Misconceptions About Unions

This past week’s Buffalo Business First articulates union leaders’ concerns over the public’s misconceptions about unions.

Ask labor union workers about the public’s perception of them and you’ll usually hear something like this:  Union workers are the bearers of a bad rap.

“I think some people think unions are very selfish and only out to achieve what’s best for their members,” said Michelle Pancoe, a fourth grade teacher at Williamsville Central School District who oversees new member orientation for the Williamsville Teachers’ Association.  “But we’re not arguing for class size limits because we want to correct fewer papers.  We’re arguing because students learn better when there are less students in a room.”

Well, when I went to grade school 25+ students in a classroom were the norm, not the exception, and yet somehow I learned that fewer, not less, is the appropriate adjective to use in Ms. Pancoe’s last sentence.  B-minus for you, Ms. Pancoe.

And that B-minus is about the best I can ever give the teachers union, whose union mentality even pervades New York State politics with little but self-serving and self-preservation tactics.

It does not take a (non-union) rocket scientist to understand why today’s Buffalo News article about the current teacher pension system makes most people’s stomachs grind away.  For every altruistic aim that the teachers union touts there’s an example of abuse waiting to happen, of contract clauses unrelated to good teaching that become entitlements – pensions are just one.  Protection of poor teachers and poor teaching methodologies are others.  So is the union’s fight against charter schools (and I always thought that competition was good).  The unwillingness of the BTF to consolidate health insurance carriers to save school district costs is another.  Then the ensuing lawsuit, and the defense of that lawsuit, was taxpayer money down the drain;  I don’t think any kids were helped by that either.  Small wonder that unions get a bad rap.  They deserve much of it.

Unions doing dumb things that stick in one’s craw is not new.  I was told a great story years ago about a work stoppage that took place at Bethlehem Steel in the early 60s.  It turned out that the flag being flown in front of corporate headquarters in Lehigh, PA, had 48 stars and should have had 50, as Alaska and Hawaii had entered the union a year earlier.  The workers walked off their jobs until the correctly-starred flag was raised.

You would not guess from my anti-union rhetoric that I’m very sympathetic to unions, and pro-union in the sense that organization and concern for employees (or members of any large group) is vitally important to make sure that health, safety and employment concerns are heard above the gray din of other corporate issues.  They are critical when it comes to defending against corrupt and incompetent management (as one might find within the Buffalo school district).

But I am hard-pressed to believe that many union members are not simply in it for themselves, that they are at war with management:  Contract negotiations are not at all a town meeting to get issues out into the open:  It’s pickets and cursing, wildcat strikes, name-calling and occasional violence.  It’s entitlement-talk, pensions and health insurance for life in an economy that cannot compete globally because of them.

Several years ago the UAW agreed to a profit-share plan that has, in some years, been very successful.  That approach traded rewards based on corporate success for a little skin in the game.  I think that all unions will need to adopt more cooperative approaches to benefits, or else sit by as their jobs continue to move oversees.

It would also improve their public perception greatly.


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