A More Perfect Union

Once upon a time, a UPS driver accidentally dropped that big black signing thingy they carry on my foot, causing it to swell up painfully and necessitating a trip to the emergency room to get pain meds. Because nobody is going to prescribe Vicodin because you call them up and say your big toe hurts.

Long story short: I thought UPS should pay for my E-room visit, x-rays, meds and follow-up, so I called them. They said they'd get back to me but they never did. Their insurance company called, and I gave them my lawyer's name. They said they would prefer not to speak to my lawyer. I said call him anyway. They never did. My lawyer wrote them a letter, to which they did not reply. So he sued them for $10,000.

Three years later, I got my medical expenses plus $300 in a settlement, which was more than I asked for in the first place. When they asked why I had sued. I likened it to the story of getting a mule's attention. And I had called my lawyer in the first place, not to get $10,000, but to have someone in my corner who knew a thing or two about dealing with insurance companies for big corporations.

I didn't want to stand alone, my big toe being all swollen up and hurting like hell.

That's what Unions are supposed to do. They are there to stand up for you. They are there to provide a measure of equality in an essentially unequal relationship. They are there to help you get justice.

Eight hour day. Five day work week. Job safety. Equal opportunity. I could go on and on, but I don't think I need to. Unless it would be to remind people that none of these things would be in place today without Unions. In case they have forgotten.

In the following essay, I use the terms "Management" and "Unions" to represent employers of all kinds and workers of all kinds. Mostly unionized workers, probably mostly corporate employers, but all share in the dynamic in their own way.

Unfortunately, this country has made such a culture of the adversarial system that we have made a place where Management and Unions battle and often hold each other hostage for wages, overtime, health care - all those issues in which both entities hold an interest.

A side issue in my little spat with UPS had to do with the protocols given to drivers on handling those signing thingys. My guy hadn't meant to drop it. He had just let go without making certain I had a real hold on it. I wasn't even trying to hold it, just steady it for signing. And I thought maybe I could ask, as part of my settlement, to see the protocols and perhaps ensure that, in future, care in handling the signing thingys was drummed into the dear little heads of the drivers. Unfortunately, the only thing anyone, including my lawyer, was interested in discussing, the only thing on the table, was money. Which was definitely part of the deal, but not the only part of the deal for me.

Benefits to workers are very definitely the primary concern of any self-respecting Union. But I also think that space can and should be made for other concerns. For the safety of the product, perhaps. For quality. For the interest of both sides for the continuing health of the company that employs them, for the health of the community in which both Management and Union are embedded.

The Union has, all too often I think, abjured the broader issues with which it might rightly be concerned. I suspect that wages and benefits have sometimes spiraled out of control because Management has seen them as payoffs for silence on product quality and safety. Both have too often neglected the health of the larger community for their own narrower interests.

In this, I hold Management's feet closer to the fire than the feet of the Union - one has more money to throw around than the other. And Management has done a yeoman's job (forgive the ironic metaphor) in painting Unionism as the selfish greedy monster that has helped to destroy the economy.

Most of us know this isn't true. But it has become part of the recognized narrative, true because of constant repetition. And the Unions are losing ground.

If American Unionism is to revitalize itself, it needs a bigger mission than wages and benefits. It needs a mission to be a full partner in the American economy, in the American community as a whole. It needs to be a recognized shareholder in our future.

If we let the Union go, we're alone once again, each one of us hobbling painfully toward a future in which we no longer have any kind of say, about anything. Because there's nothing democratic about capitalism. Unionism is the only hope for any kind of democracy in an otherwise autocratic economy.