An Italian immigrant, Salvatore worked 12 hours a days in waist-deep rancid water, the air fetid and filthy. Any day could be his last: Cave-ins and poisonous gas explosions commonly crushed the shafts carved into the West Virginia hillside. The pay was scarcely enough to feed his family. The squalid company-owned housing was worse. When he contracted a bacterial infection that eventually killed him, his older sons, ages 12 and 8, headed into the mines each day to support their mother and five siblings.
To the mining company, my grandfather Salvatore Quattrocchi was expendable. For his kids and millions of others in the mid-20th Century, however, their fight for fair wages and safe workplaces provided a pathway to the American dream. Unions helped make it happen.
Working-class families like mine owe a lot to those early organizers, but over the decades self-interest has sullied their original intent. Forget fighting for fair wages and safe conditions. Today, big labor has become left-wing power brokers too often protecting the “right” to obsolete work rules, slothful job performance and benefit packages that are financially unsustainable for companies and governments alike.
Labor’s fixation on increasing membership numbers, to further boost its political clout, has had a corrosive effect on even the most venerable professions. In public education, the most gifted teacher is neither commended nor compensated more than the worst; instead, incompetent teachers are simply passed from school to school in what administrators refer to as the “dance of the lemons.” The drift from educational quality has resulted in lackluster achievement rankings for U.S. students compared to their international peers.
Private sector unions are no better. Two years ago Fox 2-Detroit filmed an undercover video of 15 UAW workers at the Chrysler Jefferson assembly plant drinking and smoking pot during their lunch break, in clear violation of OSHA regulations prohibiting the operation of machinery while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Open and shut case: Chrysler fired 13 and suspended two. The UAW challenged the dismissals and just this week the arbitrator reinstated all the workers with—here’s the kicker—two years back pay.
The face of unionism, in the good old days
The public, not just who the left calls vulture capitalists, have had enough of big labor’s avarice at the expense of the greater good. Support has plummeted to an all-time low; less than half of Americans view unions favorably, citing the negative effects on workplace productivity and U.S. global competitiveness. Companies are going bankrupt or moving their operations oversees while cities and school districts are choking on bloated pension obligations. Americans, by no means against the spirit of collective bargaining, realize that something has to change.
The line has been drawn and ground zero is Michigan, birthplace of the modern labor movement. This week, the Republican-led Michigan House and Governor Rick Snyder passed a right-to-work law. Despite the hysteria and out-and-out lies circulated by the left, the legislation is actually quite straightforward: Right-to-work prohibits companies and unions from making union membership compulsory for employees. It does not, as some have erroneously claimed, impede collective bargaining rights.
That’s it. Yet big labor and even President Obama are suggesting that the sky is falling. “These so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have anything to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics,” the President said at a Michigan rally on Monday, “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
Well, he’s certainly right about the politics and, ahem, less than honest in his latter remark. Unions claim that right-to-work brings in jobs with lower wages and benefits; that it would hurt Michigan’s employment and economy.
The facts, please: Michigan has ranked dead last in employment growth since 2000, with an 18.4 percent drop compared to the national decline of 1.8 percent; during this same period three out of four automotive jobs have left the state. The current unemployment rate is two points higher than the national average. Wages for Michigan workers compared to other states has decreased from being in the top 15 to 40th or lower. Things are not peachy in the place I call home.
And the Democrats and labor are worried that right-to-work is going to hurt Michigan and reduce wages? Are they deluded, devious or simply dimwitted?
Truth is, the misinformation and fear-mongering from big labor and its supporters are about one thing and improving our quality of life is not it. If it was, and unions were doing such a dandy job of representing their members, employees would be clamoring to join. After all, the progressive left are the same folks who cloak themselves in pro-choice tolerance; you would think they’d lead the charge allowing lowly proletariats the option of deciding if they want to belong to a union.
But we know better. This is not about Norma Rae.
As the brutish behavior in Lansing shows, they are not happy campers about the Michigan legislation. Teamsters President James Hoffa is threatening that “we’re going to have a civil war;” “There will be blood” warns Democratic state representative Douglas Geiss. Meanwhile, the left tacitly eggs on the vandalism and thuggery occurring outside the state capitol.
The face of unionism, Lansing, Michigan 2012
Big labor despises right-to-work for one reason: Fewer members + reduced dues = less power. Not good if buying influence is your game. They aren’t interested in helping people like my dad and grandfather; this isn’t to ensure that sweatshops like Apple’s Foxconn factory in China aren’t built on our shores. What we are witnessing is Orwell’s “double-think” at its bullying, disingenuous worst.