Josna Rege

400. Why Pay those Union Dues?

In Education, history, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 30, 2017 at 4:18 am

I do like Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, King of the Road, a song in the American hobo tradition of the lone drifter, continually movin’ on. But in the second verse, one line never fails to infuriate me. The verse begins:

Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues. . .

So retrograde! I can’t stand it. Instead I sing out defiantly, no doubt to the irritation of anyone in earshot, I pay my union dues!

Why pay your union dues? I’ll tell you why. Pay them because a union negotiates a contract for the benefit of all the employees. The dues allow the union to function, to organize, to advocate on behalf of the workers. If an employee proudly refuses to pay his dues, like Roger Miller’s self-styled “man of means by no means,” then he is just getting a free ride on the backs of his fellow-workers. That’s shameful in my book.

This pride in refusing to stand with one’s fellow-workers is ornery American individualism, and although I have lived nearly fifty years in this country, it still sticks in my throat. It’s the same individualism that says, Because my children are no longer in school, I will vote against funding the public schools; or Because I’m young and healthy at the moment, I don’t need to pay into the Medicaid or health insurance systems. This flouts the basic principle that makes a national insurance system work: it can provide coverage for all because everyone helps to support it. If only the elderly, the sick, and the disabled paid into the system, it would sink under the weight of the expenses; but if healthy people pay in as well, healthy people who do not draw upon it as much, then the system stays afloat. What the young, healthy, able-bodied people fail to recognize is that they will be old and sick and vulnerable one day, and then the system will support them.

What don’t people get about this principle? Damn it, you don’t have to be a dirty Commie to understand it. It’s the same principle that life insurance companies bank on: actuarial tables demonstrate that young people will pay into a policy for many years and are unlikely to draw on it before it has made a tidy sum of money for the company. If only old people bought life insurance, the premiums would have to be prohibitively high in order to make the company viable.

What makes a seemingly simple and self-explanatory principle so difficult for people to grasp? What makes it not just difficult, but downright un-American? For one, there’s that strong streak of ornery individualism I mentioned earlier, that makes Americans say, How dare they make laws that require me to wear a seatbelt in my own personal car? I’ll ride without a seatbelt if I damn well please, because I’m a free man. A free man, yes; sadly, all-too-often a dead man as well. But hell, they say, if I wanna kill myself, ain’t no government gonna stop me.

cartoon by Evelyn Atwood

Also responsible for this confounding anti-union sentiment in the United States are the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the so-called Right-to-Work laws. Although Taft-Hartley allowed for the setting up of union shops (which require all new workers to become members of the union), it also allowed individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops, laws that required workers who refused to pay union dues to receive the same benefits as those who paid their fair share of the union’s operating expenses. These states, which now number 28, are known, in a fine example of Orwellian Doublespeak, as Right-to-Work states. No wonder labor activists referred to Taft-Hartley as the slave-labor bill.

Someone, please write us a new verse for King of the Road that makes it crystal clear how idiotic it is to wear the refusal to pay union dues as a badge of pride. If you don’t want to pay dues, that is your prerogative, I suppose, though you should realize that you thereby weaken the bargaining power of the workers as a whole; but then, American hustler, be principled enough to recognize that you don’t deserve the union’s benefits either. (As an example and a healthy corrective, here’s Peggy Seeger adding some new words to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 favorite, Union Maid.)

King of the Road was that quintessential American loner, a figure that many American men see as attractive, and many American women as downright sexy; I don’t. I suppose I just can’t see the glamor of going it alone when it hurts others as well as oneself.

Note: I got the idea for this post from the June 26th, 2017 edition of The Resistance Report by Robert Reich, a programme broadcast live from Professor Reich’s office most weekdays, and one I watch avidly. In it, Reich, formerly a Secretary of Labor, explains the basic principle on which universal health insurance works and makes it clear how self-defeating it is for working people to oppose it.

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  1. An excellent viewpoint, JoJo! This first thing I read this morning while having my morning tea. Words of wisdom and clear thinking can be so refreshing, especially in these trying times…..

    • Thank you, Nadine. You were up early this lovely summer morning. You’re right that I very much had the present moment in mind as I wrote this, and the frustrating resistance there is in the U.S. to national health insurance. xo J

  2. I’m all for unions and union dues but I think in this particular song the man isn’t paying union dues because he’s not working, he doesn’t have a job, hence no union dues. He’s hoboing around the country. I never listened to it as a slap at the unions.

    • I agree in this instance: that’s why he is “a man of means by no means”, that is he has no means at all.

      • Yes, I think that’s one of the best lines in the song, Chris. He has no means, so he has to use any and all means to get by. He’s not too proud to take handouts later in the song, so he takes what he can get, by any means necessary. But as I read it, that includes not paying union dues on principle–he’s not a man who will works for the greater collective good, albeit understandably, since the social contract has failed him.

