By Allison Pearson
Labor unions raise no shortage of controversies in the current American economy. Some commentators have postulated that labor unions helped President Obama secure a second term by tipping the polls in his favor in Ohio. At the same time, however, an August 2012 Gallup Poll shows that public of approval of labor unions is only slightly up from its all-time low of forty-eight percent in 2009. In the midst of this turbulent environment, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc along the east coast, devastating communities in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Among the hardest hit areas were communities like Staten Island that have been traditionally heavily populated by union police and firefighters.
Since the storm’s devastation, union members have served a vital role in clean up efforts. Union firefighters, many of whom were affected by the storm themselves, worked quickly to respond to emergency calls. AT&T union employees worked twelve hours a day restoring telephone, cable, and internet service to affected customers. Certainly hundreds of other police, teachers, electricians, plumbers, and other unionized professionals have put in countless hours helping affected communities to pick up the pieces. While arguments swirl about whether collective bargaining helps or hampers the economy, the response to the storm may demonstrate an undeniably positive type of collective action. The camaraderie and pooled resources of unions make them ideal vehicles for responding quickly in the face of calamity. By essentially having a pre-established teams, unions are arguably better equipped to respond quickly and efficiently in times of crises than non-unionized groups.
Even so, the storm also demonstrated many of the union shortcomings that earn disfavor with the public. In New Jersey, a power crew that had traveled from Alabama to lend a hand in recovery efforts eventually returned home without lifting a finger after being told that only members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were permitted to work in the area. The union attempted to persuade the Alabama volunteers to become union members, but the crew refused and returned home. As thousands of people went days without power, the union still denied volunteers willing to help those in need. This sort of territorialism, and the inefficiency that results, is in many ways demonstrative of broad public concern about the role of unions in the workforce.
Union reaction to Hurricane Sandy’s disastrous effects brought out the best arguments both for those who support and those who oppose labor unions. While many unions reacted quickly and efficiently to get communities back on their feet, others clung to their strict boundaries and territories to the detriment of the customers they serve. As public support of unions holds steady at nearly all-time lows, unions would be wise to neglect strict bureaucracy in the face of natural disasters, not only to promote a more positive image, but also to provide the best possible service to the customers and communities they serve.