Sunday, August 03, 2008 or Fiction?

Have you seen the commercials? If you haven’t, you’re in for a surprise. One segment of the commercial shows an “average” blue-collar cashier thanking union bosses for the “privilege” of paying union dues just to have a job. Another segment shows a factory worker thanking union bosses for giving money to candidates he doesn’t support. The next segment has a hospital employee thanking unions for working harder and getting paid less because she doesn’t have seniority. The last segment has a clerical employee thanking union bosses for harassing employees into joining a union.

The commercial invites readers to visit their webpage at, so I decided to do just that. The well designed site has some enticing pages, such as “Hijacking Elections”, “Union Profiles”, “When Voting Isn’t Private”, a “Fact” page, plus a section relating to the media and their ads. All very well written I might add. There was also a blog about Senator Orin Hatch on the Employee Free Choice Act. However, what interested me most was the “About Us” page. is the product of the cerebral sounding Center for Union Facts, located in Washington, DC. They describe themselves a non-profit 501c (3) organization “supported by foundations, businesses, union members, and the general public”. Dedicated, they proclaim, to showing Americans about union leadership. They claim to be non-partisan and not anti-union. I suspect they must have looked at the Teamsters for A Democratic Union model (, which is dedicated to promote open and honest elections as well as responsible accounting of union financing (that isn’t to say that this organization isn’t without a certain amount of controversy too. Some union members accuse them of being front for anti-union groups). While the “About Us” page is informative, especially the FAQ, what was more interesting is that none of the officers were mentioned. So I decided to do a little online sleuthing. was created by Washington business lobbyist Rick Berman of Richard Berman and Company. Mr. Berman’s claim to fame has been developing an ad campaigns against groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) on behalf of the liquor industry. He has lobbied on of behalf pro-tobacco interests groups against the Center for Disease Control, and been involved in campaigns against the American Medical Association and EarthSave International just to mention a couple ( He was a large contributor to Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC ( He has also been a long time active member of the pro-business US Chamber of Commerce. Not exactly a stellar resume for the founder of what is portrayed as a “non-partisan” organization bent on spreading the “truth” (and I presume the “American Way”) about organized labor.

Now before I proceed any further, here’s the “disclaimer” portion of this article. I am a member of a writer’s union, which is part of both the UAW and the AFL-CIO, as well as the past state chairman of this union. I have also been a delegate to the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council. My grandfather was a member of the Order of Railroad Conductors and Brakemen (and yes, a Republican, which wasn’t as mutually exclusive in those days). My wife is a retired Teamster (Local 89), and her father (also a Republican by the way) was a member of IUE-CWA Local 761 at Louisville’s Appliance Park, owned by General Electric. I’ve been employed in “white collar” jobs my entire working career. I also teach business management and human resource management classes at the undergraduate and graduate level. I count as friends both labor and business leaders. I believe in a balanced playing field. My personal philosophy is that both groups have to work together. One can not dominate the other and expect to remain in business or employed for long.

Labor has done a lot for this country. It has given us established work hours, the 40 hour work week, health and education, benefits, vacations, child protections laws, safe working conditions, and the right to bargain just to mention a few. Business has given us more product diversity and a higher standard of living than any other nation in history. They have done this through intensive research and capital investment. It’s also true that most states have “right to work” laws, meaning that businesses are free to hire and fire you with no or little notice. But on the other hand, you’re free to accept, decline, or quit anytime you want. There are also “open” and “closed” shops, meaning that union membership isn’t available or required (“open”) or by accepting an offer, you are required to also join the union (“closed”).

Is this fair? I guess that depends on your perspective. The reason there is a union in the first place is that at one point in time, employees felt threatened (I’ve always said that the chief reason for unions was bad management). If you don’t want to join the union, don’t accept the job. But what if you want the job but not the union? At a closed shop you don’t have any choice. I’ve thought that instead of having an open or closed shop, that the company have two pay rates (after all, they already have exempted and non-exempted classifications) with corresponding benefit packages. In other words, give the perspective employee a reason to want to join the union—better pay and benefits along with job protection. Alternatively, the non-union employee would not be subject to seniority or other job restrictions.

When it comes to politics, I have to agree with the commercial---sort of. I don’t think anyone, union or not, should be required to give to political action funds. I think employees should be able to opt out of having their union dues or pay going to a particular candidate or party. Why? Because it’s my money and I’ll decide who I’ll donate it to. Unions long ago defaulted on the ability to strengthen their position by blindly supporting just one political party---the Democrats. Nowadays, unions are seen as little more than the party’s cash cows. Instead, unions should (as they did once upon a time) support the best candidates for office regardless of party. That ensures a balance on both sides of aisle and increases the likelihood of favorable legislation. Think it doesn’t work? Look at business. They back individuals in both parties and have done quite well at it thank you. When I ran for state representative against an incumbent Democrat, all of my 30 or so volunteers were either active or retired union members. They knew I could do a better job and the letter behind my name didn’t matter one hoot. Not all Democrats are blue collar working stiffs and not all Republicans are rich.