        • True. He expresses one aspect of the American individualistic and pioneering spirit. It has its positive strengths — innovation, hard graft, attainment — but also its darker side, as typified by the cowboy archetype: taciturn, gunslinging, reactive and, all too often, reactionary. I’m not explaining myself very clearly — sorry! — and I know there are some contradictions in what I’ve said above, but I hope you’ve got the gist of what I’m trying to say! Which is to agree absolutely with your key points.

          I’ll pipe down now!

        • No, Chris, I think it’s well put–I understand completely. Some of what is attractive about that ethos is also very problematic. In our current politically ponarized state, we have to find out if there’s any way to make common cause across party lines with the positive side.

    • Hmm. That’s a perspective I hadn’t considered, Kristin. I didn’t have Roger Miller pegged as a Woody Guthriesque populist, but rather as expressing the stubborn individualism that is often strongly anti-union. I rather feel that the hobo video accompanying the song is a bit of a mis-match with the overall tone. Or perhaps it’s that Miller’s style reminds me of Frank Sinatra, decidedly not someone with a class consciousness. I associate this song with a song like Big City by Merle Haggard, where he talks about walking off his job, but then says “You can keep your retirement and your so-called social security.” Again that anti-government libertarianism.
      My husband was reading over my shoulder, and he said, the lyrics don’t say “I can’t pay no union dues”, they say, “I don’t pay. . . ”
      But it’s true that if people are unemployed, they are not protected by unions, so they have little incentive to feel positive about them.
      Still, I can’t help feeling that the anti-union element could have been a factor in the song’s success–No 1 in the country music charts, number 4 in the pop charts.
      But probably I’m just being argumentative 🙂

  3. There is similar thinking amongst a section of the population here in the UK, and I suspect they’re among those who believe in the ‘divide and conquer’ ethos, so that the ambitious entrepreneur can profit from while plundering and despoiling the common good. We see it public health services, education and so on with basic services going out to tender, public service provision ruthlessly cut to the bone and an erosion of liability and accountability until it’s too late. It’s not just the US that’s suffering from the false promise of neoliberalism and laissez-faire thinking.

    A year ago a young British MP called Jo Cox was savagely and very publicly murdered by a white supremacist. She had declared that we — people of all creeds, colours and political persuasions — had “more in common than that which divides us.” There are sadly plenty of selfish individuals who want to denigrate, diminish or deny what we have in common by denying such principles as the right to stand up, as unions should, “for the many and not the few”. (And yes, that was the public slogan of a certain political party but that doesn’t to invalidate the sentiment.)

  4. Oh, and congratulations on your 400th post, Josna! All good stimulting stuff, sometimes dealing with difficult themes but unafraid to express what you believe in and know to be natural justice.

    • Thank you, Chris! I can hardly believe that I’ve been writing this blog for more than seven years now. I so appreciate and enjoy your own inspiring blog and your thoughtful responses to mine, which enter into a conversation that has ranged widely over the years. J

  5. Sadly, many of today’s unions are in with management and do very little to protect its dues paying members. I mention this with experience about a union for tour guides that intentionally refused to ratify our contract for years, forcing its members to work for very low and outdated wages. Management was being sued for antitrust and didn’t want to see wages go up. Eventually everyone lost their jobs because of this rotten union. Not all unions care about their workers.

    • You’re right about that, Nina. Some unions have corrupt leadership which has been coopted by or is in cahoots with management. As in national politics, we cannot simply place our faith in our elected leaders, we have to fight and remain constantly vigilant in order to keep them honest. Sigh.

  6. True, especially now. We need Pete Seeger, and Dylan to start singing again! Shake those old hearts back into real life! However, all the protesting around the country is encouraging
    to some extent. Perhaps people are waking up again. I am feeling hopeful again.

  7. Thanks for this! I tweeted it to my SEIU Adjunct Union aka FacultyForward comrades.

    Yours is a timely post. The “Janus vs AFSCME” case is moving to the Supreme Court and SCOTUS will likely vote to extend the Orwellian “right to work” nationally. This case is being pushed forward by and the individualistic ethos you write about. Soon, all unions will be struggling to protect the rights of workers, everywhere while they struggle to collect those union dues. And ? Another case: Hill V. SEIU
    questions unions ability to be the “exclusive representative” to speak to the government on on worker’s behalf.

    Hard times! We will be fighting back!

    • Thank you, Norah. So glad the adjunct union is affiliated with the SEIU. Thanks too for the information about the looming and ominous cases coming before the Supreme Court. Hard times indeed! xxx
      P.S. Sorry I missed your birthday; belated Happy Birthday wishes, and here’s to you, all year long. Many Years! xxxoo J

  8. […]   400. Why Pay those Union Dues? […]

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