In Defense of the Union

A most remarkable assault on unions is taking shape across the land. Not only are public service unions responsible for breaking the state budget, according to Wisconsin Governor (and Tea Party favorite) Scott Walker, but St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is now blaming the players’ union for potentially forcing star slugger Albert Pujols out of St. Louis when his current contract expires at the end of next season.

Who knew unions had so much power?

The situation with state workers, of course, is far more serious. I could care less if a superstar ballplayer eventually signs for $130 million over 7 years, or $200 million over 10. But the rhetoric is curious, and instructive to look at. And in that sense, even though the average major league baseball player is as comparable to the typical state employee as a mountain lion to a bowling pin, it actually drives at the exact same point.

La Russa claims that the union is working feverishly behind the scenes to pressure Pujols to take as much money as he can, regardless of any loyalty he might feel towards the Cards. It’s not just in the manner of “twisting his arm,” La Russa claims, but “dropping an anvil on [Pujols’] back through the roof of [his] house.”

Why? Well, as perhaps the premier slugger of the decade, it’s important (La Russa theorizes that the union believes) for Pujols to push upwards the maximum dollar amount that can be had on the open market. A rising tide lifts all boats, is the thinking here.

The same basic theory was floated when superstar pitcher Cliff Lee tested the market at the end of last season. He would wind up with the Yankees, word on the street had it, because the Yankees would offer the most money and the union would pressure him to take it, in order to set the bar for free agent pitchers down the line. In the event, of course, Lee surprised everyone by taking less money than either his current team, the Texas Rangers, were offering, OR what the Yankees were throwing at him, to go back and sign with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lee was praised at the time for bucking the money and the union, though the union denied it had pressured him in any way, just as it has denied involvement in whatever’s going on with Pujols. The irony here is that, compared with the player most similar to him, Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, Pujols is pretty substantially underpaid:

Pujols and Rodriguez since 2001:

Rodriguez Pujols
HR 424 408
RBI 1,236 1,230
Salary $252M $96.7M
Salary per HR $594K $237K
Salary per RBI $204K $79K

(Above table borrowed from

It’s easy to blame unions. There is a whiff of communism about them, and more importantly, they represent a nameless, faceless multitude that no one, in the abstract, feels a damn bit sorry for. Again, consider La Russa’s rant; he doesn’t demonize the team owners, for not paying Pujols what he is clearly worth on the open market. Nor does he blame the player himself, who is little short of a saint in St. Louis. And he doesn’t even mention the evil sports agent.*

*I don’t know who Pujols’ agent is, but it was super-agent Scott Boras, of course, who hornswaggled the Texas Rangers into the ludicrous A-Rod contract way back when.

So unions are a safe target for ire and blame, and it’s always a matter of putting a face to the entity before anyone thinks twice about demonizing them. This brings us to Wisconsin, where such an effort is underway — thousands have descended on the state capitol. Both sides — the workers and State Rep. Paul Ryan, who opposes them — have invoked the language of the revolutions sweeping the Middle East, Ryan memorably claiming that “Cairo has come to Wisconsin.”

In a sense, he’s right.

Mass demonstrations are a form of democracy. Collective bargaining is democracy. The right to gather in a group and bargain for the betterment of all is essentially what democracy is.

Funny how this doesn’t bother us when the collective is bargaining not for better wages, but better prices… Well, it sort of bothers some of us when that bargaining takes the form of insurance. But this is essentially how car insurance works, and it’s how health insurance works — when it works, although the industry has done its best to rig the game.

But there is a new, web-driven consumer movement that promises to exponentially raise the potential of such collective price bargaining. Last week’s Time magazine featured a story on Groupon, which, as the article makes clear, is little more than a digitized, highly focused version of the traditional coupon booklet.

Groupon, the category leader, offers its subscribers—who number more than 50 million and are growing at a clip of 3 million a month—discounts on goods and services, but only if a critical mass of people agree to buy the deals that are e-mailed to them each day. The discount could be up to 90% off on a car wash, a restaurant meal, a cooking class, dental work or just about any product or service available in the 500 cities and 35 countries where Groupon operates.

It’s win-win-win; consumers get a good deal, merchants move more product, and Groupon gets a cut. How much? Groupon has gone from zero to 50-million-plus subscribers since 2008. So rosy is the outlook that the company turned down a six billion dollar offer from Google. The implication is clear — Groupon, and its many imitators and competitors, have found a way to actually use the web to make money, rather than simply blend their business with advertising. They plan to be bigger than Google.

And because the money equation is inverted and the right palms are getting greased, we celebrate this kind of collective bargaining. It is simply another version of the American success story of innovation and ingenuity.*

*The rhapsodic praise for 30-yr-old founder Andrew Mason, former music major, is especially interesting.

There are some encouraging signs in Wisconsin. As I write this, firefighters — though their union has been cynically exempted from Walker’s proposed denial of collective bargaining rights — have rallied to the union cause. Yet the movement to strip collective bargaining rights — the lifeblood of unions — from public workers is already afoot in Ohio. It’s underway in New Jersey.

This is a nation-wide movement. It is part of a concerted Republican strategy, a longtime right-wing fantasy that fiscal hardship and the political moment are finally allowing to blossom forth. It will come to Michigan. It will come to New York.

The extreme rhetoric of politicians in state houses has already wrung massive concessions out of public workers in California and elsewhere (including Wisconsin). In a sense, again, that’s how this is supposed to work — times get tough, you don’t like the deal, you sit down at the table and hammer out a new one. This is what’s happening, incidentally, in the National Football League as well, where the players’ union and owners group are sitting down with a mediator in the hopes of working out an agreement to replace the one currently expiring.

Yet here, too, there are owners who are reportedly hell-bent on nothing less than breaking the players’ union completely. The spectacle of billionaires who essentially run a legalized monopoly denying the players who provide their very product the right to bargain over a few percentage points of a 10 billion dollar pie is… sickening. I mention sports, though, because it’s a somewhat simplified, highly public and instructive way of viewing collective bargaining in every instance.

And that view is, as I say, disheartening. It’s becoming increasingly clear that just as the youth of the Middle East must demand democracy with bodies and blood, the next generation of workers here will have to re-fight all of the battles their parents and grandparents fought for a fair wage and the right to bargain.

If, indeed, such things remain important enough to fight for.

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