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USW Strikes at Oil Refineries: The Worst Possible Timing

The number of U.S. refineries and petrochemical production plants that have been subjected to United Steelworkers strikes has now reached eleven locations in California, Kentucky, Texas and Washington. It’s hard to imagine a more outrageous case of bad timing. Let’s see: oil and gas are at their lowest prices in years, the oil industry is hog tied by out-of-date export restrictions that prevent many sales to non-U.S. buyers, and the true unemployment rate (hint: it’s not the number the U.S. Labor Department puts out) is depressingly high, about 12.6%. Yet, the United Steelworkers are striking. Go figure.

Part of my growing up years were spent in Detroit, Michigan, where it was not uncommon for violence to be used by the United Auto Workers to force folks to join the union. The father of a girl I went to high school with was murdered because his employees resisted unionizing his small trucking company: His car blew up in the driveway of their home when he got in and turned on the ignition to go to work. No doubt his employees got the message.

Unions have done some good things for workers, but most of those accomplishments are in the past. Today, unions are more often a barrier and an impediment to increasing workers’ productivity, which ironically hurts the workers the most: when workers are more productive they command higher wages. In the case of education, it is often the teachers unions that keep poor and mediocre teachers in place and it’s our children who suffer.

Apparently, union membership in many industries is diminishing. It may be that workers are starting to recognize that their union, like the USW with its ill-timed strikes, isn’t doing them much good.