When I heard the spokesman for the U.S. Airways employee union explain that there was no concerted job action going on when everyone called in sick for Christmas and left a million pieces of luggage clogging airports in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida, I thought of my old friend Stewie.
Back in the 1970s, a magical blend of insolence and indolence came to be known as “cool.” As Yeshiva boys, we were no different than the rest of the country in adoring the chosen few who mastered this irreverent tone, usually addressing the rabbis with the faintly derisory “Reb.” The coolest guy on the planet, the prince of insouciance, was my friend Stewie Rabinowitz. Next to him, the Fonz looked like a College Republican. One day, the head of the Yeshiva called him on the carpet for missing the morning prayers.
“Sorry, Reb,” he said. “I had to pop a pimple.”
“Stewie, it does not take forty-five minutes to pop a pimple.”
“Yeah, Reb, but I had to grow it first.”
We know, and the union guy knows we know, and we know that the union guy knows we know, and he knows that we know that he knows we know, that this was a job action — and that’s the whole point. They are trying to send us a chilling message that they have the power to leave us holding the bag — or not holding the bag. Like Myron Cohen’s waiter character used to say when he brought you food you didn’t order, “You’ll eat it and you’ll like it.”
And there’s not a thing we can do about it. We know they bluffed their calls but we cannot call their bluffs. The Samsonite is in the hands of those philistines; we get to whine but our power is gone. Yet I believe there is a solution. Not now, not this time, but over the… er, long haul.
It seems to me that it is time to form a new sort of labor union, one founded upon conservative principles. Until now, the reigning assumption has been that trade unions are by definition an expression of political liberalism. Republicans were identified by pro-management or right-to-work positions. At most, a labor union and an incumbent Republican might reach some kind of standoff. But conservative policy thinking had focused on containing unions, not redefining them.
The fact is that the role of the conservative in making business work better as a pillar of a free society need not be interpreted to compete with the interest of the worker to protect his rights as a citizen. On the contrary, the highest interest of the worker should be the success of the business enterprise, as long as he is secure in the knowledge that this will accrue to his benefit. A union could negotiate arrangements that maximize the identity of the employee as stakeholder. If the employee is not nervous about getting fired for no reason, and the boss is not nervous about the employee quitting for no reason, the commonality of their interest in the success of the business is magnified and a greater sense of partnership is fostered.
To take one prime example, the current orthodoxy in unionism is to resist the idea of incentive pay, because it isolates the weaker workers at the bottom of the ladder. If there was a union that proceeded from a sense of confidence and ambition, it would actively promote incentive structures that build upon the baseline of the current wage system. Members would feel that better work meant more pay, creating the same sort of motivation that is our ultimate repudiation of Communism — from each according to his ability, to each according to his ability.
Another system that could be tried, at least in certain industries, would involve hooking employee pay raises into the growth of the business. Say the business has been growing only two percent a year, and they want to raise salaries only the two percent. The union accepts that as the baseline raise, with the proviso that it will rise in conjunction with the growth rate. If the workers could push growth up to five percent, their bonus pay reflects the additional three points.
In conjunction with that, a position of comptroller could be designed, someone who functions as an executive in the company but actually works for the union, to be aware of the correct accounting status of the corporate entity and to advise the union where they should be encouraging the company to expand or diversify or modernize. A new class of MBAs might find this a very stimulating challenge, and greater balance might be built into the world of business. Fewer Enrons might happen; it’s easier to fool the stockholders and the government than the union comptroller. And the whole idea of unions pushing companies in more dynamic directions than hidebound executives is very counterintuitive but exciting.
I would go so far as to commend for consideration the possibility of creating a class of competing unions, perhaps even eschewing that title and reviving the name of “guilds,” offering the employee a new dynamic role in building this nation’s economy and paving his own pathways to success. We can burst the balloon of the misconception that unions and conservatism don’t mix — or the pimple, as the case may be.
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