This whole thing about Andrew Ross Sorkin saying there are no successful unionized companies when there obviously are is interesting for all sorts of reasons. I was particularly struck by this response talking about the generational component of this and how while Sorkin’s a young guy, like many other people in both business and the business media he seems to be stuck in a worldview defined by a long-ago era. The respondent makes a passing reference to the narrative of liberalism’s overreaching and needing to be brought to heel by a heroic Ronald Reagan being “a story that many of us have heard from our upper middle class baby boomer Dads over and over again.” I’m sure this is true for many people, likely including Sorkin, but it’s certainly not true for me.
My dad was a baby boomer, to be sure, and while we were really more middle-middle than upper middle class, he was a small businessman for most of his career and had a lot of the biases and presumptions common to that worldview. His narrative of the late twentieth century, though, was very much not a story of liberalism starting out okay and then going too far. It was, rather, quite different. I remember him saying, around 2004 or 2006, when the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party were looking particularly grim, “You know, when I was a kid I was a conservative and we always lost. Now I’ve become a liberal, and we still always lose.” “Well, at least you’re on the right side now,” my sister responded.
My dad’s ideological journey seems pretty remarkable in retrospect. He started out as a typical western conservative without a whole lot of interest in politics, much like the rest of his family. They were mostly Republicans, but he always refused to join a political party and remained an independent his whole life. He was too young to vote in 1964, but his family all voted for Goldwater, whose hand he got to shake at a rally during the campaign. He was old enough in 1968 to vote for Nixon, and would have, but he didn’t actually register to vote until 1980, when he voted for Reagan (much to my mother’s chagrin).
The real turning point came in 1992, when Bill Clinton came on the scene. My dad used to describe Clinton as “the first Democrat with a brain in his head,” and he liked him a lot and voted for Democrats from then on. The Democratic Party’s notable move toward the center, of which Clinton was the most prominent symbol, really had an effect on my dad, who was not at all pleased by the increasingly religious and extreme positions of the GOP during the same period. What I find interesting, though, is that my dad never really thought of himself as changing his positions but of the parties as changing theirs so that he went from agreeing with one to agreeing with the other in a fairly short period of time. He never renounced his youthful conservatism, but he would say that conservatism had changed into something he no longer agreed with.
Private-sector unionism was never a big topic of discussion in our household, but I don’t think my dad was ever too fond of it. (We were all for public-sector unionism, however, since my mom is a public school teacher.) I know that I grew up with something of a distaste for unions, though never a very strong one. I remember seeing Pete Domenici’s opponent in the 2002 Senate election on TV giving her concession speech, and she spent so much time thanking her supporters that she didn’t get around to conceding before the TV stations switched to something else. “I want to thank the unions!” she said, to loud cheers, and I remember thinking, “thank them for what?” I was never all that coherent or doctrinaire, though, and when I would see pro-union movies like Salt of the Earth or read about historic strikes I would certainly see the value in unionism in the abstract. It just didn’t seem very relevant anymore, and the remaining unions seemed out of touch. There were never any strikes, and I’ve still never seen a picket line in person. The private sector in the west isn’t all that unionized, and public-sector employees are forbidden to strike by law.
I’ve since come around a lot on the issue, like many others on which I’ve moved considerably to the left from where I was in high school. Right now, especially, the magic of the free market is seeming a lot less magical than it did ten years ago. I don’t know how my dad would feel if he were around to see the current economic crisis, but he was becoming an increasingly strident critic of Bush and the GOP by the end of his life so it’s certainly possible that his disdain for actually existing conservatism would have extended even to the hallowed status of capitalism.
Which brings me back to Sorkin. Looking at the list of companies that belie his claim, I’m struck by two in particular: Safeway and Peabody. Safeway was the first major supermarket chain to really become a troublesome competitor for us when they built a store in Page, Arizona, which was the nearest town. Despite the fact that, like most supermarkets, they were heavily unionized, their size and ability to take advantage of economies of scale made them able to compete very effectively with the nearby trading posts once the roads were paved and it became very easy for people to go into town to shop. Trading posts weren’t unionized, of course (although they tended to offer generous leave policies and their employees generally had health insurance coverage), but their isolation increased overhead costs a lot compared to in-town stores, and ultimately most were unable to keep going. Once non-union Wal-Mart showed up, it was all over for most traders, including us.
The role of Safeway in our story tilts in the anti-union direction, but the role of Peabody is quite different. Well before Safeway entered the picture, Peabody established a big coal mine on Black Mesa, not too far from our store, and many of our customers got jobs there. Mining, of course, is one of the most heavily unionized industries in the country, so the mine employees made union scale. My dad used to talk about how customers suddenly began bringing in these big, fat paychecks, when they had previously eked out a living herding sheep or relied on public assistance. The mine was an environmental catastrophe, of course, and over time became increasingly mechanized and employed fewer local people, but boy, was that ever a lot of money for some very poor people.
So ultimately, the role of unions in my family’s story is ambiguous, and probably a net positive. I don’t feel too bad about my shift to a more pro-union sentiment, even though the more conservative members of my (extended) family have generally remained steadfastly opposed to anything and everything “liberal,” unions included. I figure it’s just one more thing to avoid talking about with them. Unions have done a lot of good for this country, and they deserve a stronger voice, no matter what Andrew Ross Sorkin says.