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Why Unions Are Necessary

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Derek Thompson at The Atlantic allowed me to respond to his forum asking whether unions are necessary. And in the leadoff position no less. Here it is:

The question of whether unions are necessary is misguided. There is no other proven method to ensure that working-class people receive decent wages, safe working conditions, or a voice on the job. Unions continue to provide workers high-quality representation, helping them receive a fair share of the income their work generates while protecting them from capricious bosses, hazards on the job, and harassment from superiors. There are no other known systems that provide workers these benefits.

The better question is why unions have declined. There is a clear answer to this question: a half-century of intentional union-busting from corporations with assists from federal and state governments. Historians have shown that the supposed “Grand Bargain,” where companies agreed to unionized workplaces in return for an end to radical workplace action was never accepted by corporate America. Even before World War II, corporations looked to move their unionized factories to non-union states. When unions proved too popular across the United States and when federal labor and environmental protections began affecting profit margins, corporations lobbied the federal government to promote globalization, first through the Border Industrialization Project that allowed American companies to build on the Mexican side of the border and then through a full-scale race to bottom, as companies traveled the globe looking for easily exploited labor. None of this has made unions irrelevant; rather, recent labor defeats are simply the next round in this corporate assault upon the rights of working people.

Simply asking a question like whether unions are necessary gives credence to right-wing talking points about organized labor. We need to focus on how to fight back against the corporate malfeasance and greed that has undermined the American working class and plunged the economy into stagnation that has already reached a half-decade. Organized labor is central to any solution to our current economic problems. It is worth noting that the heyday of organized labor coincided with the longest period of growth in the history of the American economy. Only strong unions can provide a fair piece of the economic pie to the working and middle-classes, creating a robust economy that benefits all Americans.

Considering how completely exhausted I was when I wrote that, I’m surprised it came out relatively coherent, if a little passive voicey.

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  • superking

    To me, this is the most crucial part:

    We need to focus on how to fight back against the corporate malfeasance and greed that has undermined the American working class and plunged the economy into stagnation that has already reached a half-decade.

    Erik, you’re a labor historian, and as your posts often show, labor organizers were often doing things that were simply illegal in order to advance the cause. In some ways I am a little worried that the labor movement is in love with its history, but not its present or future. What is labor going to do to fight back here? Can we expect radical action in the future? Or are we going to sit around and talk about how everything was so great in the 1950s?

    • Well, that’s a really good question. It needs to be noted that the courts and Congress have made all the actions labor used in the past to push the envelope illegal and the power of tremendously expensive injunctions makes it easy to convince labor not to go back to that.

      There’s no question in my mind that a return to radicalism is absolutely necessary to turn the tide back toward working-class people in this country. That’s not just labor committing radical workplace action, but an intelligent, articulated, and widely disseminated alternative to capitalism. Without the very real threat of truly radical change, corporations and Congress won’t give an inch. So it really goes far deeper than just labor, though labor is part of the story.

      • eric from cleveland

        What always struck me was how the Northern European system of socialism/capitalism provides such a great safety net for the young, workers and elderly while still allowing for capitalists to aquire wealth.

        Having traveled to Scandanavia a lot from my previous job, I saw first hand how even rabid right wingers in my company liked it while there. Never once was there a “what a sh*thole” type of comment.

        The PR job of making Americans think the only other option is the Soviets is quite impressive when viewed from a strict PR standpoint.

        • Murc

          It’s worth noting that while they were evil fucks, having the Soviets around was really great for keeping the rentier class nervous and semi-willing to deal.

          I believe in capitalism (at least, in the form it exists in some places) but having a credible non-capitalist alternative around was super helpful. I don’t want the Evil Empire to come back, but that was an undeniable upside of it being around.

          • Yes.

          • Malaclypse

            This came up in the recent CT discussion of Red Plenty:

            It had also served, it turned out when it was gone, as a sort of massive concrete tentpeg, keeping the Overton Window (not that it was called that, yet) tethered at its lefthand edge in a way that maintained the legitimacy, in western discussion, of all kinds of non-market thinking. When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously.

            • This is the biggest downside to the fall of the USSR.

              • eric from cleveland

                However, the movement of unionism and loabor rights really started to fall apart and lose momentum during the Soviets heyday. In the era of the knights of labor, iww, Mother Jones, Debs, and the beginings of the Lewis presidency labor had positive momentum. Yes there were many losses but to chart to workers rights would see a marked and steady increase from where it began.

