Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Union Picket Line: How To Explain This Anachronism?

It's funny how some things grow to be anachronisms, yet we don't stop to notice until someone else points it out.

For reference, Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines anachronism as:

2 : a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially : one from a former age that is incongruous in the present

The anachronism du jour is the union picket line. Let me explain.

Recently, the school which one of my daughters attends began construction on a new building. As a letter from the school's head noted, the construction contractor was selected on the basis of price and quality. Evidently, the lucky winner does not employ unionized operating engineers. We know this, because members of said union now constitute a small pair of picket lines across entrances to the school property which are used for construction materials, workers, and other school visitors.

Thus, throughout the long, hot summer, we have been treated to the sight of unkempt, largely overweight males standing, sitting, or sprawling on the nearby sidewalk, sometimes sporting signs which I have no doubt purport to explain their presence. On occasion, one of them dons a cloth suit made to represent a rat. On other occasions, a large, presumably inflatable rat is located at the other entrance.

I frankly didn't give all of this hoopla much thought, until my daughters each asked, independently, what this odd-looking display was on the sidewalk outside the nearby school, and why these men were engaged in this activity.

Thus it occurred to me that there no longer is a plausible explanation for these sorts of picket lines. Eighty years ago, they made sense. Not in my town today.

In order to explain what strikes and picket lines were supposed to do, I asked my daughters to think about what would have to happen for these anachronisms to have a function. Together, we discussed how local customers of the picketed business or institution would have to behave in such a manner as to support the striking union members, refuse to give their custom to the struck entity, thereby causing it to succumb to the union's demands.

Further, we discussed how this might work if: the community was experiencing significant unemployment; the union members were visible, known community members, too; the organization being struck was viewed as unfair or with some suspicion; the replacement workers were viewed as accepting, or known to have accepted unfairly low compensation, and; the unemployment of said union members had a significant effect upon the community at large.

None of these conditions obtains in the present situation involving the striking union members. They are, for the most part, from other towns or states. Nobody local to the school or neighborhood knows them.

It turns out that schools undergoing building projects are a favorite target of the operating engineers union. My business partner noted that they recently struck a public school in his nearby town when it, too, was doing new construction. Public and private schools are hardly the sort of organization you consider to be borderline criminal or shady when doing something like constructing new buildings. Further, the taxpaying residents and/or parents paying tuition to the relevant schools know they will be paying for the construction, one way or another. Thus, seeing union members striking might actually give them a feeling of comfort, that the price of the construction is not artificially inflated by absurdly high union wages and benefits.

Construction in this area continues to be very active, so it's likely that any competent laborer who wants to work at this trade is employed. At competitive wages. The striking, non-working union members, if anything, look foolish and incompetent. They refuse to take available jobs at good pay, choosing instead to spend their day sitting in the hot sun wearing silly-looking signs and/or animal suits.

Finally, since they don't live in the area, their unemployment has virtually no effect upon the local economy.

To sum up, there is zero support from the local populace for this strike. The picket line fits the definition of an anachronism. It's a tool from a bygone era.

Perhaps in the deepest Bronx or Queens, such a picket line might have an impact. Or in some smaller, poorer, more blue-collar rural town in a predominantly "blue" state.

But not in this upscale, economically well-off, predominantly white-collar town in which many residents commute into New York City to work in the financial services sector.

Thus, the image of scabs being physically assaulted as they cross the picket line at the school across the street from my home, resulting in news coverage of the conflict, is fantasy. The strike, and its picket line, is an exercise in futility.

What does this tell us about the mental capacity, sensibility, and awareness of modern times of the leaders of the local operating engineers union in my area?

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