Opinion: Daily Journal

The voices of those pushing labor unions — in N.C. and nationally — will only get louder

Teachers walked out of work and rallied at the N.C. Legislative Building on May 1, 2019. CJ photo by Don Carrington.
Teachers walked out of work and rallied at the N.C. Legislative Building on May 1, 2019. CJ photo by Don Carrington.

North Carolina law bans government agencies from making contracts with unions and bans public employees from striking.

Some people, in North Carolina and throughout America, want to change that. Those people are getting louder.

In February, a faction of the N.C. Association of Educators held a webinar, during which candidates for the top two positions in the organization made noise about moving in a more left-leaning, radical direction. The NCAE is an advocacy organization with voluntary membership, yet members often refer to the group as a union. 

For the past two years, as Carolina Journal’s Lindsay Marchello reported, the NCAE has hosted a teacher walkout, with thousands of teachers leaving the classroom for a day to march on the General Assembly. In January, the teacher advocacy group floated the idea of a teachers’ strike. NCAE members actually were sent a survey to gauge interest in taking more extreme action. 

Also in February, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House approved a massive pro-labor union bill. That bill, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, is a mishmash of pro-union provisions that would deliberately attempt to override state right-to-work laws and “beat back independent contracting and the gig economy,” Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation, told CJ

California, which has such a rule, was an impetus for the national legislation.

The chances of the measure passing the U.S. Senate are slight at best, but the political ground is uneven, and the fault lines are becoming more prevalent and increasingly dangerous for free market ideals.

The current field of Democratic candidates for president are generally friendly to unions and all too often spout words and terms such as “workers” and “middle class,” both of which have fallen to overuse. The terms are pervasive among North Carolina progressives, as well.

Unions, a one-time useful tool toward achieving workers’ rights and the power to negotiate wages and benefits as a group, have mostly outlived their usefulness. Unions are now oftentimes a crutch for incompetent workers, a government lobby that siphons money from workers that goes to huge salaries for leadership, and a disruptive economic force wielding the power of threats and intimidation.

As Sanders wrote about PRO, “Having to pay union fees despite not wanting union representation is a big problem in the 22 states that, unlike North Carolina, aren’t ‘Right to Work’ states. Thanks to provisions in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, North Carolina and 27 other Right to Work states keep union membership from being a requirement for employment and protect nonmembers from being made to pay union fees regardless.”

I’ve never worked for a union nor paid union dues. I’ve never been part of a strike nor walked a picket line. But I think I know something about unions. They were a big part of my life growing up in Western Pennsylvania. 

A sometimes disruptive part.

My father spent 28 years as a member of the United Steelworkers, of which an entire year of work was lost to strikes. The union offered some paltry help to the workers in contract strikes, though not in wildcat walk-offs — an impulsive, worker-driven strike.

The lengthy strikes — one as long as six months — produced little, he told me, maybe a dollar or so added to his hourly wage.

“When we went on strike we never got back to where we were.”

Union states, such as Pennsylvania, are replete with closed shops, meaning union membership was a condition for employment. As a machinist, he could have looked for a job without compulsory union membership, but, as he has said, good luck in finding one.

He recounted the ostracization of scabs — workers who crossed the picket lines, many times hiding in the beds of pickup trucks driven by company (nonunion) employees — of keeping production to a minimum to protect those who can’t keep up, of promoting workers with seniority over those more competent. He was in his 50s when the company was sold the first time, and then it closed, only to open later on a markedly smaller scale. 

I’ve known managers who had to endure full-throated assaults from union reps called to action to protect bad workers, of ineffective news reporters who jumped at the chance to join a union in the name of protection.

In 12 years of schooling before college, I played at home during several teacher strikes, including teachers who turned their backs on average students — like me — and, ironically, a journalism teacher who, class after class, sat at his desk, feet up, reading the paper. I can give him that, I guess. 

Don’t misunderstand. I had some good, even great, teachers, who were nevertheless restrained by seniority and union rules.

Progressives in the coming months will get louder and louder about the importance of caring for our workers, about getting people out of poverty, and the importance of the middle class. Public and private unions will line up to support them. They’ll cajole and they’ll shout, demanding your attention.

Whether you listen is up to you, it’s your choice. Let’s keep it that way.

“If I would have had the choice,” my dad told me, “I would not have been a union member.”