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February 12th, 2008

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02:55 pm - Writer's Strike and musings on unions
I am overjoyed that the the Writers Guild of America appears on the verge of ending their strike after having most of their demands for payment for on-line usage of their material have been met. This is what unions should do and how they should work. I have some small hope that their very public success will help overturn several decades of (from my PoV bizarre and self-destructive) popular anti-union sentiment. I'm also very impressed by the Writers Guild's tactics wrt the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe awards, that was a very smart tactic and is likely one of the biggest reasons they had most of their demands met. My grandfather belonged a union and it did well by him, and several of my friends have belonged to unions, including my dear friend Aaron, who was a member of the Teamster's Union when he worked for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and Ive seen a lot of good come from them. Certainly, there have been bad unions, but the idea that the existence of some bad unions means unions are in some way outmoded or a bad idea strikes me as no more sensible than someone saying that because they ate some food that make them sick, they had decided to stop eating altogether.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(7 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 12:03 am (UTC)
Bad things can happen when unions get too much power— there were sawmills in Oregon that closed down, and some of the machinery operators suddenly found themselves without job skills to match the salaries that the unions were able to get for them, for instance. It’s just as bad when they have too little power; these days, the social contract between employer and employee is pretty much dead, with 401k’s replacing pensions and layoffs being a possibility at any time. As a software engineer, I have no direct experience of unions, and keep wondering what it would take to put together a guild that guaranteed quality of work and allowed collective bargaining. (The IEEE and ACM offer a few economies of scale, such as for insurance, but no real leverage.)
[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
Is there any reason to miss employer pensions? Seems to me that insofar as the money is a direct function of contributions, the employee should control it (and be able to transfer it); insofar as pensions redistribute income (which AFAIK big company pensions did not do) they'd make more sense as a state function. Having pension tied to employer seems like a recipe for getting messed up if the employer goes under -- you've lost your job *and* your savings. Like why the average employee should try to sell off stock bonuses as soon as possible, for diversification.
[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 02:14 am (UTC)
Knowing several people who all work civil service, and thus obtain benefits like adequate pensions, vacation, sick leave, and medical care vastly more easily than people working for private companies, I've heard them talk about their pensions. As the US stands now, I'm all for employer pensions, because every working person in the US deserves a similar level of benefits. However, I definitely agree that employer pensions are inferior to and would best be replaced by government pensions, as long as these pensions were significantly superior to social security (at least in the sense of providing lower income people with adequate funds). They seem like a very useful interim step, and given that the US has not made it beyond that particular step and so doesn't look to be getting an actual government funded social support network anything soon, I'm for employer pensions.

I'm curious, why don't you think that pensions from large companies don't redistribute income?
[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)
I have no reason to think that those pensions do redistribute income. (reads Wikipedia on pensions) Figuring out what defined benefit plans do in this regard isn't obvious to me, but equally it's not obvious that redistribution is something to do, nor something the companies would want them to do.

Employer pensions seem to tie the employee to the company, flirt with high risk (since there's commitment to definite payouts, regardless of market performance), and given government insurance of that risk, flirt with moral hazard for the companies. And how does this all apply to a small business, which may or may not even be around come retirement?

And as far as "what everyone else does", defined-contribution plans seem increasingly popular everywhere, not just the US (Wikipedia.)

What civil service can do by pensions seems an imperfect model for what businesses in general can do.
[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 11:49 am (UTC)
Defined benefit plans basically promise you a particular return at the point you retire. I'm promised 1/60th of my final salary per year that I work here (index linked to inflation at the point of retirement).

So if I work here for 40 years, and retire at 60k then I get 40k as a pension.

(Well, that was the situation. It's now done on a yearly basis - so that each year I work I get 1/60th of the pay I was given in that year, adjusted for inflation from that point. Which means that if my pay increases faster than inflation then my pension doesn't keep up. However, the amount it doesn't keep up by shouldn't be too significant for me, and by my calculation if I work an extra 13 months I'll be back at the same pension I would have had before.
[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 02:37 am (UTC)
I am glad, too, that they may be on their way to a resolution and have been thinking, lately, about the usefulness of unions, especially with regard to my current employer which has increasingly moved toward ruthless dictatorship and serious abuse of personnel. I must admit, though, that I have little-to-no knowledge or understanding of unions, how they work, where they work best, how to start them or to make them meaningful in a given work environment. I'd like to think a union could help improve the conditions we're facing with this company, but that may be more a pipe dream in this situation and I wouldn't know one way or another.
[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2008 04:23 am (UTC)
My father was one of those managers that worked his way up from a mechanic to plant manager back in his day and was the president of his local union chapter for a time before becoming management and he always said that as a manager it was better, easier and more fair to deal with a union than on an employee by employee basis. To his credit, they never had a strike at the plant while he was the manager and I think a lot of that came from being on both sides of the fence.

Unions have done a lot of good in this country and throughout the world as a whole. I suspect much of the anti-union sentiment goes along with the still fervent "socialism is a four letter word" attitude which bugs the hell out of me.

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