State Of The Unions

After weeks of posturing and threatening the Transit Worker’s Union (TWU) finally went on strike, thereby disabling New York’s public transportation system. Personally I’m not really affected by the strike. My inability to find an apartment has, for once, worked out to my advantage since my commute requires New Jersey Transit as opposed to the subway.
However, like most New Yorkers, I am thoroughly annoyed at the TWU.

Many news outlets have corrected reported that the strike is illegal, but few have touched on the real significance of the relevant “Taylor Law.” Passed in 1967, the Taylor Law did not simply prohibit city workers from striking, but it redefined the working conditions for all city employees. It was this Taylor Law gave city workers the right to collective organization and representation in the first place. To avoid the obviously serious ramifications of a strike by city employees, the law disallowed striking under severe penalties, and required arbitration instead. Thus the “no strike clause” is really a part of a comprehensive law which when working properly takes into account both the needs of the workers and the city.
In other words, the TWU is breaking the very law which allows them to exist.
This strike is also representative of the larger problem of union influence and control in New York City. As with most unions, the TWU is assuming an immature attitude of entitlement. They represent the workers who obviously deserve whatever they wish regardless of performance or economic realities. Since they work in crucial positions the unions can do significant damage by striking, effectively saying, “if we don’t get our way we’re going to pack up and go home.”
Politicians often pander to these groups because not only do they represent a large voting bloc, but people are condition to think that “anti-union” is the same as “anti-worker” or regarding the absurdly powerful teacher’s union, “anti-education.” The end result is that the city often capitulates. Governer Pataki isn’t going to get involved and it is probably only due to Mayor Bloomberg’s political independence and term-limit that he is able to take the appropriate hard-line stance.
While I acknowledge and respect the work that unions have done in the past,1 I have to agree with Economist Oren that unions are a monopoly of labor. Personally, I’ve come to see many unions operating a form of legalized extortion, largely due to an experience from the smikha days.
At some point during my first two years in smihka, YU hired non-union labor to clean out asbestos from some of the buildings. The union got wind of this and went into full protest mode. First, they deployed one of their inflatable rats and had one of their guys violently handing out flyers bashing YU for not living up to “Jewish” standards.3
However, the union apparently didn’t do that much research into YU since they initially set up shop on a Friday when no one is around and on the corner of 185th and Audobon where nobody goes.2 Even when they finally moved the rat to the “actual campus,” and brought out the big guns of the the big blue gorilla, the union found that no one really cared.
True many YU students are just too myopic to think about labor relations, there were quite a few people who tried talking to the union people to explain their position. If YU hires workers who are treated fairly, compensated well, and have their safety accounted for, then why should YU pay a premium to hire union labor? While there are undoubtedly many answers to these questions, the union protesters refused to even acknowledge them and went back to handing out more flyers.4 The only conclusion I could draw is that YU’s biggest offense was not in mistreating workers, but not paying off the right people.
In their time, the unions accomplished major reforms in terms of how workers are treated. They fought for better wages and working conditions, and many people are currently benefiting either directly or indirectly from the union’s efforts. Even today, I’m sure many unions continue to improve the lives of workers, but there has to be a realistic outlook on financial realities and of tactics. When an organization routinely resorts to bullying and intimidation, especially for outrageous or untenable demands, it becomes difficult for me to empathize with the cause.

1. My great-uncle was helped tremendously by the musicians union when he first came to America and has some very interesting stories about how much good the unions did for immigrants.
2. Or at least “went” at that time anyway.
3. I also find it both interesting and offensive when people try to use Judaism as a moral sledgehammer, especially when these people are astoundingly ignorant of Jewish law. During a protest back in Chicago one law student proclaimed, “Jewish law from Leviticus to the Talmud is extremely supportive of the worker, and specifically of the right to strike and unionize.” Anyone want the over/under on a Bar Ilan search for “unionize” (or Hebrew equivalent)?
4. Based on my own personal experience and observing others.

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