(Report Comment)
Brian Wallstin September 2, 2011 | 11:33 p.m.

Tony ... There are no differences between the purposes of public and private sector unions, unless you think there is some great difference between what private sector workers and public sector workers want in the end. They both want a living wage, decent working conditions and some chance at upward mobility — although, these days, stability would be just fine.

The private sector has not delivered for its workers, if you consider the statistics on CEO pay versus average worker pay, the jobs so callously shipped over seas for the benefit of shareholders who are sitting on their gains, not to mention a whole bunch of data on income inequality. Please consider those numbers in this context.

Public sector workers, on the other hand, are an easy bogeyman. If you think destroying them is in your best interests, you don't understand capitalism as much as you think you do.

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson September 3, 2011 | 12:05 a.m.

Brian: Who said I think "destroying them is in [my] best interests"? As I said before, I am a former gov't employee. I am very close to many of my former co-workers, many of whom are still diligently and effectively still serving the gov't I served. I wish them all the best.

Do you deny or argue with the merits of my opinion above, that there are fundamental differences between public and private sector unions? If so, how?

It is not about "what they want in the end", it is the very mechanisms by which they can address "what they want in the end." These mechanisms are very different between private and public sector. I wonder if you understand labor relations as much as you think you do.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush September 3, 2011 | 5:56 p.m.

"Conversely, specialty careers pay the big bucks because few are willing to put in the time/effort to train for them...or, because the jobs are dangerous (high steel, fishing, etc.)."

Yep. All those rich fishermen - even though the average wage is just over $22k.
And those gaudy sanitation workers with their ostentatious mansions and $33k per year average wage coming in at the 9th most dangerous job in America.
Or those rapscallion roofers and their luxurious $37k per year mean wage working the 8th most dangerous job in America.

Are the folks who who assert there is no need for unions because of OSHA, the same folks that assert that government regulations fetter "job-creators"?

Are the folks who assert there is no need for unions for public sector workers the same folks that assert government given too much power will naturally exploit its citizens?

Are the folks who assert there is no need for unions because it robs them of "choice" in employment the same folks who assert they don't want the opportunity to vote on employment contracts with their peers?

I see the anosognosics are back.

It's the same folks who say corporations are people, my friend, and corporate profits don't make dividends - corporate liabilities do.

Mr. Miller, those "hooligans" in Wisconsin are the law enforcers in the city, county and state. Those "hooligans" also fight fires and nurse the sick.
Not every soldier was involved in My Lai, either.

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson September 3, 2011 | 7:57 p.m.

As union membership from the private sector has waned over the years, it is to be expected that unions would look to involve and enlist government employees. It has been a growth industry, and unions see that - a way to keep the trend from degrading their political power.

Democratic politicians have recognized this, also. If your base of private sector union members is declining, a possible reinforcement of this political base is to extend it into the folks who work for you. They can endorse you, contribute mightily to your campaign, and retain you as their boss.

This is why there is a fundamental difference between private and public sector unions. Pointing out the obvious is not robbing anyone of choice, destroying them, etc.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams September 3, 2011 | 11:00 p.m.

Gregg Bush: I stand by my statement, "Conversely, specialty careers pay the big bucks because few are willing to put in the time/effort to train for them."

I will admit my statement should have been more specific concerning "dangerous".

The job has to be dangerous enough that few folks will do it; it also has to be perceived as important. For the examples you mentioned, the jobs are dangerous all right. And reasonably important. But, too many people are willing and able to do them.

Jobs that are perceived as hard or dangerous, AND are considered important (i.e., there is a strong demand), will garner the big bucks.

By example, and as stated by me before, secondary teachers have both a hard job and an important job. They, however, do not make high wages. The reason? Too many people are willing to do it. And that makes all the difference.

Make it harder to become and stay a teacher, tho, and watch the salaries go up. Same thing for many other jobs.

(Report Comment)

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