The Union Label

I work in one of the parts of town that’s still transitioning from grotty to more mixed-use. All over town, condo-business-retails spaces are going up, and there is finally some movement over at North Station. So there are lots of construction workers standing around. One site is clearly union, and there are always four or five white guys smoking, drinking their coffees, and blocking the sidewalk. Seems like two of them are always the same guy, no matter what time I get off the train. Maybe they’re “supervisors.” Nonetheless, the building does seem to be going up, probably due to the efforts of the younger guys with less seniority that I see at the doughnut shop, order seventeen coffees and juggling them back to the site.

Further down the street, one of the older brick buildings, with storefronts on the bottom and business/office space on the top is being renovated. It’s on a street with the first luxury hotel to be built over here, and the whole block seems to be under renovation. This particular building is on the corner, with lovely long windows and old, black-painted woodwork on the ground floor. The ground floor’s not yet under construction, but there’s scaffolding and sounds of industry above. I never see any workers coming in and out– but I do always see remnants falling into dumpsters, sounds of hammers and saws, clouds of sawdust poofing out of screened windows.

What I do see is a bunch of union picketers downstairs. The majority are older guys, probably retirees. But there’s always a dozen or so in total, including a bunch of overweight, slovenly, chain-smoking middle-aged men blocking the sidewalk, littering, swearing, throwing their butts any old place. Maybe they’re out on worker’s comp. Maybe the work is slow, but judging by the number of towers going up all over, I’m more inclined to say the union is oversubscribed. “Are there illegals here?” their hand-scrawled signs read. “Unfair work practices” read other, more clearly standard signs. But there’s never any organization. No chanting. No handing out informative leaflets. Just uncouth milling-around. In the sunshine. Because, I should mention– there are never any picketers when it’s raining, though the sounds of work continue up above. And on Fridays, there are no more than a half-a-dozen picketers. I suppose they’ve all gone up to their lake houses in tax-free New Hampshire, which, I notice, is where many of their oversized pickup trucks seemingly hail from, though it’s most likely these fellows “live” locally– Boston ordinances require a certain number of city residents on the job.

The thought that these guys are being paid by the union to stand around and make the union look bad? Makes me sick. The pensioners are more orderly, leaner, keep to themselves. I would hate to think they’re being paid to picket on top of their already comparatively generous pensions (I mean, who gets pensions any more?). But the “youthful” workers? They do not make me believe in the continued legitimacy of unions. These guys think they are entitled to jobs, beer guts, obnoxious behavior notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the guys upstairs are working away, unseen, but heard and felt in the thump of debris into dumpsters.

“Are there illegals here?” Probably. Are they being underpaid? Probably. Is the overseeing contractor the one ultimately responsible for fair working conditions and safe construction? Absolutely. But are those union guys outside convincing me that the work itself would be performed any more quickly or safely if they were on the job? Not a chance.

Commenter “g” made a good point about strike v. informational picketing, and I recommend you look at her comment (#5).  One thing I could have made clear is that generally, my pinko commie heart (thanks, Magpie, for the reminder) wants to like unions.  I think that some of them do important work, especially in immigrant-heavy service industries where few workers at all have been unionized before.  But there are valid criticisms against larger unions, despite the good work that they too, can still do, and what I observed and set out above was my spin on one of them.  I would like to be an unrepentant defender– but the symptoms I saw of a larger disease make that impossible.


7 thoughts on “The Union Label

  1. g

    This topic makes me uncomfortable because I have a background as a very staunch union activist, but I also have a very clear view of the abuses of some union situations.

    But – my observations, for what it’s worth – This was probably what is called an “informational picket line.”

    This is a picket line where the union is not on strike, and, in fact has no legal relationship with the employer, but has probably tried to achieve one and has come to an impasse. Therefore, the people who are picketing are not locked-out or striking employees, who would be paid strike benefits, but are probably people of low seniority or retirees who are receiving token payment (parking, carfare). In the case of the retirees, they would picket because they believe in the cause. In the case of the low seniority workers, they would picket because there is no other work for them, but they earn brownie points by doing it.

    A strike is when a union and an employer who are actively engaged in contract negotiations come to an impasse. Strike picket lines have some clout. other unions can honor them. Informational picket lines have absolutely no legal clout, and because of that can engender bad feelings on both sides, with no structured end in sight.

    In the labor situation in America today, it is very rare to see an actual strike picket line. Informational picket lines are more the norm, and they are pretty much a waste of time. They are an outdated PR tool for unions, yet they achieve almost nothing. Most of the time if a job site is being picketed by an informational line, there is either animosity or a financial miscalculation on the part of one or both of the parties. Smart unions know how to negotiate win/win deals. Dumb ones end up doing things like this.

    gs last blog post..Golden California

  2. phil

    I personally have no feelings about unions. I think that there are fanatcis on both sides of every issue and these fanatics need to be roped in.

    I drove by picketers one time in Worcester and some of the more brave ones jumped out in front of my car and tried to make me honk in support of their cause.

    These morons I’d like to just mow down.


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