Unions-the good, the bad, the ludicrous

March 23, 2011

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Although events from Japan, Libya, and Jerusalem, along with the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, dominate the headlines on this day, unions continue to make the news, including a blog post written by my colleague Dan Davis last month. I just googled news for labor unions and retrieved more than 400 items.

Why did I google labor union news? Because of two articles I read today online that reminded me just how far unions have come since the concept first took hold in the U.S., and why these once powerful organizations established to be the negotiators and watchdogs for the American work force have alienated much of the work force and taken on such a negative image. What once was good has become bad, and in some cases, downright ludicrous.

The first of these articles actually was written in February 2006 — although Google returned it with a date of March 13, 2011 in the listing — and bore the title "Lansing Metal Center lays off 300 as it prepares to close this year.” It noted that Feb. 9, 2006 was the last day of work for these hourly General Motors workers who were idled as work was shifted from the facility to other stamping plants.

At the time the article was written, what compensation these employees would receive was unknown, but it was believed that they probably would receive 95 percent of their net pay in supplemental unemployment benefits or receive their normal 40-hour paychecks through GM's jobs bank program.

It's my understanding that the jobs bank program was ended in February 2009 as GM struggled to prove its financial viability to the government in order to receive TARP funding. A New York Times article published in January of this year noted the demise of the program that was "seen as one of the U.A.W.'s most prized accomplishments, but left an impression in the public imagination of a place where workers sit around getting paid for doing nothing."

Whether this perception is correct or not, the jobs bank is an example of union-achieved benefits that have given such organizations a black eye. This program and other benefits are believed to have contributed to GM's financial problems that necessitated the taxpayer bailout. Bad for the company, taxpayers, the economy, and the union's image.

Which brings me to the ludicrous. The second article I read today that had me thinking about unions was published yesterday in the Chicago Tribune. "Lockout blues" is about the National Football League's labor dispute.

"This month, the players' union voted to decertify itself, paving the way for an antitrust lawsuit against the league that could reach a judge in early April. The owners have locked out the players, meaning trades, practices and free-agent signings are on hold. The lockout is the league's first work stoppage since 1987. The 2011 season is in jeopardy.

"The owners want to add to the $1.3 billion they take off the top of the revenue heap so they can maintain stadiums and other infrastructure. The players get 60 percent of what remains. The players want owners to open their books and are balking at the proposed new formula. The two sides are also fighting over whether to extend the regular season by two games and how much to pay rookies.

"If your eyes have glazed over, we don't blame you."

Mine have glazed over and are seeing red. Not because the football season is in jeopardy, but because the base salary for an NFL rookie in 2010 was $325,000. But hey, they are, after all, "gladiators," not bricklayers. Whatever.

Is it just me who thinks bricklayers are far more important than gladiators?

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