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Union attack lacked logic

Growing up near Washington, DC, you get sensitized to rhetoric pretty quickly. Sentence for sentence, no city in the world produces more worthless, empty rhetoric than Washington, DC.

Growing up in a family of Democrats also sensitizes you to words like "commie" and "pinko." Realizing in high school that you sympathize with the commie pinkos sensitizes you even more.

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I found an unpleasant familiarity in Shawn J. Mastrian '91's column ["Unions rub this working man the wrong way," Feb. 5]. The column, while it made some real points about the flaws of modern unions, was little more than the same empty rhetoric I had grown used to from conservative members of Congress. "Commie" and "pinko" are an adult's playground insults. You burn a flag, you're

un-American. You join a union, you're a "pinko union toadie."

And so I was unimpressed by Mastrian's arguments. I can't take anyone seriously if he'd rather insult me than present me with coherent reasoning.

In case you didn't read Mastrian's column, his story went something like this: While in high school, he worked for a drug store, was forced to join the employees' union and lost the bulk of his paycheck to exorbitant union dues. From his one bad experience, he concludes that all unions are evil and a substantial restriction on the free market system. "Free enterprise [is] what made this country what it is today," he writes, and continues, "I believe in a system where free markets control prices, not gangs of thugs."

Gangs of thugs? Where did that come from? Sure, there are unions that have, shall we say, less-than-savory reputations -- witness the Teamsters -- but they are neither representative of unions as a whole, nor do they remain true to the spirit in which unions were originally formed. Had Mastrian stopped to consider the driving forces behind the first unions, he might change his mind about the glories of the free market system.

About 150 years ago, the United States underwent a giant industrial boom. This was the ultimate free market, the age of the robber barons, when the railroads began criss-crossing the country, and when factories would employ anyone. Children, some as young as eight or nine, went to work long hours beside their parents. Workers routinely lost fingers or limbs to the chugging machinery. If you didn't make it to work one day. . . . Well, there was no point in showing up the next day, because the bosses would have already replaced you. Workers starved, living in poverty in rickety homes, while the bosses grew fat and rich.

Unions changed all that. No single worker could ameliorate the horrible factory conditions, but unions could bargain collectively for the benefit of all their members. The bosses could replace one

worker, or perhaps a whole team of them, but not an entire factory's worth. The strike -- both violent and nonviolent -- became one of the unions' most powerful tools.

Now, the modern worker is at the factory about 40 hours a week, has access to a company health plan (sometimes even a company day-care center), and can afford to eat. If he or she is injured on the job, there are workmen's compensation plans to help pay for the medical bills; if he or she loses a job unfairly, the union is there to fight to get the job back. Should working conditions become too dangerous or oppressive, unions are still capable of lengthy, damaging strikes that can bring a company, like Eastern Airlines, to its knees.

Mastrian would argue that anything that inhibits the bosses' right to run a company as they see fit is inappropriate meddling with the free market system. But look at the Eastern Airlines case, where the machinists and pilots unions' strikes called attention to ex-CEO Frank Lorenzo's callous treatment of the workers and equally callous attitude towards public safety. Eastern eventually filed Chapter 11, but the public was spared the risk of flying a possibly unsafe carrier.

Right about now, Mastrian is reading this column and remembering all the times he's called me a commie. Well, Shawn, I hate to disappoint you, but I actually agree with you on one point you made.

Mastrian says that as a senior in high school, he was forced to join the local drugstore employees' union, which swallowed up well over $600 in dues. Is the closed union shop really necessary? Even I, a loyal socialist, don't think so. There is no reason why union workers should not be able to work side by side with non-union workers.

The opportunity to work without having to join a union is particularly important for high school and college students, who are usually working part-time for low wages, and cannot afford the often high price of union dues. This is the United States; no one should be forced to join anything he or she does not wish to join. Union workers can bargain collectively for their contract; non-union workers can bargain individually for their own contracts.

Still, Mastrian ended his column by urging us to "abolish the unions and protect the American way of life." This seems to me to be more conservative rhetoric, the verbal equivalent of wrapping oneself in an American flag. Abolishing the unions, while it would not return us to the dark ages of 150 years ago, would lead to flagrant violations of workers' rights.

If a boss suddenly mandated that there will be a 70-hour, not a 40-hour work week, who would fight management on behalf of the workers? Who would ensure that the workers would have health care and pensions? No one, of course; under Mastrian's free market system, such frills are unnecessary. And if the American way of life is to subjugate the masses of workers for the financial benefit of the few bosses, well, then I'm proud to be a commie pinko.

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Arts Editor Deborah A. Levinson is a senior majoring in creative writing.

"Commie" and "pinko" are an adult's playground insults.

Abolishing the unions, while it would not return us to the dark ages of 150 years ago, would lead to flagrant violations of workers' rights.