There is power in a union (and outside of one too).

3 03 2011

“Strikes ought to be, and in well-organized trades they are, the last means which workingmen resort to to protect themselves against the almost never satisfied greed of the employers. Besides this, the strike is, in many instances, the only remedy within our reach as long as legislation is entirely indifferent to the interests of labor.”

Samuel Gompers, Vol. 1: Testimony, U.S. Congress, Senate Comm. on Ed. and Labor, Aug. 16, 1883.

My two old homes states have Republican governors at the moment. I write about Wisconsin a lot these days for obvious reasons, but I also keep a close eye on the local politics where I grew up, the great State of New Jersey. This quote from Chris Christie, (via Political Wire) sounds reasonable unless you know anything about this guy’s history with unions:

“In fact, I love collective bargaining,” Christie told the crowd Wednesday, packed into a room in the municipal building. “I’ve said let’s get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there’s someone in that room representing you.”

On one level, that sounds reasonable compared to Scott Walker and it is. Christie wants to beat the public unions in a fair fight, but he only has that tone because he thinks he’s bringing a gun to knife fight. After all, it’s not as if the civil service sprang out of nowhere. It’s rules have been collectively bargained over time. He like nothing more than to start over from nothing because he’s convinced that he’ll get a much better deal starting from scratch and he probably would.

That’s where Samuel Gompers comes in. Gompers was a very conservative man as trade unionists went, but he understood from where the power of labor comes. It comes from the ability of workers to inflict damage on the economy through strikes. He saw strikes as a failure in the sense that things should never get that far, but he supported strikes as a last resort because he knew that collective bargaining would be useless if you took them off table.

Christie loves collective bargaining because he doesn’t think New Jersey’s public workers have the guts to walk off the job. In Wisconsin, they’re planning a general strike right now, but Christie obviously thinks that won’t happen in the Garden State.

I’m not sure that’s true. Desperate people do desperate things like strike during a recession, particularly if the existence of their union is on the line. During the 1930s, workers in a wide range of industries organized themselves into unions despite the fact that there was a ready supply of workers ready to take their place. They consolidated those gains during WWII when there weren’t.

Does this mean I’m advocating strikes? Of course not. I’m hoping such a drastic step won’t be necessary because there is power in a union. In fact, there is power outside of a union if people simply organize themselves into groups in order to share information and plot strategy. That’s what the people of Egypt did.

Academics could learn a lot from the people of Egypt.


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