Thursday Thoughts on Unions

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011 by Travis Cody in

I have resented unions.  I admit it.

When I was in southern California, managing a small data networking company as a college educated business management professional earning $50k annually, I found out that a unionized shipping clerk at the Port of Los Angeles made $65k annually.  That's base salary and didn't count overtime compensation for any hours worked over 8 in a day or 40 in a week, plus double time to work on holidays.

I got $50k, and I worked 65 hour weeks.

Also when I was in southern California working as an accounts receivable accountant for a large digital game company, grocery checkers went on strike.  They were generally willing to compromise with management except for one thing...they did not want to contribute anything to the cost of their health care.  I had to pay $15-$20 a month by payroll deduction for 80/20 coverage, and grocery clerks didn't want to compromise with management and agree to contribute $10 a month for 100% coverage.

Oh...they made more money than I did too.  And they got dental and vision.  I didn't get that.

So yeah, I have resented unions sometimes.

But I also remember what unions did for my mom.  She wasn't actually in a union.  But as a divorced, single mother of two young kids, she was able to find a job that paid a decent wage and provided good benefits at an affordable cost so that her kids saw the doctor and the dentist routinely.  We ate well.  We had clothes.  We got allowances.  We were able to take vacations.  She kept that job for 20 years, until she reconnected with my stepdad.

The union movement in the early part of the 20th century helped define US labor law, paving the way for a middle class that could afford to buy what Americans were making. 

  • Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932) gave Federal sanction to the right of labor unions to organize and strike, and to use other forms of economic leverage in dealings with management.
  • Wagner Act (1935) established the National Labor Relations Board, guaranteeing workers' rights to join unions, bargain collectively, and strike.  These specific and other key provisions were later reinforced by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947).
The above provisions are quoted from this website.

So most of what I know about unions and labor law I remember from high school civics and social studies classes.  I'm not an expert by any means.  There's a reason why they tell you to get an attorney when you have problems with labor law.  It's complicated stuff.

I think I resent unions sometimes because I just don't know all that much about them and how they operate.  Maybe I should have asked my grandfather more questions.  He was a member of the National Maritime Union from the age of 16, and became a member (retired) of the Seafarers International Union of North America after it merged with the NMU in 2001.  He worked in the Merchant Marine his entire career, and retired with a healthy pension combined with shrewd investing of his salary and benefits to keep him well cared for until the day he dies.

I could resent that, but he's my grandpa.  His pension meant he could make sure I got new cleats when I grew out of them...and I grew out of them pretty fast.  Grandpa's pension meant he could buy me a specially made chin strap and a mouth piece for my senior season of football.  Grandpa's pension meant there was some money for college if I didn't get a football scholarship and wanted to try to walk on somewhere and play.  Since I couldn't play football anymore due to injury, and couldn't join the Marine Corps for the same reason, and was way too messed up at 17 to know what I wanted from college, Grandpa held that money for me.  

I just used some of it to pay for the construction assessment for the condo in 2009-10.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn't really resent unions.


  1. Like with most things, there are two sides to the story. Unions have been greedy at times, but without some protection the average worker would almost certianly get shafted. We need a balance.

  1. Jeni says:

    Although I am pretty much a union-type person -although I never worked in a union job, sad to say -there are times when I have said they are a necessary evil. True that often some unions are notorious for graft and corruption within their ranks, especially in the higher levels but overall, those who dislike unions need to also stop and think that but for those workers and leaders around the turn of the century and up until about the 50s-60s (when the union declines began), where would any of us be today in terms of working conditions, better hours, benefits and such? They shouldn't be regarded as something that is a thing of the past but in today's market, as something needed, sorely, for many people who still toil with very low wages -make that VERY LOW -and no benefits at all, often with long hours as well and a fear of even thinking of how a union could help them because somehow, their employer might read their minds and fire them. Sure do wish I'd known about that union job that paid $65K a year way back when though. My highest wage in my work life was $24,000 a year working 60-80 hours a week and that was in 2001 -and with a college degree too! Sorry state of affairs employment and wages brings about for many of us though at times, isn't it?

  1. before there was a unoin at the sheriff's dept where I worked you got strait pay even if you got"hit" worked a double that meney went on the worked a 6 day week and ogt paid for 40 hours.under this syste of work 6 off two every 4th week you got 4 days off and still got p[aid the 40 housr even thought you did not work that muck that week.the bad part was that if a supervisor did not like you just before your 4 bagger as it was called you got switch to a class that just had the 4 bagger.there was a lot of abuse going on. and we did not have the right to unionise. when the state of Ohio did adopt collective barganing we got a lot more fair yes unions can be good and they can be evil.

  1. Well done post Travis.

    I have never been a union member, but I do know that Local 1 in NY (Printers and Lithographers) pretty much put themselves and many printers out of business because they demanded too much.

    BUT, that said, I believe for the most part unions have helped more than hurt

  1. Trav: I'm in a union. It's got its advantages. But there are disadvantages, too. The one disadnvantage I'm thinking of is when people rest on their laurels and still get to keep their jobs - when others with less seniority, who work harder, better, more honestly, etc, get laid off when down-sizing happens. I've been hurt by that disadvantage, but I've benefitted by the advantages as well.