The Problem of Unions: My Reflections

Bob Dylan, that great American musician, in 1983 prophesied of the issues facing 2008. In his single, “Union Sundown,” the inimitable poet-musician wrote, “Well, it’s sundown on the union and what’s made in the USA. Sure was a good idea ‘til greed got in the way.” How very true this statement is. It was originally made during the recessionary times of the early 1980s when the automotive industry was struggling against increased foreign competition and failing to respond to the fuel crisis only a few years before. Now, in 2008, with the global market concerns, the automotive industry has fallen on difficult times in North America. The issues have not changed since the 1980s. The North American giants, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are facing growing interest in foreign manufacturers and a failure to respond. While Toyota and Honda and others are answering the fuel prices of today with high-economy models, the North American manufacturers are still investing in large engine models. They cannot seem to understand what the market is looking for. It is no wonder they are continually losing market share. The reality is, the “Big Three” Detroit automakers have announced that without some kind of economic bailout, there is the real threat of bankruptcy.

While the United Auto Workers (UAW) and its Canadian counterpart the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) have often found themselves with a great influence in the world around them, they, and the manufacturers they work with, are finding they have little support in the community at large. Micheline Maynard recently wrote in an article titled “Clout Has Plunged for Automakers and Union, Too” for the New York Times (November 17, 2008) that “In arguing for a bailout, Detroit’s automakers have found themselves without much help.” Public opinion in general has turned against the Detroit automakers. The clout they once felt they had in Washington and Ottawa has dried up as people everywhere are asking how dumping billions into these manufacturers, with little foresight into actually building cars the population wants to buy, will actually help this economy. The manufacturers and the unions that represent the workers are no longer the giants they once were.

How did this happen? While most are asking this question with regard to the automaker few are asking it with regards to the unions. The important question needs to be, “what happened to the unions?” Dylan helps us with the answer: greed. The automotive unions have set themselves up far beyond their original goals and mission. They have moved into the realm of all-powerful organization that has, for some, become a substitute for the church.

The unions were formed out of a difficult time and were completely necessary. During the late 1930s and 40s conditions were poor for the manufacturing working class. People were tired of working the long hours in poor conditions for little pay. First, General Motors formed a contract with the UAW in 1937, then Chrysler a year later. Hold out, Ford Motor Company, did not form a contract with the UAW until 1941 after a number of years of intimidation, espionage, and even violence on the part of Henry Bennett and the “Ford Service Department” whose sole task set out by founder Henry Ford was to prevent organization. During this time, the union was designed to represent the workers to the company and bargain for better working conditions and pay and benefits that matched the work they were doing. These were noble goals. Those of us today who make what we make in many different industries owe that to the automotive unions which forced companies to actually treat their employees like people and pay them what they were owed. But what happened?

The unions grew too big for their britches. They became a “social club” and were a haven for employees. The problem was, they did not just stop there, instead they even grew beyond the social club concept and moved into the area of a church. More people began to attend union meetings and union get-togethers on Sunday’s then going to church. The union began to take the place of the church in many areas

My father worked for 30 years for Ford Motor Company in Windsor, Ontario. The union over the years helped to keep my father employed, paid, and with good benefits. One of those benefits was that I was able to work for Ford as well during my seminary years as a TPT (Temporary Part-Time). I would work Friday’s and Monday’s at Windsor Engine Plant in Windsor, Ontario where we built the truck engines for the F-Series trucks. It was a great job. It was the best paying part-time job I had. It allowed me to support myself all through my seminary years. But, over my 4 years of working for Ford I noticed some very dangerous things about the union.

I would recall when I was hired, we were strongly encouraged to have funds removed from our cheques to give to a large charitable organization. The union prided itself on giving to this group in large amounts each year. Since this organization supported things I could not in good conscience support as a Christian, I told them I was not going to give them funds. The looks and the queries made me think I was somehow guilty of failing my fellow man for not giving to this organization. It was “expected” to do so as a member of the union.

When election time came around the unions basically told employees who to vote for. These recommendations would usually be very leftward leaning on the political spectrum. As I felt I could not support these politicians because their parties supported issues that I could not support as a Christian I would tell people I would not be voting the way the union wanted me to vote. I was basically accused of not supporting the union; that my vote to a different party meant I was against jobs. The rhetoric of the union had so ingrained the minds of the employees they could not see the lack of logic. I often said to them, “Who pays your salary, the company or the union?” They would reply that it was the company that paid them. So I asked, “Would you rather support a party that supported the company or the union?” People could not grasp the concept of this or anything that did not mesh with what the union was arguing.

The union became the church for these people. It provided them a place to fellowship. It told them what to believe, how to behave, and what was important in life. The reason the unions are failing is because they have attempted to take the place of what the church is. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the primary vehicle for which God is accomplishing His will in this age. It is the place where God has called us to be a part of and to which we give our lives. Nothing takes precedence or place over the local church in our lives. We were saved to do good works (Eph 2:10) in the life of the body of Christ (Eph 4:16). Nothing should take our allegiance away from the church. The scary part of all of this is, too many believers bought the lies that the unions offered and gave more allegiance to the union than they did the church.

Why are the unions failing around us? Why can they not keep plants open? Why can they not keep people in their jobs? It is simply because at some stage they decided they were more than just a union. They were much more. The problem is, there is nothing “more” than the church in this age. They tried to usurp the role that the church should have in the lives of people. It was an ineffectual substitute. And when the unions attempted to go into areas that were not part of their original mission, they forgot about their mission of workers rights and job security. Until the unions get back into their place and out of the place of the church, they will never be effectual in the world around us.

Dylan’s words hit to the heart of the matter today. “Well, the job that you used to have they gave it to somebody down in El Salvador. The unions are big business, friend and they’re goin’ out like a dinosaur.” The unions will never be effectual again until they find their place as organizations that work to secure worker rights and job security. Not be a big business, or a big church.

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