                The decrease (wherever you want to start it- I’d start it at Taft-Hartley) all happened during the Soviets heyday. I wonder if what we do remember is just a rose colored classes type thing.

                • Hogan

                  I’m not sure what the Soviet heyday is supposed to be, but it is true that labor organizing suffers during Red scares.

  • Alex

    I think you need to look at technology as well.

    Globalization has been facilitated by containerized freight and advances in communications, including the internet.

    When something was made in China, India or Malaysia in the past, it had to be shipped bulk cargo and was transported on slow freight vessels. Now, they are loaded into containers which are taken directly to the ports and loaded on ships, which are massive vessels which move at speeds in excess of 20 knots facilitated by gps and other navigation aids which were unthinkable.

    When the the cargo arrives in US ports, the container is placed on a truck or shifted to a rail car with incredible rapidity and moved to its logistics hubs, without the neccessity of hundreds of longshoremen to unload the vessel.

    Maquilidora operations are a minute part of this story.

    Similarly, the advent of cheap instantaneous communication has made global operations possible.

    Globalization would not be possible without these technical innovations.

    • Murc

      This is certainly something to be aware of, but what it means is that actions by unions to force the state to take a robust approach to protecting the working class are even more important.

      If its economically impossible to use slave labor to profitably produce something, you don’t really have to worry about it suddenly happening. When it does become economically possible, it WILL happen unless you make it POLITICALLY impossible.

      I don’t have much beef with companies opening factories outside US if the dollar legitimately goes a lot further there. I do have a problem if the reason the dollar goes a lot further is that they can work a man to death.

  • David M. Nieporent

    Oh, don’t worry; it didn’t come out coherent at all.

    • Coming from you, I know it must have been good.

      • Timb

        Fine point. One wonders if Davehas ” Might makes Right” tattooed somewhere or just on the masthead of his law firm

        • firefall

          That’s one of those questions that doesn’t bear extended contemplation, for the unpleasant mental images evoked.

        • DrDick

          I think he has it in both places, but in the original German.

  • joe from Lowell

    it came out…a little passive voicey

    I just did passive voice with my 8th graders, and I love this sentence.

    • Malaclypse

      The passive voice was used.

      • Hogan

        “When we met in law school, certain fireworks were caused to take place.”

    • Sherm

      I had an intro to expository writing professor who characterized it as the voice of bureaucracy. And I can still hear him yelling at students, “active verbs, active verbs, active verbs….” Most useful class I ever took at any level of my education.

      • firefall

        Not just bureaucracy, all business. I had 20 years of revising all my reports and papers to shift to the passive voice, every time (I’ve finally given up that fight).

  • david mizner

    Corporations understands the importance of unions. (That’s why they’ve spent billions and a half century trying to destroy them.) Too bad some liberals don’t. Is the Atlantic necessary?

    • Is the Atlantic necessary?

      That was my first reaction as well.

      • firefall

        Well it stops all those scruffy Englishmen just walking in.

        The magazine probably has the same effect.

        • Holden Pattern

          Sadly, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Sullivan seem to have evaded its salty grasp.

          • Malaclypse

            Not to mention The Derb.

    • Pith Helmet

      Corporations understands the importance of unions. (That’s why they’ve spent billions and a half century trying to destroy them.)

      With that minor correction, that is a very succinct reply to anyone who asks why unions are important.

    • MikeJake

      McMegan is gone, so if not necessary, perhaps tolerated.

  • bradp

    Unions, as they exist, are necessary to balance out the legal privileges and protections afforded to capital and its owners through corporations. Our legal system makes it very easy to combine equity and incorporate. You create a huge imbalance against those who provide for their livelihood by selling their labor if you don’t provide similar privileges to labor.

    • Timb

      Or, you can not unionize and up with a neo-feudal system where the damn workers know their place

      • Timb

        “end up”

    • DrDick

      No, unions are always necessary in capitalism to counterbalance the inherent asymmetry between capital and labor. Capital controls most of the wealth and access to the means of production, forcing labor to be dependent on it for their livelihoods. There is also the inherent monopsony in labor markets.

      • James E Powell

        And Capital controls the government. Labor, even when it was Big Labor, was always getting leftovers in the kitchen while Capital dined on the nation’s finest fare.

