- - Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I understand why many conservatives have problems with the labor movement. For example, unions tend to support Democratic political candidates almost exclusively, a mistake in my view.

But that’s far from the whole picture, and what I don’t understand is why many conservatives have such a one-sided view of labor and don’t apply the same rigorous analysis they apply to many other issues - which would lead to a more balanced outlook.

Because political conservatives and business executives pride themselves on taking a realistic view of things, I’d like to ask you today to engage in an exercise - not a rhetorical one, but rather a thoughtful one. Toward that end, I’ll pose a few questions for you to mull over.

• Have you considered that both sides have contributed to the political hostility between labor and Republicans/conservatives? Yes, labor is too prone to back Democrats and battle Republicans. But do you realize that this stems partly from a push to exile moderate Republicans who once served as the party’s connection with labor? With rare exceptions, politicians who remain in the Republican Party are reflexively hostile to labor, opposing it on issue after issue while constantly blasting its motivations and its very role in our system.

• Among the criticisms are frequent references to corrupt union “bosses.” Are you aware that the corruption that used to be widespread has largely been rooted out, sometimes by the unions themselves, sometimes by governmental action? Do you know that the corruption that once tarnished a few unions stemmed from labor’s efforts to find “muscle” to defend workers seeking to unionize against company “goons” hired to oh-so-gently dissuade them? Do you think the corruption that has most hurt people and the economy in recent years has emanated from union halls or from corner suites?

• Do you realize that many of the reforms now taken for granted - bans on child labor and sweatshops, safety regulations, paid vacations, the eight-hour day and five-day workweek, overtime pay, retirement benefits - were not bestowed upon workers by benevolent employers but rather were won by hard-fought union struggles? To those who say that even if once needed, unions aren’t essential in the 21st century, why - as corporations are becoming more powerful, more concentrated and more distant - would this be the time when workers can fend for themselves as individuals?

• Are you aware of the strong correlation over the past century between a robust American labor movement and a growing middle class? Do you realize that our economic prosperity is linked partly to an industrial relations system in which all parties - management, labor and, when appropriate, government - have a seat at the table so their constituents’ voices are heard and they buy into the decisions?

• Do you know that many thriving corporations say their partnerships with their unions are invaluable in helping organize the workplace, boosting productivity and quality, and generating ideas to improve efficiency? That unions representing the employees of defense contractors, for example, have improved the safety of the fighter jets our troops fly while saving taxpayers millions of dollars by helping improve the configuration of the production line?

• Have you heard that union membership losses stem partly from improper employer actions to block unionization votes at their workplace or to invalidate elections once they’ve occurred? Think that’s a liberal talking point? Consider that President George W. Bush’s National Labor Relations Board annually awarded back pay to tens of thousands of workers after finding that employers had fired or disciplined employees seeking to exercise their right to form a union.

Do I expect principled conservatives suddenly to become ardent union supporters? No. Would I like you to give these points some honest reflection? You bet.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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