Chris Anderson explains the difference between labor going on strike and politicians holding the people hostage.
It is curious to me that many of the voices that attack organized labor do so with a venom matched only by their hatred of big government. Unions are private organizations that work independently of government (though often in concert with it) to fight for the rights of their membership. Indeed, it can be argued that public sector unions actually do a far better job of monitoring (although not always managing) public sector expenditures than the current crop of public service and government bashers in and allied around Congress. Yes, at times labor has to call for a work stoppage to protect the rights and livelihoods of its members. But when was the last time a labor stoppage threatened national security, closed public access to many of this country’s national treasures, and posed a grave threat to the health and welfare of millions of Americans?
As a member of Local One IATSE, I supported my union’s action this week. After over a year of unsuccessful negotiating with management, we went on strike for 3 days this week at Carnegie Hall. The real root of the issue was the expansion of Carnegie Hall’s activities into a new educational wing. Management did not want to allow our members work in this new wing, we felt that some of that work fell into our areas of expertise should be done under contract. In the end, a compromise was reached that gave both sides some of what they wanted.
As someone who has worked both under union representation (and protection) and without it, I can tell you that the stagehands earn what they are paid. Also, in contradiction to what most people would believe the vast majority of members of Local One are not making six-figure salaries, even the ones who work on Broadway. Another interesting stat from the 2012 990 of Carnegie Hall that hasn’t been widely reported (yet is publicly viewable) – Over the past 2 years, the Carnegie Hall non-profit organization has brought in close to $75 MILLION dollars in revenues over expenses.
While some people rail against the news that some of the stagehands at Carnegie Hall make what they feel are inappropriately high salaries, it is important to remember that they make it hourly. Every dollar they are paid has been Carnegie’s choice to offer it, and their choice to take it. Carnegie Hall is in no risk of going out of business because of their contract with Local One, and in fact, salary wasn’t even at the heart of this disagreement, actual jobs were. If the stagehands are willing to work 80 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, why should they apologize for being compensated at a rate that has been freely negotiated for them? The free market has determined that a person working that job for that much time get can paid that much. Indeed, it seems to me that this presents a model that more groups of workers should be emulating rather than trying to tear down.
In addition, compare the successful resolution of this dispute to the ongoing, and seemingly intractable state of affairs in Washington right now. Yet again hundreds of thousands of public sector employees are either furloughed or on the job and working without pay (some risking their lives to protect Congressional leaders who are still cashing their checks). Meanwhile, millions of Americans wait anxiously for a resolution that many feel will never come. As I write this, it seems highly unlikely this issue will be resolved soon, and even when a solution is reached – chances are it will only be a temporary stay until the next battle threatens to shut the federal government down yet again.
Am I biased towards Local One (and by extension organized labor)? Of course – I’m a member. And although I no longer work as a stagehand (currently I run a non-profit called MaleSurvivor), I continue to pay my dues and keep my union card. At the same time I don’t at all begrudge any employer bargaining hard with labor to come to mutually acceptable contracts. In point of fact, the best guarantor of the middle class is organized, well-run (i.e. not corrupt and inclusive leadership) of labor, by labor. Is organized labor a panacea? Are all unions controversy free? Of course not, and as labor supporters and members we have a duty to hold ourselves and our organizations accountable, demand greater inclusiveness for women and minorities, and ensure that we continue to fight to protect all workers, not just the ones who already hold cards.
In the end, we are the only people who can speak with authority about the circumstances we face on the job, and what we require to ensure that jobs are done correctly, professionally, and safely.