Maybe Unions Aren’t All Wrong


For most of my life I have held that labor unions are a poisonous left-over from the 19th century, when they did succeed in bettering the lives of working people and their families. In my careers in aviation and electronics I have had just two brushes with unions. The first came in the late 70s when a computer company for which I was working and which was failing (a common theme within the computer industry) responded by cutting everyone’s salary and commission while expanding work hours and company travel. In response, the sales force asked to join the Teamsters and called-in the NLRB to umpire. The company responded with threats and bullying and the union was defeated by a bare margin but not until the topic of unions had been thoroughly dissected by the work force. My second brush with a union came when I joined a professional writers’ group only to find that these scribes were in fact proudly aggressive communists and members of the United Auto Workers who sought to force the Government to mandate them a high salary and good benefits through their scribbling. I did not renew my membership. In all, my opinion of unions – like that of the fabled incompetent’s -- “started in a hole and continued to dig.”

But I have recently been reevaluating my opinion in light of the utter collapse of the American service industry. Or more precisely, the service industry off-shored by the few remaining American manufacturers who have hunkered-down against the gale of destruction brought forth by the US Congress and its viciously stupid anti-business ravings such as Sarbanes-Oxley, one important nail in the coffin of US businesses competing in a world economy.

Whomever is the Democrat nominee for president this year, he or she will have the firm backing of the remaining US labor unions. As unions have seen themselves shrink to what would have been 20 years ago unimaginably small sizes, they have become more strident and recalcitrant, seeking rejuvenation from the party that promises to balm some of their wounds, many self-inflicted. Many union members see what was a good life for essentially mindless work disappear in the face of global competition. And most of these jobs are never coming back, leaving workers confused, frightened, and really angry at having been “cheated.” The end of US business as it has been ripples down through the factories, out into Main Street, and down into what was to have been the country’s savior, “hi tech service work.”

I try to do most of by buying over the internet. This is in tune with a world economy that uses the same methodology. But as every computer owner knows, this situation has left customer service in ruins. Everyone, it seems, has his or her favorite horror story of trying to trouble-shoot their PC or Mac over the phone with someone on another continent who is taking night school courses in English as a Third Language. My personal best was two hours 14 minutes dealing with Dell customer service one very unhappy night several years ago, which ended with the woman in the former Soviet Bloc nation of East Wretchnia saying, “I am sorry. I have come to the end of my trouble-shooting tree.” When I asked to speak to her supervisor she told me she was the supervisor, apologized again, and hung up. Yes, you really can "see red." And no, Dell will never, ever again cross my doorstep.

More recently, I bought a GPS through an online electronic discounter. The unit arrived in a torn, mangled box accompanied by a blank SD map data card (I confirmed this through my PC). I emailed NEXTAR, the manufacturer, and the next day received an email from them largely in Chinese accompanied by a helpful Microsoft box chirping, “Do you want to download MS Chinese reader?” I made the mistake of saying “yes,” which precipitated a lot of humming and clicking in my PC (emachines T3092), followed by my PC freezing and requiring me to reboot. When my PC came back online there were a great deal of characters (Chinese?) within an email from NEXTAR informing me in added English that I would receive an RMA (presumably in Chinese) for returning the unit. I tried to explain that I just needed a replacement SD card but clearly the language barrier was insurmountable.

I next called NEXTAR and, after calling four subsequent numbers given by the previous person, was told that, since I had ordered it from a discounter, I had to call them.

I called the discounter ( and, after speaking to a young woman in Pakistan, was told I would be receiving via email an RMA for the return and replacement of the unit. Again, my explanation that all I needed was the database fell upon uncomprehending ears, so the next day I re-packaged the entire unit in its shredded box, put it inside another box, and returned it using the UPS Ground RMA, which estimates that the unit will reach the distributor in 7-10 days. Add another week for their paperwork, followed by another 7-10 days for the replacement unit to reach me and we have seen an entire month go by in a burst of complete frustration over something that would have taken one day if the unit were made and sold in the US. Customer service, 2008. If it works, anyway.

Which brings me back to unions. My old computer company barely defeated the Teamsters in part because some of my coworkers had had bad dealings with unions. One guy told me angrily that the Teamsters had murdered his uncle some years ago when he opposed their unionizing his shop. One day during negotiations his uncle had started his car, which exploded, resulting in an empty casket funeral. Such is a common tale, I find. But can’t there be a better common ground between union abuse and an end to competent commerce? And what political power in the US can accomplish such a change?