Robert B. Simpson: The union label

March 23, 2013 

In 1936, not long after he went into the polling business, George Gallup surveyed American opinion concerning labor unions. He found that 72% approved of them, while 20% disapproved. Approval reached its highest point in the 1950s, but the trend has been generally downward since then, and today the country seems to hold steady, according to the latest Gallup polls, at 42% approval.

I was a little surprised at that. The percentage of those viewing unions favorably in this part of the country feels much lower than 42. That may be because fewer people in the South are personally familiar with unions and thus oppose them. Or it may simply reflect our traditional tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot economically and vote the way our betters tell us to vote. Because the facts seem pretty clear: given that 75% of the driving force for our economy comes from consumer spending, if wages continue to stagnate for the vast majority of the population, things are not going to be great. And, whatever else you may think of unions, it is also obvious that the ability of labor to organize has, over time, increased earnings and the standard of living, improved worker safety, and clarified expectations of both labor and management. And not just for union members, but for the employed population as a whole.

Let me be clear. I'm not suggesting that, without unions, all employers would be penny-pinching Scrooges, forcing their employees to toil for starvation wages. There are some understanding, honest, compassionate employers in this country. And there are some who would steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes. Just as there are good and bad employees. But if you really believe that all employers, and especially large, stockholder-owned corporations, will treat their employees fairly and pay them well once unions are eliminated, I have an excellent piece of land I'd like to sell you. All it needs is for you to drain the water off it and get rid of the snakes and alligators.

All of this came to mind again recently because of a dispute between a guy named Nate Thayer and the digital version of The Atlantic, the long-time, highly respected magazine. Thayer is a long-time, highly respected journalist. The magazine liked a lengthy article he'd done, and they wanted him to rewrite and shorten it. So they could publish it. For free.

You have to understand that writers, except for the handful of glamorous stars who earn tons of money, are among the most poorly paid of all underpaid workers. Apparently this has always been true because, gee whiz, anybody can write. Right? But digitalization has made it worse. Legally, you own the copyright to anything you scribble, from the moment the words hit paper. Or computer screen. Formally registering the copyright makes your claim stronger in court, but you own it whether you ever register your copyright or not. Regardless, the use of computers has made it remarkably easy for thieves simply to grab your work and claim it for themselves.

Along with individual thieves, there are publications such as Huffington Post and, evidently, The Atlantic that expect to take your stuff and reprogram it for their own use, assuming you'll be happy with the "exposure." The reading public is usually not aware of this. Some years back, a lady who particularly liked a piece I wrote tried to persuade me to send it to her favorite magazine. I refused. That magazine doesn't pay any of its contributors. The result is a mishmash of mostly poorly written material produced by people who are delighted just to see their story and their name in print. The magazine insists the "exposure" is payment enough, and adds insult to injury by requiring the contributor to sign over his or her copyright, thereby losing forever any right to use one's own work.

Next time your dentist repairs your tooth, tell him you won't pay him in cash, but that you'll be smiling in public a lot, and that he and his work will be getting a lot of exposure. Let me know how he reacts.

A group of writers, amateur and professional, long-time scribblers and beginners, are up in arms over the way Nate Thayer was treated. Not because of his personality; he's allegedly a crusty, abrasive character who publicly expressed his displeasure with The Atlantic in language I can't use here. But the group sees the way he was handled as the way they'll be handled in the future.

They could only come up with one effective solution. They said, "We have to organize a union."

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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