I recently came across this article (published last year) by Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner about the relationship between President Obama and labor unions, and I was struck by one of its sentences, which refers to the now-stalled Employee Free Choice Act. The sentence is simple enough:
Union leaders believe that with card check they could vastly increase their dues income.This kind of statement is neither uncommon nor particularly inflammatory. But it speaks volumes. It is simultaneously remarkable and pedestrian, a window into the premises of an anti-union viewpoint.
In a limited sense, it is of course true. Unions do want to expand their membership. A larger membership brings more influence and benefits for existing members (as well as other workers), and dues income is one of the tools necessary for accomplishing these goals.
But the implication of the sentence - that unions and their leaders are only out for more money - illustrates how some people who maintain an anti-labor perspective, with its focus on economic self-interest, seem largely unable or unwilling to acknowledge what it means to be a part of something bigger than one's own interests, and to employ collective means toward collective ends.
And that is sad.
It is sad that some people think the economic motive is the only one worth considering, and that union leaders view the people they represent, through non-profit organizations, as sources of profit.
It is sad that they believe that expanding a democratically-run organization, supported by dues payments, cannot possibly represent anything except a power grab - that sharing resources to promote common goals is a cover story for intra-organizational oligarchy.
It is sad that some believe that the people elected to lead the labor movement don't care. That they are like CEO's, who are obligated to do anything, say anything, to foster growth. That they believe in nothing.
And it's sad that they think anybody who devotes their life to a cause is really seeking the accumulation of money and power. And that power thus accumulated cannot be used for others; it is an end in itself. That altruism is for suckers.
There are arguments for and against labor unions, and neither unions nor their leaders are perfect. But those who criticize organized labor based on these premises rely on an especially virulent sort of prejudice. They maintain the worst view of human motives, the deepest cynicism.
And for that, they deserve our sympathy.