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Patty Kleban: What Role do Labor Unions Play Nowadays?

by on June 11, 2012 6:00 AM

Could it happen in Pennsylvania?

The national news outlets last week were focused on the recall vote for Governor Scott Walker. Since his election to office, Walker, a conservative Republican, has made some controversial decisions in his attempt to manage Wisconsin’s failing state budget.

Of greatest concern to some in Wisconsin was the decision by Walker and the Wisconsin legislature to take away bargaining rights for state government employees as a way to manage spending. Opponents to Walker’s decisions demanded and got a recall election — allegedly the first recall based on a group of constituents disagreeing with the decisions of an elected official rather than on corruption or malfeasance. The recall has again put labor unions in the spotlight.

What is the role of unions in the United States in 2012?

Unions have incredible history in our country. With the industrialization of our work force, workers needed protection from the abuses of management and company owners who, while focused on profit, were not always focused on employee health, safety or in paying a fair wage.

Unions were formed under the premise that employees working together would have a louder and more directed voice in how they are treated within the work setting.

As a Pennsylvania coal miner, my grandfather in-law was a staunch union supporter. He worked very hard and was paid a good wage and had superb health insurance. He was an employee of a high risk, private industry, prior to the enactment of much of the legislation that defines and regulates what our employers can demand from workers. Belonging to a union was a necessity for him and he valued his union membership.

It’s hard to find parallels between coal miners and other work groups of the last century and today’s government office worker. In today’s regulatory and economic climate, how has the role of unions changed?

It reminds me of a discussion we have in my classes at Penn State every semester. I propose to the students the hypothetical situation of taking the class exams in groups. As we talk about group dynamics, we discuss the option of distributing four exams (one to each of the groups) versus 48 individual exams and then each student will would earn a the same overall group score.

While many of the students do the collective high five and say “Piece of cake!” more students than you think say “No thanks. I would prefer to be graded on my own efforts.” Some are willing to take the higher grade that may be inevitable with a group score while others question how that will help them learn as individuals.

Most importantly, how I teach, how often we meet, how I assign grades and classroom policies are regulated by university policy.

Similarly with unions, the difference between how we recognize individual employees versus the group and how we assign salaries, benefits, promotions, etc. has become a political hot button.

As we saw in Wisconsin, the issue of the group and the related costs to employ that group are becoming increasingly a part of our economic discussion. If collective groups of employees demand guaranteed raises, increased benefits, etc. and the business or government budget doesn’t have it, it can mean that that money has to be taken from other places in the operations.

In business, it can mean having to raise the price of the “product” which, as we have seen in several industries, might threaten the stability of that particularly business operation. In government, the solution is often to cut programs in another area or to raise taxes.

As a result, discussions about unions have become very political. People who support unions must obviously be big government, raise-taxes kinds of people and those who question the need for how we spend money must obviously be pro-business and anti-union. I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Paying people a fair wage, treating workers with respect while managing what that costs is an issue for all of us in these tough economic times.

In the end, with the employment related legislation and regulations of the last several decades including the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) and Employee Protection (Whistle Blower) Act to name just a few ,it would seem that employees are fairly well protected from the abuses of last century.

The role of unions in our country must respond to these changes. I have no doubt that there are still places in the United States where there is exploitation and abuse but, given the extensive government oversight in hiring, firing and the work environment, employees have much greater protection today than they did last century.

American unions must react.

As our culture evolves and the economic pressures change in a world that is increasingly global and accessible, how we do business and work must change as well.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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