Public support for unions has dwindled as unions stray from their roots.
The wind beneath our feet is back.
State Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) says she wants to ban transit strikes, and while fellow legislators might concur, so might the public, many members of which – like Harold Blackwell of North Philadelphia – awoke to an uncomfortable surprise.
Blackwell, who once was a union member and whose father belonged to a union, said TWU Local 234 poorly executed the unexplained strike, especially if it was seeking public support.
“When you have public people dealing with certain things that is in direct contact with the public, I feel as though union officials should look at that point rather than have a sudden strike at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Blackwell said, standing outside Food Way, located at 1422 Cecil B Moore Ave., where he works.
Bryant Simon, an American history professor, agreed TWU Local 234 sent out a “pretty crappy message.”
“It’s about packaging to a certain extent,” Simon said. “We don’t live in a union culture anymore.”
While unions are still powerful today, their platforms have changed, specifically for labor unions. Simon said when unions first formed, they were for “people who lived capricious lives.” At their jobs, “seniority didn’t matter,” and foremen “could easily fire and hire” whomever they pleased.
“It was the only chance working people had to get a voice,” Simon said. But with the formation of the consumer economy, “unions became perceived sometimes as selfish.”
For unions, the public’s perspective carries great weight. If the public recognizes unfair treatment, it’s easier to comprehend why a union might strike, even if it’s not necessarily convenient.
“If it’s not justified, you can’t do it just because you have the right to,” Kristina Paulk, a senior linguistics major, said, adding that “without giving some sort of solid reason” as to how the union has been unfairly treated, its members can be labeled greedy.
“And even if they’re not [greedy],” Paulk said, “that’s how it comes across to people.”
But when the public labels a union like TWU Local 234 as money-hungry or selfish, it’s often drawing conclusions from what individuals have seen or heard in the media among union leaders – not union members – and government and company officials.
“A lot of the time, I think union officials get personal, rather than to deal with the issues of the people,” Blackwell said, citing the spat between TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown and Mayor Nutter. Like the rest of the public, Blackwell only knew “what I saw on television” about TWU Local 234.
When he was a union member, Blackwell recalled shop stewards – liaisons between union members and union leadership – and questioned where their voices were during the SEPTA strike.
“Unions have shop [stewards], but I don’t hear anything about them,” he said. “What is their input on how they feel about certain issues? The only thing I hear or see is the leadership talking.”
For whatever reason, union stewards didn’t speak, but it’s possible that they were discouraged from doing so.
“Union leadership is not honest with their union members,” said Elizabeth Bryan, research associate for the independent and non-profit Commonwealth Foundation for public policy alternatives. “There’s a lot of intimidation tactics going on behind the scenes.”
When Paulk was 10, her father “worked really hard to get into the union so he could have the benefits, but apparently they didn’t treat him very well.”
“It was a lot of lack of communication,” she added. “I heard him complain a lot.”
Whether service unions are hurting internally or just lacking public support, “labor still has a role to play,” Simon said.
The public still needs laborers, who may still benefit from the solidarity of a union when it comes to such needs as job security and health care benefits. But unions need to reexamine their beginnings, when members fought for their rights with conviction as a whole, and no one was too shy to call themselves a union member.
“Labor has to re-imagine itself,” Simon said. “People used to live in the same neighborhoods, and that created a solidarity throughout unions, but now everyone is spread out [and] without the same connections.”
Ashley Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.