September 5, 2010

Why are people against unions?

You can thank the labor unions for getting Monday off.

You can thank the labor unions for getting Monday off.

But these days, many Kansans aren't very appreciative of organized labor.

You hear it in the daily stream of ugly comments around the lunch table at work or read it on Internet message boards. Words such as "greedy," "entitled" and "out-of-touch" keep popping up.

The current round of Machinists union negotiations with Hawker Beechcraft and Cessna Aircraft seems especially fraught with criticism. The deep recession and the threat by Hawker Beechcraft to move operations out of Wichita have sharpened the public debate over the value of unions.

Some wonder why, at a time when more people are angry at corporate America and more insecure about their own jobs, support for unions hasn't swelled. But the opposite appears to be happening:

* In an August Gallup Poll, 52 percent of Americans said they approve of labor unions, the second-lowest approval rating in Gallup's 70-year history of asking the question. The lowest? Last year's 48 percent.

"With many Americans out of work and struggling to find work, organized labor groups' missions may not seem appropriate or even fair as they might have when jobs are more plentiful," Gallup said.

* A February survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only 41 percent of people had a favorable opinion of labor unions, while 42 percent were unfavorable. That's way down from 2007 amid growing public concern about unions' purpose and power.

In Kansas, that sentiment is probably even stronger because of the state's strong conservative streak and the fact that union membership is well below the 12.3 percent national average.

Only 6.2 percent of the Kansas work force was unionized in 2009, down from last year's 7 percent and down from 1999's 9.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union membership in Kansas, as well as in the U.S., continues a slow decline.

Harold Schlechtweg, union representative of Local 513 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents some city employees, said that unfamiliarity is the decisive factor.

"Those are people who have little direct knowledge of unionized working," he said of those who dislike unions.

"They follow the leadership and the views of others they regard as knowledgeable," he said. "They get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. It's really more of a political point of view."

Maybe, but it's not true in the case of Kevin Bell, a laid-off Hawker Beechcraft employee and ex-Machinists union member, who blames union leadership for not working harder to keep the company from potentially leaving town.

"The barn door is open, has been open and they've been holding it open," is one of the less inflammatory things he wrote in an e-mail.

A business objection

The reasons usually cited for a dislike of unions can be based in reason or emotion, or both, say experts.

Unions exist to demand above-market wages and benefits from companies, and to enforce work rules — such as laying off workers — based on seniority rather than on merit, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

That is one reason that the average production worker's wage at the unionized aircraft plants in Wichita is more than $50,000 with generous benefits, while employees at non-unionized subcontractors earn between $30,000 and $38,000.

Companies would spend that money elsewhere, such as on new technology, a new plant or more researchers — or bigger stock dividends and higher executive salaries, Hill said.

Having to spend extra money on labor is a big disincentive to companies. That's why economic developers view unions as a handicap in recruiting new plants and why some companies, such as Wal-Mart, fight ferociously to keep them out.

"Companies think, 'Why would I want to be forced to negotiate on what I regard as my internal business practices, such as setting wages?' " Hill said.

Some local businessmen wouldn't talk publicly about their dislike of unions, saying they fear losing business.

But, look at Detroit, say union opponents. The unions there were so powerful that the car companies struggled with high overhead and nearly disappeared last year.

Businessman Walter Berry, president of the Berry Cos., said unions would be fine if they would work with management to make their companies more efficient and profitable.

But, he said, paying above-market wages and strikes keep companies from investing in what makes them most efficient — and thus make them less competitive.

That's a bunch of nonsense, said several of the Cessna workers standing at K-42 and Hoover Road in the roaring Kansas wind on Thursday to protest outsourcing.

To them, it's all about who gets the gravy and who gets the blame.

"CEOs make $16 million and we make $50,000 — and we're getting crucified?" said union member Eddie Wheelock.

And the charge that unions nearly killed Detroit?

GM and Ford had the same union, Wheelock said, but one went bankrupt (GM) and the other one (Ford) didn't and is now thriving.

"The difference is management," he said.

'How greedy are you?'

There are plenty of more emotional objections — the ones about overpaid union members whining about having to pay for their medical insurance.

That's a big issue with a lot of people in Kansas, said Martin Perline, an economics professor at WSU.

"There are a lot of people who make a lot less money than union members," he said. "The money is good and then they (union members) complain and go on strike. People are saying 'How greedy are you?' "

Kansas is a state with conservative, Western values, where people are expected to be self-reliant and justify their pay with their work, he said.

It also offends those who see capitalism as the perfect forum for American values, Perline said. Unions gum up free-flowing capitalism.

"Kansas is very conservative, and I think it's viewed from that perspective," he said. "There are a lot of people who view the marketplace as making all these decisions as if it were neutral and the union is intervening."

But even most union-bashers tend to concede that unions performed a crucial mission in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By forcing companies to pay higher wages and improve working conditions, they helped create the modern American middle class.

The role of unions isn't so heroic anymore, admit union members, but they're still needed to keep companies from running roughshod over workers. Just look at the recent outsourcing, pension shedding and wage cutting companies have done, they say.

"I'm not saying it's sweatshops and child labor, but there was a time when there was and it was the unions that got us out of that," said union member Shelton Coleman.

"It's not the '30s or '40s, but there's still a role for unions in America."

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