      • bradp

        No, unions are always necessary in capitalism to counterbalance the inherent asymmetry between capital and labor. Capital controls most of the wealth and access to the means of production, forcing labor to be dependent on it for their livelihoods.

        Although we could probably mine all sort of differences in what this statement means to both of us, I do agree with you.

        Unions, or more accurately labor organized and ready to retaliate, are absolutely necessary. I said ” Unions, as they exist” because I don’t think unions, as they exist, are particularly able to do so.

        • DrDick

          It is nice to find a point of agreement, but unions are necessary even in the absence of government rights or the corporation.

          • DrDick

            I should modify that to say “even in the absence of special or exclusive government rights”. It is indeed government granted and protected property rights which are the foundation of their advantage.

  • bob mcmanus

    Unions are no longer necessary or even possible.What do imagine, Erik, 3-4 generations in a new Walmart local?

    Communization and Its Discontents free online

    Hard to quote

    “It was a social system of existence and reproduction that defined working-class identity and was expressed in the workers’ movement”

    Put it this way, is there any longer a proletariat, factory workers who want their children and grandchildren to be factory workers? There is no longer any proletariat identity. The proletariat is now the class that wants to eliminate itself as a class.

    The proletariat, self-aware of itself as the class that seeks, or is right now, its own elimination, is a revolutionary class, a class not seeking or planning revolutionary change, but doing it.

    • Hogan

      Unions are no longer necessary or even possible.

      I’m sure my employer will remind me of that when our contract comes up next year. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    • Malaclypse

      The proletariat, self-aware of itself as the class that seeks, or is right now, its own elimination, is a revolutionary class, a class not seeking or planning revolutionary change, but doing it.

      These words do not mean what you think they mean.

      • Sherm

        I read that sentence three of four times, and I still don’t know what its words purport to mean.

        • Malaclypse

          I think it means that mcmanus reads Guy Debord while smoking weed.

          • DrDick

            Or huffing Drano.

    • bradp

      Put it this way, is there any longer a proletariat, factory workers who want their children and grandchildren to be factory workers? There is no longer any proletariat identity. The proletariat is now the class that wants to eliminate itself as a class.

      This begs the question. Much (if not all) of the change in perception is an effect of the degredation of the position of the “proletariat”.

      Most people don’t want to be a factory worker because factory workers get shit on by management, not because being a factory worker is inherently bad.

      • Sherm

        There are millions of people who would love to have factory jobs right now, and that’s because there are still plenty of factories which are unionized. If unions want to remain relevant, they need to adapt to the modern economy and organize the service sector workers because those jobs replaced the unionized factory jobs, which aren’t coming back any time soon.

        • Pith Helmet

          If unions want to remain relevant, they need to adapt to the modern economy and organize the service sector workers

          Wow, it’s like you’re psychic or something.

          • Sherm

            They have a long way to go, especially in retail and the food industry.

            • Pith Helmet

              Yes, and when capital employs billions in union-busting advocacy, lobbying, and employee intimidation, it’s no wonder they do.

              How many Wal-Mart’s would be organized if a union could get a vote on a level-playing field?

      • DrDick

        And you think service workers do not get shat upon twice as hard and three times as often? Factory jobs are still some of the best working class jobs available, mostly because, as Sherm points out, so many of them are unionized.

        • bradp

          I only said factory workers because that is the example mcmanus used. You are right.

          My point still stands that he is begging the question.

    • bob mcmanus

      My first question still stands:3-4 generations of Walmart workers?

      There was a time 1850-1950 maybe when a “proletariat” made sense. But now I would guess that Loomis imagines the “American Dream” of the worker doing well enough to send his kids to college. Son becomes engineer, granddaughter a doctor.

      That implies a reversal of class interests in a family in three generations, and my own Midwest experience shows exactly that. Granddad a lifelong long Union member, by late 60s he and his kids were voting Republican.

      So where does the new working class come from? Well, we all know the answer, but when capital moves that fast, and labor is so precariart, you don’t organize shit based on a site of labour.

      Keep thinking, but get your head out of 1880.

      • bradp

        Keep thinking, but get your head out of 1880.

        First off, you completely shifted your argument.

        Secondly, for the first time in a long time, communications and info definitely move faster than capital.

        THe idea that labor organization cannot shift and change to meet dynamic marketplaces seems rather archane in its own right.

