Sunday, January 18, 2009

What If Everything You Thought You Knew About Unions Was Wrong?

What if everything you thought you knew wasn’t true? And what if you had to rethink some conventional wisdom and revise some stereotypes you had been brought up with from the time you entered elementary school? What if the conventional wisdom was just wrong about something you held as real? Here’s an example of what I mean. For years, we have all been encouraged to believe the carefully crafted and cultivated meme that business people were the repository of all wisdom and that left unfettered and unregulated, they would create unlimited prosperity. The entrepreneurial spirit was celebrated above all else and with it a bias against any government regulation.

In the wake of the economic meltdown that took our whole economy crashing down with it, nobody any longer believes the likes of Jeffrey Skilling, Ken Lay, Robert Nardelli, or hosts of other captains of industry are heroes. They are seen for the greedy robber barons they always were. People for whom day trading was a major pastime are now afraid to even look at their 401 (k) plans and certainly don’t believe a privatized Social Security system, based on investment in the stock market, is the best place to park their retirement nest egg. In fact, is there anybody left to argue that totally unregulated markets have the wisdom to even keep us safe even from food borne illness let alone other dangers?

So, if all the experts were wrong about the wisdom of totally unregulated markets, maybe they also are wrong about the way they’ve been portraying unions and union members. The average American has a stereotypical view of union members as lazy and overpaid. And ungrateful too. But what if union workers actually were well-trained heroes who saved lives?

It turns out they are.

As Emptywheel points out in this diary on Daily Kos, all those involved in the dramatic rescue of the U.S. Airways passengers from the Hudson River were well-trained union members who cited their unions for giving them the training and skill to perform their jobs and save lives. But first let’s start with today’s Washington Post report, which, while lauding the rescuers as individuals, is conspicuously silent on their union backgrounds.
No ferry captain expects to encounter a disaster of this magnitude, said Lombardi and a half-dozen other captains who helped all 155 survivors of a US Airways jet that crash-landed in the Hudson River. But they're trained for it. They learn CPR, basic firefighting and hypothermia treatment.

Last July, a Circle Line vessel rescued survivors of a helicopter that crashed near the Lincoln Tunnel while on a sightseeing trip. In August, New York Waterway deckhands plucked a struggling swimmer out of the Hudson. In September, New York Water Taxi crew members rescued a 65-year-old man whose kayak capsized during a lesson.

In fact, there are so many ferryboats moving thousands of people a day through the congested New York Harbor that they have come to be an efficient and flexible waterborne first-response team.

Their response time is almost always less than two minutes, most often less than a minute and a half, said Vince Lucante, a port captain for New York Waterway, Lombardi's company. On Thursday, Coast Guard video showed, the first boat was alongside the jet within three minutes of it hitting the water.

"It's not in the day-to-day job description, but it is there," said Michael Starr, another port captain for New York Waterway. "People don't often realize the emergency skills a ferryboat job requires."
What’s missing in this report is where those ferryboat workers got those emergency skills. It wasn’t from the ferry companies, but from their union training. All the skilled trades unions have apprentice programs that train potential members in basic skills and then give them courses to upgrade those skills so members can qualify for even better paying jobs in their field. That training is paid for by the unions out of union member dues, and it saves the companies that hire union workers money. Because the unions take the responsibility for training their members, companies don’t have to provide those courses.

As it turns out, most of the ferryboat workers are members of the Seafarers International Union (SIU) or the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA), two unions that spend a lot of bucks to keep their members skills upgraded. I know this personally because my husband, Dan, is the assistant to the President of the SIU and we've been down to the SIU training facility in St. Mary's County, Maryland. It's an exceedingly well run, ultra modern school, where seafarers upgrade their skills at no cost to themselves or the shipping companies that hire them.

In addition, the airpline pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenerger, whom every newspaper and major broadcast station has lauded as a hero, is a member of ALPA, the pilot’s union. Here’s a quote from the AFL-CIO blog, which gives the full story of the backgrounds of these brave men and women who saved so many lives:
The quick thinking, bravery, experience and extensive training of US Airways Flight 1549 pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, the crew of flight attendants, the air traffic controllers guiding the flight low over Manhattan and the rescuers were the key factors in yesterday’s “Miracle on the Hudson,” where 155 people survived an emergency landing in the river.

The mainstream media is chronicling the miracle, but as Marcy Wheeler on Emptywheel points out:
What they are not telling you is just about every single one of these heroes is a union member.

They are union members who got that that extensive safety and job training thanks to their union contracts.

Sullenberger, with 40 years of flight experience, served as instructor and safety committee chairman for the Air Line Pilots (ALPA). Following, the US Airways merger with America West, the airline’s pilots are now members of an independent union.

The crew of three flight attendants who shepherded the passengers safely out the emergency exits are members of the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA). Says AFA-CWA President Patricia Friend:
Flight attendants are highly trained safety and security professionals and today’s successful evacuation is an overwhelming example of the necessary role flight attendants serve on board the aircraft. Flight attendants receive extensive training on emergency evacuations and each year they undergo additional training to ensure their proficiency.

The air traffic controllers who helped route the Airbus A320 around Manhattan, after Sullenberger reported that a bird strike had shut down both engines, are members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). As Reuters reports:
The ferry crews that immediately responded when they saw the plane in the river are Seafarers (SIU) members. The SIU provides extensive safety training for its members. Marine Engineers (MEBA) members pilot many of the ferries and fireboats that responded. Those police and fireboats that arrived to pull passengers to safety are crewed by members of the Fire Fighters (IAFF) and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA).
As Wheeler points out:
They are the men and women who performed so heroically on 9/11
You won’t get this story from any of the mainstream media, which is unfortunate. Neither the right nor the left trusts the newspapers or television stations to give unbiased reports anymore. And that’s a dangerous situation. Face it, bloggers are not professional journalists and for the most part don’t have the time, training, or skill to break the major stories or do in depth exposes.

But because newspapers are failing in their responsibility to present fair, accurate, and complete coverage, more and more people are turning to other sources. We need all the media outlets, from blogs and alternative media to a vibrant mainstream media that is unafraid to tell the truth, the whole truth. Because when you leave important stuff out, it may be a sin of omission, but it still slants the story and leaves people with their stereotypes unchallenged. And that means everything - or at least some things - that we believe may not be true. And the public's distorted views about unions is one of those things.

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