“Did they look like a bunch of thugs”?

It was a question asked of me about union trades people attending a conference. 

I have worked with unions for years as a management representative. In that work, I negotiate contracts with unions and I serve as a trustee on pension and health and welfare plans. For the most part the negotiations are vigorous but civil. And the resulting contracts are fair to both labor and the businesses that sign them.

The contracts include a progressive pay scale for different levels of skill and experience. They also include money to pay for apprenticeship education, retirement plans and health insurance. 

The employers gain as well, having skilled, on-demand labor to produce goods or build buildings. And the cost of labor becomes a unit price that is relatively easy to track and mark up.

And while union workers’ wage packages typically are higher than those of non-union workers, many businesses consider their union affiliations a competitive advantage.

Now, back to the “thug” question: the answer, of course, is the attendees looked like people enjoying the beach and the opportunity to share a common interest. The conference was held at an older hotel. The fare was simple and attire was decidedly casual. Many of the attendees brought their families. A lot of wives and children were in attendance at the lunch where the governor spoke about the importance of workforce. Many of these skilled craft workers were visibly proud to have their work recognized in front of their families.

The “thug” question came from a man who has explained to me on more than one occasion that workers should be grateful for the good jobs that business owners “give” them. That comment is always made as if it is an unimpeachable argument that serves as a bulwark to keep us safe from discussions of liberal Democracy.

photo of colorful scoops ice cream by UdraAt the conference my granddaughter and I were in line to get ice cream behind a man and his teenage son. The boy was talking to his father about ice cream flavors when the boy turned his head and I could see the cochlear implant that allowed him to hear his father. An implant paid for by a medical plan negotiated by a union.

Would the boy have had the implant if his father had simply been “grateful” that someone “gave” him a job? Would he and his father have had that run-of-the-mill conversation about ice cream.

We hear constantly about the virtues of capitalism with its attendant free markets and competition. But competition in a capitalist economy involves all aspects of commerce. Businesses must also expect to compete for the skilled labor to produce the products they sell. Skilled, professional labor certainly is an advantage in any marketplace.

Nothing could be more American and capitalist than labor banding together to negotiate to protect its interest.

And we are lucky there are still people willing to work hard and demand proper respect and pay for their effort.

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Image Credit: photo of colorful scoops ice cream by Udra and licensed by LikeTheDew.com using contributions of generous readers like you at iStockPhoto.com.