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Why Unions Matter


I know that this is kind of Unionism 101, but since we as a nation are now in a remedial state when it comes to understanding why we need labor unions, Eric Liu’s piece on non-unionized workers should be concerned about organized labor’s decline is important:

First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better. Unions restore demand to an economy by raising wages for their members and putting more purchasing power to work, enabling more hiring. On the flip side, when labor is weak and capital unconstrained, corporations hoard, hiring slows, and inequality deepens. Thus we have today both record highs in corporate profits and record lows in wages.

Second, unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage. Even if you aren’t a member your pay is influenced by the strength or weakness of organized labor. The presence of unions sets off a wage race to the top. Their absence sets off a race to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the relegation of organized labor to tiny minority status and the fact that the public sector is the last remaining stronghold for unions have led many Americans to see them as special interests seeking special privileges, often on the taxpayer’s dime. This thinking is as upside-down as our economy.

This country has gotten to today’s level of inequality because, ironically, those who work for a living think like atomized individuals while those who hire for a living organize collectively to rig policy in their favor. Today’s 97-year low is the result of decades of efforts to squeeze unions and disperse their power.

I will add that unions have also historically set new standards in benefits for industries, providing nonunionized workers improved health care, shorter hours, vacation time, pensions, etc. Companies will often expand union gains to the rest of the industry in order to undercut unionization at other worksites. In addition, organized labor’s support for laws ranging from the minimum wage to OSHA have vastly improved the lives of all American workers. Without a strong labor movement, it’s hard to see how similar advances are achieved.

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  • Mac

    “Yeah, but one time I had a job where the union guys were lazy and it was frustrating so now I hate unions!!” is the prevailing sentiment from those I know that would most benefit from unionization. Unions are just another front on the culture war for a lot of people. The most anti-union people I know personally are federal government employees who are protected by the union and get all the benefits but dont pay dues….a little hypocritical, but unions are on the wrong “team” to them. Its frustrating.

    • Jeremy

      This. All I hear from anti-union friends is that they had one bad experience and now all unions are terrible.

      • At the same time, hundreds of documented examples of corporate misconduct, outright thievery, etc., will do nothing to change most people’s belief that government is bad and corporate “free enterprise” is an unmitigated good.

        • People, generally, like a hypocritical daddy to tell them what to do.

          Sure, (s)he’s ruthless, uncaring, unprincipled, and would sell them out for just another $1M in bonus compensation, but (s)he does it for everybody’s good in the long run. Rising tide and all that.

          It’s always been class warfare, conditions are better for the average worker when they realize it and engage the fight, and worse when they are suckered into unilaterally disarming.

          The culture war comment is exactly right. It seems as though when unions were representing widespread MIC manufacturing jobs in the average household during the Cold War they were on the right side producing tangible goods that protected America.

          Now that many of the largest unions are for teachers and government workers they are portrayed/perceived as ‘takers’ of tax funds. Starving the beast works just as well for union busting as it does for big government down sizing.

        • tt

          Except most people don’t actually believe this. People don’t like big business, in general, as opinion surveys continuously demonstrate. See for example: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx

          Unions aren’t particularly popular, but they remain more popular than large corporations.

          • Let’s split the abstract of how people respond to a question about their feelings about corporations from how people behave. When they vote and when they vote with their dollars, people support large corporations. It’s like how people have a very low opinion of “congress” but almost always re-elect their congress-creature.

            • Joshua

              Exactly. People may say they are distrustful of giant corporations and large amounts of wealth, but they do business with Wal-Mart and idolize creeps like Donald Trump. They also support the politicians who want to amass more power and wealth into those hands.

              So it doesn’t matter what they tell Gallup.

              • tt
              • NonyNony

                People may say they are distrustful of giant corporations and large amounts of wealth, but they do business with Wal-Mart

                Okay, first of all for large swaths of the country, Wal*Mart is their grocery store and their sundries store. They have no choice – the have to deal with Wal*Mart.

                Second of all, even if you have alternatives that offer the same prices, most of them are almost as bad anyway.

                And third of all, if you have the money to go and support a mom and pop grocery store and a mom and pop general store and whatever else, you’re damn lucky.

                and idolize creeps like Donald Trump.

                Very few people idolize Donald Trump. Though I will grant you that we have a strong case of millionaire worship in this country, and so long as the millionaires keep their mouths shut about their toxic personal opinions, people will idolize them for being successful. We worship success – it’s the dark side of the whole American pragmatism thing that America was famous for in its early days.

                They also support the politicians who want to amass more power and wealth into those hands.

                They support politicians who want to make sure “those people” don’t get more than they do. It isn’t that broad swaths of the country love the fact that rich people are eating their lunch, it’s that broad swaths of the country are fine with rich people eating their lunch so long as the brown people down the street get neither lunch nor breakfast.

