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Commentary: Union support has declined for a reason

Lockheed Martin reports that the four-week-long Machinists' strike hasn't put much of a dent in productivity at the Fort Worth aeronautics plant.

Factory operations continue with salaried employees handling critical tasks. As of May 14, the company reported that the flight line completed 33 ground engine flight run tests, almost double the 17 planned for the period.

Three new F-16s were on their way to Morocco. The F-35 program was maintaining its rollout schedule, with six F-35s completed and prepared for government acceptance since the strike started.

Granted, the more than 1,700 salaried employees who have been trained for various production tasks aren't doing their regular jobs. But Lockheed's experience does make one wonder whether union rules are counterproductive in today's modern manufacturing plant.

My first exposure to how unions bump the cost of doing business came from a post-college stint with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

As a lowly PR coordinator who drummed up publicity by traveling from city to city in advance of the shows, I had zero to do with the intricate logistics involved in preparing a venue for opening night. But the actual rigging of a circus was a performance in itself.

The army of Ringling riggers had specialized skills that took lots of training to master. Put a rope in the wrong place or leave a pulley improperly secured, and the result could be fatal.

The convention center in one of the first major markets I worked was a union house. And there were union members being paid to do nothing except shadow the circus employees as they went about dragging, hoisting and installing cables and ropes.

I was no business major, nor did I have a particularly good head for numbers. But it sure seemed like an unnecessary expense to me. But the unions had the company over a barrel. If Ringling wanted to mount the show in venues where unions ruled, it had no choice but to pay.

My next experience with organized labor nonsense came after I joined the Star-Telegram, which does not have the various newspaper guilds that can make managing an environment where the demands literally change daily a nightmare. As part of an editor exchange with sister papers in other states to see what we could learn from each other, I ended up in the heart of union country: Michigan.

One night during my two-week visit to the Oakland Press in Pontiac, the newsroom was working a breaking news story that required the front page to be torn up and re-designed fast to make deadline. The city editor asked if I'd check the layout. (This was in the pre-computerized age of waxing the backs of copy and then pasting it to a template.)

When I got to layout, no one was there. The old story was still adhered to the page as the new type was being spit out of the typesetter. I waited for several minutes before deciding to do what I'd done countless times at the Star-Telegram. I grabbed an Exacto knife to lift the old copy from the page just as one of the union paste-up guys moseyed in from his union-mandated break.

The tail chewing I received about violating labor rules for daring to do his job was something I'll never forget.

Without the unions of the last century, some of today's labor laws may not have materialized. Where once workplace safety laws were nonexistent and corporations had free rein to put workers -- including children -- in dangerous or exploitive conditions, today there is a litany of federal and state laws that protect employees.

But public support for organized labor has fallen steadily along with membership numbers since their highs in the mid-1950s. Less than 12 percent of today's work force belongs to a union, according to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Peak membership was in 1954, with almost 35 percent of U.S. workers unionized.

Today, public-sector workers have a union membership rate more than five times higher than private-sector employees, and local government workers -- teachers, police officers and firefighters -- are the most heavily unionized.

In Fort Worth, we don't call those worker groups "unions." They're "associations." But a rose by any other name still has thorns.

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