17 September 2010

Thoughts About Labor Unions

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a/k/a the Wagner Act, recognized that workers -- if they are (a) private sector and (b) not working on farms -- have a right to organize into labor unions.

As to the public sector, each state has gone its own way in giving or withholding from its own employees, or those of its subdivisions, organizational imperatives.

Which leaves us with the federal gov.: JFK issued an Executive Order in 1962 providing for labor union recognition to a limited extent. The situation remains convoluted and becomes more so each decade, but there would seem to be an inherent probem in both organizing and threatening a strike if your employer is also the sovereign.

While I was in law school, Ronald Reagan fired the federal professional air traffic controllers (PATCO) when they walked out in 1981.

I've been thinking of such matters of late. It may have made more sense in terms of the calender if I had written something of such issues on the 6th of this month, which is known after all as Labor Day. Still, my thoughts come when they wish.

The fact is, love them or leave them, unions represent a shrinking portion of the labor market pie. Despite (or because of?) the protection of union activity in the private sector, the role of unions there has been in decline for decades. In the 1950s one in every three private sector employees was a member of a union. By 2004, only 7.9%, somewhat less than one in twelve were union members.

This all reminds me of a story I once heard about the origin of the television show I Love Lucy. When a certain CBS bigwig saw the pilot, his first reaction was: "Keep the redhead, ditch the Cuban."

When told they were a married couple and CBS had to take or leave them as a package, he said that they should stick with the in-home comedy, but cut way back on the nightclub scenes where Desi sang. Which was done.

The married couple itself, in that story, functioned as a labor union, offering its services collectively, as a take-it-or-leave-it package. It was successful, not just in getting Desi Arnaz a job, but in producing a wildly successful product. CBS was hardly the loser in this negotiation, after all. It was win-win: CBS did rather well off the show, even though they had to keep that Cuban.

And, for the record, I think Desi did a fine job as Ricky. It is hard to imagine anyone else having pulled it off as well. Maybe the CBS exec was worried about the public acceptance of some televised "miscegenation," as they called such things back then.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.