There has been a lot of conversation recently in the news about collective bargaining, and the “right to work”, whether it is teachers in the mid-west or airplane assemblers in Seattle, or South Carolina. Some argue that collective bargaining is a threat to the economy because it reduces jobs. Others say the “right to work” is merely a euphemism for a worker’s “right” to sell his labor at below market value because the employer holds much more economic power. The only insight I guess that I could offer to this debate is a story of two of my relatives.My aunt worked in the textile industry. She went to work during the war when her brothers were drafted leaving her and their father to hold the farm and the family together while they were gone. Like many of her co-workers, she faithfully believed that “Uncle Charley would take care of us.” She continued to work uninterrupted into the 1970’s when her health failed. Brown lung from textile dust said her doctor. Chronic bronchitis said the company doctor. In any event, she could not work any longer. The company considered her to have quit. They did not offer disability benefits. Her medical bills piled up with no coverage to pay them.
Since she was not yet 65, she didn’t qualify for the company’s pension plan. Upon her early retirement, she was paid her entire vested portion in the plan in a lump sum. Less than $400.00.
She lived the remainder of her life in relative poverty and eventually ended up a patient in a residential nursing facility paid by Medicaid, government assistance, until her death.
My uncle was a truck driver. (He was the brother in law of my aunt.) In his late 50’s he was afflicted by an ailment that he never fully understood. It attacked his blood and eventually his liver, his kidneys, and his skin. He was in the hospital for months. He never went back to work.
My uncle never missed a paycheck. He was covered by his union’s disability plan. His medical expenses were covered by his union’s health and welfare plan. When he reached 65, his disability was converted to retirement which supported him for the rest of his life.
After his death, his wife, my aunt’s sister, eventually was required to move into residential nursing care herself. Her spouse benefits paid her expenses. The ailments of both my uncle and his wife were severe and expensive. Nevertheless, neither depended on government assistance, other than the Social Security and Medicare for which all seniors qualify.
I have spent the years since then contemplating what accounted for the difference in the situations my aunt, and then my uncle, found themselves in. I can’t think of anything other than one relied on her employer to take care of her, and the other relied on his collective bargaining unit.
Regardless of what one may say about the right to work and collective bargaining, I can say, unequivocally, I would rather have been in my uncle’s position than my aunt’s.