So ya wanna live vicariously through some ideals? Ok, here you go:
I think those that say running things on a "free market" system is the most fair, most productive and generally best for society, are (consciously or not) espousing a kind of propaganda. Now, I like markets. Markets are very good at connecting supply and demand, and this is cool, but they must be closely regulated (e.g. non-free) to remain equitable, otherwise markets quickly become exploitative. Furthermore, supply and demand is an extremely limited way to look at human products such as labor, or human needs such as health care. The ideology that "free markets" are the best way to answer all our problems is false.
This ideology of "free markets uber alles" exists largely to justify behavior by corporations and their management which would otherwise be viewed as morally wrong, behavior like firing 150 US workers and employing children in China to work 12-hour shifts making the same products for pennies a day. What makes that right? Nothing but a leap of faith.
In a comment on the post below Sam says that he thinks the "free market" gives us the best chance we have. I think he's being ideological, and if he actually thought about it he would re-phrase his position. Current reality is current reality, and it's the only chance you have, and therefore the best. However, the system we use now to organize our economy is not as good as it gets. I personally think our current system is setting us up (via massive over-consumption, enormous personal and national debt, and a negligent attitude towards basic social and economic infrastructure) for a pretty big fall. I think we can do a hell of a lot better that the current ideology of the "free market."
All that being said, labor unions are far from perfect. I've been a huge trash-talker for political reasons, but they're also not a good fit for all workers. If you're uncomfortable working as part of a large group and abiding by that group's way of doing things, they're probably not for you. You might be told to slow down because the group has a certain pace of working to meet its contractual obligations with management. You might be told to use safety equipment that you think is unnecessary. You might be told that your work doesn't mean certain standards which the group has agreed upon. All that's the joy and pain of being part of a group, whether its your union or your family.
Also, much like corporations, governments, and other organizations, unions are prone to corruption, cronyism, nepotism, bureaucratic waste, and all the other usual ills of institutions which wield power. Still, for all this, group association of some sort by regular/working people remains the only way that average conditions will ever improve in America. It is the only way the middle class will ever grow.
If you're a highly skilled individual you might think you're better off going it alone. You might be right. Far be it from me to restrict anyone's entrepreneurial spirit. I think a fair market would be one which supports small/local/family business just as richly as massive corporations. But as long as you're working' for the man, its in your interest to try to equalize the power dynamic between you and the people who pay you.
Want an example? I'm a lucky ducky in the employment market, all things considered. I have portable, marketable skills that are in high demand. If anyone should love the "free market" for labor it should be me. Why, if I really applied myself, I could maximize my value quite well in the next few fiscal years. But you know what? I'm seriously thinking about trying to start a trade association or union.
Why? I already have colleagues who are shipping the exact same kind of work that I do to India and Poland. If I persist in the "free market" way of doing things -- looking out for only my own best interest, trying to get the best deal I can for myself -- and stay in my current line of work, in ten years I'll either be out of a job or managing a bunch of foreigners who are working for a fraction of what I earn.
I'd rather not be in that position, but there's nothing that I can do as an individual to prevent that reality from coming to pass. However, if there were a union of software engineers, that entity might be able to do something to help a more positive future emerge. I'll quickly note that this is a complex situation. I already work with a number of foreigners in a non-outsourced way, and so it's not a simple matter of protectionism for US jobs. But that's another story we'll have to get into later.
Getting back to the specifics of the NYC transit strike, here's some new information from today's Times:
Negotiations did not have to end when they did. There was no impasse. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state entity that runs the system, had compromised on several major points at the negotiating table. When Roger Toussaint, the union chief, walked away, his members were being offered a chance to continue to retire with full pensions at age 55. New hires would have to pay into that pension, but workers would continue to pay nothing toward their health benefits. That's a deal that many riders, including those who struggle to pay the $2 fare, would gladly take.
The Times has a point. The TU could have gone on working without a contract, which is what the teachers and cops and firefighters usually do when there's a lack of consensus. It's clear that this strike is a show of force, especially coming at a time (xmas shopping) when it's poised to do maximum economic damage to the luxury businesses in Manhattan. The reason for that show of force is the insistence on tiered benefits, which is the current tactic of choice for management in the war against unions.
Here's how it works. Basically management creates the public perception that union workers -- because they've had the grit to stick together and demand good wages -- are somehow overpaid (e.g. "That's a deal that many riders, including those who struggle to pay the $2 fare, would gladly take"), they then structure their finances such that the long-term costs of pensions and health care appear to cut deeply into profits. They play on the perception that no-one should get this kind of deal in the 21st century. Workers just need to be content to work for less. But we'll be reasonable, they say. Existing workers keep the same (or similar) benefits, but new hires are brought in under a different set of expectations.
Once a tier is in place, management does everything possible to drive the old-school out (harassment, changing their hours, reassignment, lotsa drug testing, etc) so that they can refresh their workforce with new workers under the new terms. Lather, rinse, repeat and in a generation you have an end to the union as an effective advocate for workers' interests. This has been going on quite well in a number of industries around the country, and it's one of the main reasons that union membership has declined so steadily over the past 40 years.
The most clear-cut example of this tactic is the so-called "right to work" laws that have been enacted in a number of states, which allows management to bring in new hires who agree not to join the union (essentially, they discriminate based on whether or not you want to exercise your rights), but tiering benefits is the same sort of tactic aimed at the same strategic goal. Essentially the TU is trying to reverse this trend by showing that the tiered-benefit tactic can be beaten.
Unions have been doing a terrible job at public relations since as long as I've been alive. They tend to be insular, fracticious, secretarian. Many don't understand the need to reach out to non-members. As a result they're now largely politically impotent, which only serves to increase the downward spiral. In other words, they've got a long way to go in order to be be effective organizations again.
But the bottom line is that if they can't survive, they can't improve. I'm not ready to write off unions yet, just like I'm not ready to write off the Democratic party. They're both full of problems, but their intended purpose is sound, and reforming existing institutions seems much more plausible to me than starting over from scratch.
And that's why I support the Transit Union strike. Frankly, given the state of public opinion I don't think it will work out for them, but I still support their right to demand a unified contract for all workers.