Union labor not responsible for economy

Published 10:35 am Thursday, December 4, 2008

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”


With the recent economic crisis playing a role in bringing America’s Big 3 automakers to their knees, the ripple effect has made its way to the Tri-State’s back door.

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With nearly 1,000 workers affected by Ashland’s AK Steel plant’s temporary closure, it hits home very quickly how events that occur far away can slap people right in the mouth here at home.

In the context of the discussion on how it all came to this, there are some who put the blame on union labor. They state simply that U.S. automakers cannot be competitive because of the overhead costs that come with paying more for labor here than in other parts of the world.

It comes back to a debate that is certainly familiar to anyone who has lived in the Ohio Valley. The question of the value and validity of union labor is again front and center.

Some die-hards believe everything associated with unions is justified and good for the working class. Other die-hards believe unions have killed or crippled some businesses and that they cause more overall harm than good.

The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in the middle.

On a fundamental level, people agree workers should not be placed in unsafe working conditions, should have suitable benefits and should be paid fair wages. The problem is, there is never a consensus on what constitutes “fair wages.” That’s even more complicated these days because in the era of “trying to be competitive in the global market place” there has to be an understanding that the cost of living for employees is higher in America.

That’s why collective bargaining agreements are prevalent. And, for the sake of many laborers and their families, it’s a good thing they are.

One shudders to think about the working conditions coal miners would endure if not for the United Mine Workers of America. The same is true for countless other industries that has, shall we say, shaky track records when it comes to the treatment of employees.

And the notion that “they should feel lucky because they have a job” doesn’t fly, no more than it would be justified for an employee to say “they should feel lucky because they get a product.” That’s nonsense on both ends.

But in this complicated issue, there is one thing for certain. Employees who are part of unions are compensated better than employees who are not affiliated with unions.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, full-time wage and salary workers in 2007 had median weekly earnings of $863 compared to $663 for those not represented by unions.

And it should not go without saying that compensation has not kept up with inflation. That’s not anyone’s fault, but should anyone be shocked at the state of the economy when incomes stay the same or increase slightly in the face of skyrocketing energy costs and fuel prices?

As has been shown with striking clarity, if Americans cannot collectively make ends meet, that’s bad news for everyone. If a few people lose their houses, nobody pays much attention. If there’s a crisis in the housing market, well, you know.

Finally, when considering this debate there is a statistic that is worth noting and perhaps deserving of further examination.

Now, as the U.S. economy sloshes through a recession, downturn or whatever adjective one prefers, American union membership in the private sector has fallen below 9 percent, the lowest such percentage since 1932.

And that, by the way, was smack dab in the middle of a little something known as the Great Depression.