        • Malaclypse

          Secondly, for the first time in a long time, communications and info definitely move faster than capital.

          Brad, somewhere the telegraph is typing out a series of dots and dashes to laugh at this sentence.

          • bradp

            Brad, somewhere the telegraph is typing out a series of dots and dashes to laugh at this sentence.

            I would imagine it rather hard to organize a union over a telegraph.

          • bradp

            Brad, somewhere the telegraph is typing out a series of dots and dashes to laugh at this sentence.

            That was well said, and it was a bit of an absurd sentence. I believe you understand what I mean though about communication technology and the effect it could have on labor organization.

            • Malaclypse

              I do understand. I was pushing back against the “but this time things are different” argument that some here (not you, I don’t believe) are putting forth.

              And only slightly off-topic, if memory serves, in Trotsky’s The Russian Revolution, he mentions the centrality of the soviets organizing both the telegraph workers and the railroad engineers in the takeover of power.

              • Hogan

                A professor I know was at a meeting of union leaders from the US and Central America. The ones from the US said one big problem they had was getting their message out through the filter of the corporate media, and thought the Central American unions might have the same problem. Nah, said the Central Americans; when we have a message we need to get out, we just take over the television station, and we usually have at least a half hour before the army comes and throws us out.

                I imagine it’s easier when there’s one TV station in the entire country.

              • bradp

                And only slightly off-topic, if memory serves, in Trotsky’s The Russian Revolution, he mentions the centrality of the soviets organizing both the telegraph workers and the railroad engineers in the takeover of power.

                The government is gonna get something similar through somehow-someway, but SOPA and the organized reaction to that comes to mind.

  • Mr. Potter

    Unions are responsible for creating a lazy rabble out of what was once a thrifty working class.

  • UserGoogol

    It strikes me as wrong to say that unions are the only proven way for workers to have safe working conditions or fair salaries. What’s the OSHA and the FLSA, chopped liver? The government has done things which unions are simply incapable of doing, since unions can only negotiate contracts on a business-by-business basis, while the government can impose regulations across the entire economy, and also provide benefits to people outside the employment system.

    Of course, unions were very important in getting those bills passed, but there’s a big difference between unions as a mechanism for collective bargaining and unions as a lobbying organization. If you want to bargain directly with employers, unions are hard to beat. But if you want to lobby the government for change, there’s been a lot of different models there, with varying degrees of success.

    • Malaclypse

      What’s the OSHA and the FLSA, chopped liver?

      Which is why unpaid internships are unheard of today.

    • Government is useful for sure, but you underestimate how unions helped support and mobilize for OSHA, FLSA and other regulations. Without unions, these regulations don’t happen. And without much in the way of unions today, you can see these laws and agencies be eviscerated.

      After OSHA was passed for instance, unions fought every day to make those regulations stick, to fight corporations looking for variances, to influence legislators to tighten regulations, etc., etc.

      Looking at the government without seeing unions as absolutely central misunderstands how these changes were created.

      • Sherm

        Even better — who ensures their enforcement even today? A unionized worker has the power to report violations and unsafe conditions before the damage is done. Would a non-unionized worker dare to walk off a job site in the face of an unsafe condition? Of course not. That OSHA comes along and conducts an investigation and slaps the employer on the wrist doesn’t help the guy who has already fallen off the scaffold.

        • mark f

          When the Massey Coal mine collapsed a few years back, Rush Limbaugh said something like, “Where was the union? Wasn’t it the union’s job to monitor and report these violations?” Incredibly, he meant this as a defense of management, which even when the union does monitor such things is responsible for providing (at a minimum) the legal definition of a safe workplace. But he did accidentally make a point: a well-functioning union is the best assurance of safe working conditions.

          • mark f

            (Also too, for the record: Massey was not unionized. UMW was in no way at fault. Limbaugh was just assigning blame to an enemy.)

            • Sherm

              Should have known. And I have represented immigrant restaurant workers in FLSA cases. If only I had known that their union was to blame.

            • Joe Benge

              Upper Big Branch was a UMWA mine up until Massey bought it in the mi-1990s, when it was known as Performance. Massey took over and immediately closed it down and waited the union out.

              • Joe Benge

                Eh, sorry. It was Montcoal when Peabody owned it. Performance was the name Massey reopened it under, in 1997, I think.

  • DrDick

    Here is another reason why unions are important, as well as a measure of their broader value beyond their own membership.

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