City Life: Unions refuse to change with times

U.S. banker J.P. Morgan was the perfect bad guy: big, bloated and rarely without a fat Cuban cigar.

In 1902, 140,000 members of the United Mine Workers of America toiling in Pennsylvania's coal mines went on strike for higher wages and better conditions.

The union strategy: focus on a bogeyman, someone on whom they could blame their woes and direct their ire. The target was Morgan, who was so hated that the strikers chanted the words to the then-popular song, "Just Break the News to Mother," but inserted "Morgan" where the word "mother" would usually be sung.

That was 1902, this is now — unless you are union leadership, then you're stuck in 1902. The Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. (CMCEA) has created not one Morgan, but two: Councilmen Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger.

The union's bogeyman strategy is understandable. Just like any other bureaucracy, unions like the status quo and have a difficult time coping with change.

The primary function of union leadership is to create and preserve the best possible compensation and conditions for its members. No other union task comes close, and no one should be surprised at the lengths to which the CMCEA leadership is going to maintain the status quo for its members. After all, if they cannot succeed at this most important duty, they are not needed.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 17.7 million union members in 1983. Last year, the BLS reported that there were 14.7 million members. The sharp decline in union membership over the years is the result of improved workplace conditions and of the unions' inability to adapt. Unions are still doing the same ol', same ol', hoping it will work yet again, despite a marketplace that is changing rapidly.

Were Costa Mesa the only city in the U.S. facing compensation challenges in order to remain solvent, any law-abiding bogeyman tactics would be understandable, even justifiable.

But Costa Mesa is not alone and eventually the city will win the right to outsource labor and shrink its staff if a council majority so decides, just as the city of Atherton has recently been allowed to do.

Last month in San Mateo Superior Court, Judge Steven Dylina denied the Teamsters Union Local 856 request for an injunction that would have stopped Atherton from laying off employees. Two of the common elements in the Atherton and Costa Mesa cases are California Government Codes 37103 and 53060, which were used by the union to support their case and are being cited by the union attorneys representing the CMCEA.

So what should a union be doing right now? Concurrent with the bogeyman campaign, and among other non-bogeyman activities, the employee associations should step up their job retraining program. It should be providing members with more information on whether going back to school is a viable option and it should expand the efforts to place workers in other positions.

Expanding these services is not an admission of defeat, but rather evidence of smart union leadership that understands the danger of putting all of its eggs in one basket, in this case, the Costa Mesa bogeyman basket.

Perhaps the association will win this round and the case will be appealed and appealed until we've all forgotten what the fight was about. Real leadership, however, does not depend on that outcome. Real leadership understands the need for accountability in an organization, for even if the city wins, the union leaders will still have their jobs.

Most important, real leadership understands that the fight is never about people, but of long-term policy. Morgan passed away in 1913, but coal mining conditions barely improved in the years following his death, and mine workers struck in 1919 and 1922.

Eventually Righeimer and Mensinger will leave or be voted off the City Council, but their eventual absence does not guarantee that their replacements will be any more willing to change their minds.

Don't expect any changes in the union's approach. Despite the advance of time and the changes in society, the bogeyman strategy is still alive and well across the country.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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