A race of crocodiles

In Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo there is a scene were two men are being taken out for a public execution for crimes committed independently of each other. At the last minute, a pardon is received for one of the men. The other man, who had been resigned to his fate, becomes outraged and angrily demands to know why the other had been pardoned and not him, and insists that the other man must be executed as well and fights with his guards until he is killed.

On observing this scene, the Count notes the curious and deplorable psychology at work in humans where we seem to delight in dragging others down to our level, even if we do not benefit in any way by doing so. He tells his companions “Do you not see? that this human creature who is about to die is furious that his fellow-sufferer does not perish with him? and, were he able, he would rather tear him to pieces with his teeth and nails than let him enjoy the life he himself is about to be deprived of. Oh, man, man – race of crocodiles, how well do I recognize you there, and that at all times you are worthy of yourselves!”

I see something similar going on in the curious arguments that are being made against unions: they have greater job security, wages, and benefits than corresponding private sector employees and so they must be stripped of them. I will look at the evidence for this claim in a subsequent post and show that it is mixed and far from conclusive. For the moment I want to look at the psychology of people who would make such an argument. Rather than saying to themselves that they too should organize into unions so that they can receive comparable benefits, they seem to want to drag the unionized workers down to their level. Rather than seeing the union effort as a model for them to emulate to gain better conditions for themselves and their fellow workers, they seem to want to foist their own poor conditions on others. They are truly like crocodiles, dragging their prey under water with them.

Of course, no one actually says this because naked envy is an ugly and repulsive thing to behold. It is usually couched in high-minded language that unions are harming the country or the economy or a particular industry or that unions are somehow undermining the very moral fiber of the nation by enabling slackers to continue to be employed, thus setting a bad example. Phrased this way, the oligarchy and its lackeys in the media can seduce otherwise reasonable people into supporting the attack on unions, rather than taking their pitchforks to Wall Street at the very real swindles that are going on there and are impoverishing us all.

What makes this even more curious is that people are obsessed with the alleged slight benefits of those just like themselves. After all, people who work in unionized jobs are never rich or even upper middle class. Often they are members of the working poor and most are middle class. (And by middle class I really mean middle class, with family incomes around the median value of around $50,000, not the absurd definitions being tossed around nowadays that encompass even those earning around $200,000.) Why would anyone begrudge people at that income level their job security or heath or retirement benefits? If they have desirable conditions why aren’t people seeking to expand those to everyone, instead of bringing them down?

The arguments that I hear against unions are very similar to the ones I hear in education. The performance of the US education system is mixed. It has some excellent features and some serious weaknesses. It is also a highly variable system, depending strongly on local factors. But whenever the US economy gets into trouble or the stock market tanks, the cry goes up amongst those opposed to the public school system that the fault lies with our awful public education system and that it needs to be revamped or even eliminated. But when the economy is doing well and the stock market is surging, does one hear praise for that same educational system? Of course not.

The same thing happens with unions. People are quick to blame them when things are bad but never praise them when things are good. Take the US auto industry, which has been going through some turmoil. The causes for the rise and fall (and now rise again?) of the US auto industry are many and intertwined. There are many reasons that can be listed as to why they have lost their dominance: bad management, poor planning and R&D, inadequate attention to consumer trends, poor quality control, protectionism by other nations, adverse international currency rates and tariffs, labor costs, and so on.

But people who are anti-union are quick to focus on labor costs and benefits as if they are the sole problem. But US wages in the auto sector are not that out of line with other countries with strong unions like Germany, and workers in Germany get far better benefits. One big difference is that every other industrialized nation has a national single-payer health care system, while in the US health care costs are borne by the company and contribute directly to the cost of each car produced. This is a major cost. As Robert J. Carbaugh writes in his book International Economics, this adds as much as $1,500 to the costs of a car made here.

When people focus on labor costs as the cause for an industry’s decline and call for the elimination of unions they are, wittingly or unwittingly, enlisting as foot soldiers in the oligarchy’s war to squeeze as much money as they can out of the government and the people for their own benefit.

Next: The myth of the parasitic union


  1. says

    I’ve always wondered why non-union workers sat around and debated the initiatives of unionized workers. The fact is obvious that union workers earn a lot more than non. Yet they end up being put to the whipping post when the economy goes South.

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