Many people believe that it’s obscene for a group of unionized employees to ask for better wages and working conditions in a time when so many others are out of work. For these individuals, this is just another example of union power run amok and a threat to our unsteady economy. Unfortunately, these people simply don’t understand why unions are needed.
To put it simply, many of the benefits that working people now enjoy are the result of unions and their “unreasonable demands.” In the early 20th century, those demands included the eight-hour workday. That concept, a staple of the American working and middle class, is now under fire as more and more workplaces ask their employees for longer days and urge them to carry cell phones and laptops in order to “be available” when they’re at home. And there’s more. Pensions are being discarded in favor of sketchy 401(k) plans, sick pay is often rolled into a “generous” two-week vacation, and employers openly resist any regulation that deals with the health and safety of employees. If one actually believes that these lost benefits — benefits that unions fought for decades to get — help improve the country’s overall economy, then why is America in an economic holding pattern, if not a freefall?
We are dead last among industrial nations when it comes to far too many employee benefits, and while that means that American productivity might be up, our overall spending power is in decline. More importantly, the balance between work life and home life is off-kilter, and the health of our workers is suffering. Only the business owners and their investment partners seem to be reaping the benefits of reduced unionization.
The recent furor over the impending school bus driver strike brings the negative feelings that many South Carolinians hold about unions to the surface. Worse than that, this controversy illustrates some of the horrible ideas that people have, not only about unions, but also about working people in general and how all of us fit into the larger economic picture. Sadly, it also shows just how little Americans care about themselves, and each other.
Most of the complaints and arguments against the bus drivers, and their union, are simply false or the result of misinformation. Local media has been quick to discuss how much school bus drivers make per hour, but they’ve failed to note that these are not full-time jobs. While some might be shocked to discover that a bus driver who makes $14 or $15 an hour feels that amount is not enough, they should know that bus drivers work only a few hours each day. Why? Their work schedules — split into two shifts — make it difficult to find work during off hours in the middle of the day, and the idea that they should have to is ludicrous.
For the past two decades, America has saddled itself with the loss of support staff, those people with jobs that are not designed to be productive at all times, but without them, many of the essential functions of an organization — and society — would cease. Paying a full day’s wages to a small group of people who are responsible for driving almost half of the county’s schoolchildren to and from school is a strange concept to many, but it is essential to understanding so much of what is broken in our labor system.
To say that these bus drivers knew what they were getting into —another common sentiment of many — is a false problem. Outside of the hours, and what must be a stressful work environment, there is the under-reported issue of the safety of the buses. A safe working environment should not be something that is taken for granted. It should be demanded from employers. Asking people to work in unsafe conditions, just to save money for the company— or even taxpayers — is reprehensible.
Lastly, there is the oft-repeated mantra of so many anti-working class commenters: “Perhaps they should get an education and get a better job.” This sounds so wonderfully American and boot-strappy that it is hard to see its fault. When taken to its logical conclusion, a rather large problem arises. At some point, we would all be too educated to drive the buses.
Every society since the rise of agriculture has allowed class distinctions to form. There have been people whose jobs were not the cleanest, nor the best, and yet they did their jobs. And for that, they should be adequately compensated. Any other solution is not only economically irresponsible, it is criminal.