Let’s take another look at the commercials and website. Both are interesting for what they say and don’t say as I’ve already stated. But, you may be wondering, why run the commercials now? There’s no pending labor or business legislation coming up. The answer is deceptively simple. This is a presidential election year. Money that Labor would be spending on Democrats is now going to have to be diverted to defend unions against these ads. Labor put all its eggs in one basket so to speak, while business bought the whole chicken coop. So, thank you for bringing this object lesson to light.

(Americans have had enough of high gas prices. We’re tired of being the pawns of oil companies and Arab Sheiks. Well, that’s been the argument so far. But one thing is for sure. The debate over global warming and energy is just getting started. I thought you might enjoy this article by Jay Hakes. Mr. Hakes is the author of “A Declaration of Energy Independence”. You can also check out a recent interview of Jay at which discuses Mr. Pickens’ energy plan).

Boone Pickens’ Energy Crusade:
Prophet or Con Man?

T. Boone Pickens has broadcast his way right into the middle of a presidential election debate about United States energy policy. Americans are upset about $4 a gallon gasoline, and the iconoclastic oilman has bought a lot of air time to tell us what he thinks about the situation.

Pickens’ views have injected some fresh air into the public dialogue, and most of his ideas stand up pretty well to the scrutiny of serious energy analysis. But we must be careful not to replace one set of problems with another.

His ads and web site warn about the money sucked out of the American economy by its negative balance of trade in energy. Pickens has identified a problem as least as big as high prices at the pump. The energy trade deficit is larger than our trade imbalance with China and far more costly than the war in Iraq. Moreover, much of the money ends up in the hands of America’s enemies. Though some laissez-faire economists find this situation acceptable, it’s hard to argue that our dependence on foreign oil can be sustained at current levels over the long haul without further damage to the dollar and the general U.S. economy.

A vigorous American Petroleum Institute advertising campaign, President Bush, and presidential candidate John McCain imply we can drill our way out of our dependence on foreign oil. Pickens disagrees. Again, score one for the man living in our television screens. Offshore oil drilling is expensive and unlikely to lower oil prices or have a dramatic impact on the world oil market. We shouldn’t rule out some carefully monitored expansion of lands available for exploration and development. But opening up more offshore areas in a country that has been drilling away since 1859 won’t be a game changer in an expanding world oil market.

Pickens emphasizes renewable energy, particularly wind power, as a solution to our energy predicament. Wind supplies a significant share of energy in some European countries and is growing here. We should expand the role it plays in electric generation.
But overemphasis on wind can distract attention from solar power and biofuels (not derived from food products), which offer greater potential for further technical development.

The idea that we should use government subsidies to get wind and other renewables into the market overlooks a big problem. The amount of fuel we consume is so large that subsidies will have unacceptable budget impacts for any fuel that achieves broad usage. The key policy here is making sure the fossil fuels pay their own way for external costs related to national security and the environment.

We should also adopt a national renewable electric generation standard that mandates a greater share for these clean and domestic sources, as many states have already done. Last year, the U.S. Senate came very close to breaking a filibuster against such a standard. After what has transpired since that vote, the Congress should quickly adopt the standard next year with tougher provisions than in the 2007 version.

Pickens correctly points out that expanded use of wind and solar, while intermittent, can save significant amounts of natural gas, the most environmentally benign of our fossil fuels and largely available from domestic sources. He then advocates that natural gas resulting from this displacement be used to power America’s vehicles. This would cut the need for foreign oil, reduce pollution and has been technically doable for a long time.

But this is the fork in the road where Pickens makes the wrong turn. Until we figure out how to sequester the carbon emissions from coal-based electricity or add significantly to the number of nuclear plants, we face a critical need for natural gas to reduce the use of coal. After having ignored the problems of greenhouse gases and global warming for decades, our nation cannot add more coal plants without risking great damage to our climate. There’s not enough gas to take on bigger roles for both transportation and electricity.

Fortunately, there are other alternatives for powering our cars and trucks that will work as well or better than natural gas. First and foremost, we need to demand more efficient vehicles. The Energy Independence and Security Act passed last year mandates that the 25 miles per gallon currently required for cars and light trucks be raised to 35 mpg by the year 2020. But we should not have much trouble raising the standard by a mile and a half a year. That get’s us to 40 mpg by 2020 and 55 mpg by 2040.

Ethanol produced from corn kernels is not worth the federal subsidies currently provided. But we should be utilizing liquid fuels from other plant sources, such as corn stover (the waste materials left over), bagasse from sugar cane, wood chips, and switchgrass. Even more exciting, but perhaps further down the road, is biofuel produced from algae. We also have the option of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, which are very attractive economically, especially if recharging takes place at night when the demand on the electric grid is low. In other words, we can take the bold action Pickens calls for and still reserve natural gas for electric generation.

The Texan who wants to end our addiction to foreign oil may not have every detail right, but we should be grateful that he’s calling for some mighty big solutions to some mighty big problems.

From 1993 to 2000, Jay Hakes headed the Energy Information Administration, the data and analytic arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. He has just published A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Poll Results

I asked if you thought candidates only were “fair game” when it came to politics, or if their families were subject to the same scrutiny. Interestingly, half of you said that the whole family was subject to the same level of public review as the candidate. The rest of you said that only children under 18 should be exempt. Wow, you all are a tough crowd!

No comments: