How to handle a “bad” employer

Reading this story on the Transport Workers Union strike in New York City proved why I despise unions. Consider:

Union President Roger Toussaint said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, an agency with a $1 billion surplus, can do better by 34,000 workers who typically earn $35,000 to $55,000 annually while operating the nation’s largest mass transportation system.

“This is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement, over the erosion or eventual elimination of health benefit coverage for working people,” Toussaint said in a written statement. “It is a fight over dignity and respect on the job. . . . Transit workers are tired at being under-appreciated and disrespected.”

Every day that I go to work is a fight for dignity and respect. Not because I don’t get it; I do. It’s a fight for both me and my client because we have this crazy notion that if either of us is ever unhappy with the working relationship, we’re free to terminate it. Either one of us.

As an example, that scenario led me to becoming self-employed in early 2004. For several years leading up to starting my own business, I’d noticed a declining level of “dignity and respect,” to use Mr. Toussaint’s words, from my previous employer. Working conditions were fine, but I hadn’t had a raise in more than two years, my promotion path stalled, and broken promises concerning future opportunities mounted. I hated it and wished it hadn’t come to that. But the business culture changed and I didn’t like the new direction. I sought new career options, finally uncovering an option to become self-employed. It was scary and I had to earn that dignity and respect again, but I haven’t regretted it. If my current situation deteriorates, I’ll figure out something new. And so it goes.

Also, as I’ve seen some people discuss, dignity and respect extends to transit customers, too. I don’t live in New York, so I can’t vouch for how transit workers there treat passengers customers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such reports as gleefully shutting doors as people visibly approach are true. It happens in D.C. on the Metro, so I see no reason to believe it doesn’t happen in New York. I generally experience this at lunch time, when trains are timed to let passengers off without time to transfer to other incoming trains in the station. Instead of bitching, though, I’ve decided to walk the short distances between the stations I travel. I lose the convenience, but I respond to poor treatment with my wallet.

There are legitimate issues in this strike, of course. It’s a shame the TWU is on the wrong side of them, which only makes it look stupider. In the 21st Century, hard work isn’t rewarded with a decent retirement, especially when the demand is that it begin at age 50, funded by taxpayers. Employers (or clients) reward hard work with compensation. The worker can then use that money for whatever he wishes. A smart person will direct a portion of his earnings to a decent retirement. He’ll also pay for health insurance appropriate for his situation. He won’t wait for someone to give him a one-size-fits-all solution designed to satisfy the common worker’s needs. Bartering hard work for a decent retirement and health insurance is less efficient than exchanging hard work for money. Money is excellent since it can then be exchanged for items the earner decides are useful. It’s an amazing power built into capitalism.

This strike illustrates how the need to be taken care of by others is a quaint relic of decades past. Unions should be a quaint relic, too. It’s unfortunate that the striking workers appear immune to such useful lessons.

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