30 July 2005

Are unions obsolete?

This is a topic that I need to dwell on today, because of developments on both my parents' front.

I have just learned that my mother will not be returning from her Far East trip as planned, due to a pilot strike at Asiana Airlines which has cancelled all of the airline's night flights to/from Los Angeles for the month of August. I know that pilot strikes can be very devastating, as I still remember San Francisco being crippled from 2000's United Airlines strike, which also took that airline from profitability into bankruptcy in just two years.

And regarding the schism within AFL-CIO which resulted in some unions leaving the organization, I overheard my father and a guest of his conclude that unions themselves were destined into oblivion. My Republican, capitalist pig father (one of several reasons I cite, alongside former Congressman Jay Kim and Reverend Moon, on why further Korean immigration into the United States must be stopped - this will be a future topic) even added that unions are as obsolete as communism, doing nothing but reinforcing workers' lazy behavior. His guest had a more accurate idea on union obsolescence though, saying that unions have ceased to represent workers, and union bosses are too busy lobbying for political influence. I agreed on this one.

I told both of them that unions are no longer functioning effectively in the United States for that exact reason. Unions in other countries have concentrated on workers' rights and quality of life; this has resulted in the legendary 8-week vacations for European workers, top-notch healthcare, hefty bargaining power, and a lot of other perks that American workers can only dream of. Unions in America have been about pay raises, and little more, and union bosses have been too busy building up political and personal influence to even care for the workers they supposedly represent. I mean, when Ford Motor Company gives the workers a crappy car design to manufacture, and blames the workers for the resulting shoddy quality, I expect the bosses to stand up and point out the engineering deficiencies - not appearing at some political rally. As a result, the average American workers have seen their purchasing power erode, benefits vanish, and working conditions worsen.

As a result, even in a supposedly pro-union state like California, unions have lost popular support and representation because of these factors. Governor Schwarzenegger's other proposed special election propositions are losing, but his anti-union one is actually winning support - because the average Californians don't see unions as being representative of them anymore. And in other states like Arizona and New Mexico, unions have lost so much credibility that politicians easily snuffed them out by passing "Right-to-Work" laws. That's right to work without union representation.

Moreover, when unions made up of rich, spoiled, old conservatives, like airline pilots, go on strike, sympathy level is bound to fall even further. At Asiana, flight attendants and other workers are staging their own protest, not to support the pilots, but to ask them to return to work. It is even more outrageous considering that pilots only fly so many hours per month, and get so many perks already, in the name of safety, and they want even more concessions - but those concessions (like more lenient drug tests) actually threaten safety. In the case of the airline industry, this is old-fashioned patriarchy at work; well-paid pilots are usually men, and overworked, underpaid flight attendants are usually women. In an ideal world, flight attendant pay should be doubled! And those pilots still want more while flight attendants labor on thanklessly... (without even the stock options that everyone else got, in United's case.)

Although Asiana is not a U.S. company, its union is still relevant to my discussion, because its strike is not winning support - nor serving the pilots' best interests. Fortunately, the rest of South Korea, where Asiana is based, fares better, because its unions, though quite militant, do ask that the profits from the country's fast economic growth be shared more equitably, and therefore do represent the workers - at least most of the time. (Your Korean-American neighbor will still dismiss them as communist bastards, but don't listen to him.) They've accomplished a lot since they were legalized in 1987, and that is also the case with many other countries, including Japan, Europe, and Canada. That is not the case with the United States, where workers continue to see their living standards erode while their unions are too hungry for influence for a few bosses. And the Democratic Party, hungry for the union bosses' money as well, is sinking fast as a result as well, unfortunately, instead of providing real solutions that benefit workers and the economy as a whole.

Of course, on the Republican side, the church leaders have gone just as corrupt, and have done the same thing, making them no better. But then I've talked about this a thousand times already - including my departure from the Christian faith - and will talk about it again and again.