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Looking for what lies behind the union label

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 1, 2001

I wanted to listen to my favorite radio station but I happen to be in a location that is not conducive to getting a clear signal. Not to worry; I thought I could just pick up the signal on my computer. So I went to the website of WMAL radio and clicked on the icon that said "listen to live radio". I received a message saying that the system was inoperative for the present time. A few days later I had a similar problem with a poor signal involving one of the networks. My inability to obtain live radio over the Internet forced me to ask some questions. I don't know which planet I was visiting but I completely missed the story about why radio stations and networks discontinued what is called "streaming" on the Internet. It seems that AFTRA, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (a union to which I had belonged to some forty years ago) had invoked a clause in its contract requiring talent fees for doing commercials to be increased by 300 per cent if a commercial was rebroadcast over the internet.

Well, as soon as that part of the contract, which apparently stations and networks had paid little attention to, was invoked by AFTRA, one by one stations and networks started pulling their broadcasting off of the Internet. The result is that stations and networks are deprived of an extra audience.

I would be the first to suggest that the talent used in making a commercial for airing on a station or network ought to get a little something extra because it was also broadcast over the internet. But 300 per cent? Twenty-five percent sounds reasonable to me. I'll bet if the union invoked a clause requiring an additional 25 per cent in compensation that we would still be getting programming on the Internet. This is another reactionary move by a labor union. Who benefits by this decision? The radio stations and networks? No, they can't expand their audience. The talent? No, they get not a dime more than they were getting before when they record a commercial. The union? I don't think so. I guess they proved a point but what is the point?

I recall years ago when I was trying to prevent a railroad from discontinuing a passenger train. The train was losing some money, but not posting huge losses. The railroad management made a proposal to the union that they accept a small cut in pay to keep the train going. The union president bellowed that he would rather have no one working than to accept the pay cut. He soon got his wish. The train was discontinued and everyone lost their job.

There was a time when unions really served the working man. Management was often ruthless. Working conditions were terrible. Workers had no rights. Often times there were men who would be thrown out on the street, despite a perfectly good work record, because the supervisor wanted his cousin to have the job. Workers who fell sick, even if the illness or injury was work related and what happened was no fault of the worker, would just wind up on the street. There was no welfare safety net in those days either.

So unions played an indispensable role in acquiring rights for the working population. I suppose there are still places here and there where unions are indispensable for the health and safety of the working man. Coal miners come to mind. However, the percentage of the working population belonging to a union is at an all time low. The one really strong area of growth for union membership is in the government sector.

Today business and industry is so competitive that they will lose good people if they don't treat them decently. Most people in the professions would rather negotiate their own arrangements rather than engage in collective bargaining.

Mind you: I am not against unions. I am thrilled when I see the carpenters and other hard hats cheering on our president at Ground Zero in New York City. These are genuine Americans. But I am against the way that compulsory union dues are spent for political purposes. Most of the money is spent advocating issues and candidates that the average working man would be violently against if only he paid attention to the political process.

The unions on Capitol Hill have influence that is now way out of proportion to their numbers. The number of congressmen they own outright is astounding considering that they have declined from a high of 36 per cent of the work force in the early 1950's to about 13 per cent today. And the policies they back, by and large, are as counterproductive as their AFTRA demands. It is little wonder that Oklahomans voted last Tuesday to adopt a right to work law despite a vigorous campaign by the unions. Workers in that state will no longer be compelled to join a union. Maybe that will send unions a long overdue wake up call: Either they get in tune with their membership or the voters will take away their special status that compels workers to join them whether or not that is their wish.

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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