Good riddance to unions

Robin Miller

July 21, 1992|By Robin Miller

UNIONS are all but dead in America, and I can't say I'm sorry.

I stopped believing in unions in 1990, in a bar on Belair Road, when I sat down next to a Baltimore longshoreman.

I was driving a taxi. The longshoreman told me I was a chump. "I make more money sitting around the house, not working," he said, "than you do by busting your a--." Then he laughed. After he finished his drink, he went outside, got into his Nissan Sentra and drove off.

My tax money paid for the port facilities this guy depended on for his job. I sat there thinking about how I was, in essence, subsidizing a boor who called me a chump for being dumb enough to let him get away with what he was doing.

To me, the essence of unionism has always been worker solidarity. A union worker who laughs at a fellow worker, instead of helping him to improve his lot, doesn't deserve to earn more than minimum wage.

The railroad unions are among the worst, in a moral sense. Once, all railroad crews in Maryland were carried from point to point in taxicabs driven only by union drivers. Today, the same crews are transported by van services that pay drivers on commission.

Some van drivers don't even make minimum wage. The railroad crewmen don't care. Back when I used to drive them around in a cab, not one ever asked if I had a union card.

Cab drivers today make less money than they did even two or three years ago. Part of the reason their income has dropped is the lack of railroad work. The next time a railroad union asks for support from cabbies, do you think it will get it?

At Long Island University in New York, Prof. Jeffrey D. Corey wanted his fellow professors to help win a raise for the college's cafeteria workers. "We're union employees," said Professor Corey, "and we earn $40,000 a year or more. The food service people make $6 an hour. How can we ask for a raise for ourselves unless we help the people at the low end of the scale?"

Professor Corey's idea was not accepted by his fellow academics, who demanded more money for themselves and threatened to strike if they didn't get it. The cafeteria workers were on their own.

Today, when times are tight, unions are needed more than ever. The only problem is that the unions that already exist aren't willing to work with workers other than their own, isolated members. No unions seem to be interested in organizing fast-food restaurants, for instance.

A member of the United Auto Workers will happily take his family to a fast-food place, where the food is prepared by a worker who earns little -- if anything -- over minimum wage and gets no benefits.

A member of the International Association of Machinists has no problem choosing non-union Sprint as a long-distance provider over heavily organized AT&T. Union truckers don't think twice about buying coffee from underpaid convenience store employees or diesel fuel from non-union truck stops. The list goes on.

Years ago, my father owned a machine shop in Los Angeles. By choice, he hired only union workers. "I always got good people from the union," he'd say, "and I could give them benefits I couldn't afford to give them on my own, as a small businessman."

Today I am watching the union movement in America die, and I don't think it will be missed. Though I would like to support organized labor, I see little good in the way unions currently behave.

When I see union members reaching out to help other workers, I may become a believer again. Until then, I will look at unions with the same lack of respect I have for shady real estate promoters, politicians, welfare mothers and others who ride on the backs of honest working people.

Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.

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