What unions do for Americans

Robert “Mickey” Kaus, author of the May 3 Times Op-Ed article “America’s lead weight, should meet director James Cameron, who famously blamed the high cost of movies on the film industry unions. This contention was false then, and it’s false now.

I would like to invite Kaus to attend a meeting of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He would see that the conditions of union members in all industries are far from the lives of an “aristocrat at taxpayer expense.” We who belong to unions simply attempt to maintain something like an American middle-class lifestyle, with some assurance of a modest pension to supplement Social Security, which may or may not exist several years from now. We hope for sufficient healthcare to assure that we don’t die as a result of our hard work. And we try to hold on to some of the benefits put in place to assure that we aren’t exploited by employers who, if not for some regulations, would work us into the ground without fair compensation and would fail to maintain safe working conditions.

How can Kaus write this on the heels of the worst mining disaster in decades?

Kaus cites Detroit automakers and Los Angeles public schools as examples of institutions whose decline has been hastened by unions. The Los Angeles Unified School District suffers from overcrowding and a lack of funds, a problem endemic to our school system since I was a student in the 1960s and ‘70s. Teacher pay is hardly generous and, some would argue, is insufficient to keep excellent instructors in our schools. As for Detroit, volumes have been written on the causes of the automakers’ financial failures. General Motors’ have been attributed to its financing arm as well as the disproportionate salaries and bonuses of its executives.

I would also like to ask Kaus how he’d feel if his job were taken away, given to a young newcomer who has no experience but who would work at a lower pay scale, who would only use the healthcare system for checkups and not for multiple visits to specialists, and who would be 40 years from collecting his pension instead of five. This is why unions have seniority and security rules, why “InstallerLevel 1" can’t be replaced by “InstallerLevel 2.” Wal-Mart is famous for employing this strategy, and the recent grocery workers strike was fought over this very issue. And if full-time workers can be replaced with part-timers, then the companies can get away with not paying any benefits at all. Does Kaus view this as just?

Unions have lost the ability to protect the worker. The egregious examples of union obstructionism he cites are rare, as are the accusations of feather-bedding and protecting the incompetent. For the most part, our unions attempt to restore fairness and security to workers in a world where our paychecks are shrinking or vanishing and our retirement funds are uncertain.

And just as an afterthought, perhaps Kaus should be aware that unionized labor is not even 8% of the private workforce in America. That’s hardly the straw that broke the American dream.

Los Angeles resident Suzan Lowitz is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 871.