Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I don't want any trouble with unions . . .

Organized labor can be very puzzling. At one point in my life it made no sense to me - most notably, when I was 16 years old and working at a grocery store and saw what I viewed as a rather large chunk of my wages going to union dues, and later, when I was yelled at for using a photocopier in violation of union work rules while at the Star Tribune. But I do understand why it exists, and has existed (for example, my grocery store wages would likely have been much lower absent the union, so it was a wash), and try not to reflexively assume that unions are always wrong, since a great many people owe a great deal to what unions achieved in the past.

But boy, they make it hard. Although it's kind of a bad example, as professional athletes aren't typical union workers, NHL hockey players held firm behind a union president who insisted they'd never accept a salary cap or linkage between revenues and salary, and who later turned down a $42 million salary cap. Of course, the union ultimately did accept a linked salary cap - of $39 million - after forfeiting an entire year of salary for players who have a limited career span, and also accepted a 24% across the board salary cut. And the union president HAS NOT BEEN FIRED, somehow.

Even more amazing, the Northwest Airlines mechanics' union has voted to authorize a strike, and an labor impasse has been declared, meaning that they could be on strike within 30 days. Now, a part of me understands why they'd be frustrated; the management of the airline continually seeks wage concessions from the unions, even though Gary Wilson, Al Checchi, and the like took untold millions for their services.

But - and this is a big but - THE FREAKING AIRLINE IS GOING BROKE. The entire airline industry is in a shambles, and has been since 9/11. An article in Monday's Star Tribune indicated that Northwest's debt obligations in the coming years are so onerous that bankruptcy is a near certainty unless the government allows them to make smaller contributions to the pension funds. A mechanics' strike now would seem highly unlikely to improve the airline's financial situation; in fact, it just might kill it. How this benefits the union, and its members, is beyond me. Were I advising employees of that airline, I would tell them to work as much and spend as little as possible in light of their uncertain future. Going to the brink of a strike may just be good negotiating, as long as the union pulls back and cuts a deal before the deadline. But if they actually strike, the cause of organized labor will have shot itself in the foot once more.

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