Friday, May 14, 2021

Don’t bust unions

| February 10, 2021 7:00 AM

For much of our history Montana has been one of the most unionized states in America. That was certainly the case at the time of the 1950 census when unionized mines and saw mills were operating, and a single paycheck could comfortably support a family. Montana’s per capita income, then, was tenth in the nation.

The leader of the union movement at that time was the legendary George Meany. When I was young my family got most of our news from the radio. I remember hearing this raspy voice speaking in a heavy Brooklyn brogue about “the woikuz.” I had no idea what a woikuz was. From that experience my mother explained to me about accents. Mr. Meany was saying the word “workers” in his accent.

Years later I learned that Meany, an outspoken anti-communist, feared that the union movement in the United States might be taken over by government as he feared was happening in Europe. Wages, benefits and working conditions were being determined by labor governments. Meany thought that a government that could give could also take away. His position was that unions should not become dependent on government. They should be able to bargain, collectively, within the capitalist system, for their own legal contracts, that couldn’t be taken away except through further bargaining.

The key, though, was the term “collective” in bargaining. Meany argued that the workforce represented at the bargaining table had to be unified as were the owners on the other side of the table. If management could “pick-off” and give better deals to selected individuals and groups within the workforce, the result would be to break the union. So called “right to work” laws, creating an “every man for himself “ situation were a dagger at the heart of collective bargaining and therefore the very existence of labor unions.

One of my good friends, the late Montana union leader Jim McGarvey, met and spoke with Meany not long before Meany’s death in 1979. A union teacher, Jim said Meany told him that he foresaw a major role developing for public employees in collective bargaining within the union movement. Certainly that has happened.

Another new reality in Montana is that there now appears to be a more concerted effort to weaken the power of unions than at any time I can remember. Gov. Greg Gianforte has not made his position clear on union legislation, but previous Republican Governors Marc Racicot and Judy Martz, both with union roots, were clearly not advocates of destroying labor unions, and legislation to do so was not supported by them or passed during either of their administrations.

Labor unions are a proud and productive part of Montana’s heritage and history.

It is not necessary or even desirable for government to legislate them out of existence. Certainly it is not desirable from the workers point of view.

I very much doubt there are many, or even any Montana employees with good middle class union jobs, pay and benefits, who would willingly consent to the weakening or destruction of the unions that made their jobs possible.

Our current legislature is proud to be conservative, and a fundamental principle of conservatism is to not rush into change.

This was made clear centuries ago by conservative British statesman Viscount Lucius Cary when he succinctly said,

“Where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

That principle perfectly applies to the unnecessary anti-labor legislation currently before our modern day conservative legislature.

Not only is it not necessary, but the change it proposes would do more harm than good.

Bob Brown, Whitefish, is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President. He is a retired teacher.