                • DrDick

                  This is really important, as in much of small town America, Walmart has driven out most or all of the competition at the low end and other chain retailers have driven out pretty much everyone else. It is all abut price and the big boys can operate on a much lower unit profit margin than a local business can.

            • cpinva

              interestingly, this is especially true, when the issue is “term limits”.

              “It’s like how people have a very low opinion of “congress” but almost always re-elect their congress-creature.”

              when pressed, what they really mean is “term limits” for someone else’s elected official, not their’s.

            • tt

              People don’t vote to support large corporations. People vote for representatives who represent a whole bag of issues. Note that politicians do not brag about their support of large business to win votes (like they do for the military or small business), as you would think they might if it were really true that most people believe that “corporate free enterprise is an unmitigated good” I honestly don’t know which people you know or talk to if you think “most people” believe that (is it most of your acquaintances who believe this or do you assume it of people you don’t know?). The Americans I know–even Republicans/ideological conservatives–are full of stories of the horrors of big business, both from the perspective of the employee and that of the consumer.

              But yes, people buy stuff from large corporations–because a purchase involves many factors other than your feelings for the party you are purchasing from. But there’s a lot of space between “boycott” and “unmitigated good.” Even people who hate unions send their kids to public schools.

    • Charlie Sweatpants

      “Unions are just another front on the culture war for a lot of people.”

      There’s certainly a strong element of the usual political tribalism. I’m not saying the following is universally applicable or anything, and your mileage may vary, but with some very right wing friends I recently had some success with the argument that unions aren’t the worst thing in the world for simple reasons of safety. You don’t want the people at your grocery store or bank to not be able to call in sick; after all, you have to touch and eat things that they touch.

      These people are engineers, so they’re not of the Young Earth set or anything, but that one actually had them nodding a bit. It didn’t change any minds, of course, and we mercifully we got the conversation off politics quickly, but as someone long accustomed to hitting a brick wall against friends and family who are staunch Reds, it was unusual.

      • Joshua

        It’s not just right wingers. I know a lot of people on the left who see themselves as Galtian heroes who don’t want to be “tied down” to a union. They say, in so many words, that unions would just hamstring their career by lumping them in with “mediocrities.”

        You see this sentiment a lot amongst techie types, even ones who are otherwise very liberal. It’s an idea that union jobs are inferior, lower class.

        • Bruce Vail

          Yes, I have seen this attitude up close at two different companies where I worked. There was a real class distinction — the middle-class college-educated employees felt they could succeed on their own merits, while the union existed for the benefit of the blue-collar (and pink-collar) plebes.

          • Linnaeus

            To riff on this point a bit, I think this class distinction was made more evident in the response to offshoring/outsourcing in white-collar technical jobs that became an issue in the last 5-10 years. When said offshoring/outsourcing was happening in industries that employed a predominantly blue-collar workforce 30-40 years ago, the response was that that was the workings of the market and the workers displaced just had to adapt, get smarter and do something else. When it happened to the white-collar techie folks, well, then it was a problem that we had to do something about.

          • Anna in PDX

            This is how it works at my place of employment; union membership is decided by position and those who are in “nonrep” positions generally feel superior to those who are represented. My department decided to unionize as a department and it was a big struggle largely because of this mindset, but we won and now all positions in our dept are represented and we just negotiated a three yr contract. One of the first benefits is that the overall org “froze” wages and we and those lowly positions are the only people to receive a 3.1% COLA?

    • Chuchundra

      Yes, go ahead, dismiss and ridicule the legitimate complaints of the exact people you’re trying to reach. Then go ahead and wonder why more workers don’t want to join up.

      I’ve been in the workforce for over twenty five years and my personal experience with unions, both as a member a union and a non-union worker working with unionized groups, has been almost universally negative.

      Despite all that, I generally support the cause of unionization, at least in principle, but it would be nice if the ultra-pro-union contingent would acknowledge that part of the decline of union power in this country is their own damn fault.

  • Bruce Vail

    Time magazine, eh?

    I wonder how many union members are among the 500 people who had their jobs eliminated today?

  • bobbyp

    This country has gotten to today’s level of inequality because, ironically, those who work for a living think like atomized individuals while those who hire for a living organize collectively to rig policy in their favor.

    As they say around here, “This”. Wise words for good liberals who worship at the feet of meritocracy and fall for simple nostrums such as, “equal opportunities, not equal outcomes.”

  • J R in W. Va.

    My family owned a small business, working in areas that involved unionized tasks.

    My Grandfather resisted unionization, but instead of fighting and dispute, he paid above union scale to his senior workers. They weren’t inclined to insist on a union contract, since they were getting paid as well as the folks in union shops, plus they were given respect by the management, my Grand Dad, uncles and parents.

    When I married a union girl, my folks had a hard time with that. I pointed out that my Dad worked for the family business, and lucked into a role that precluded his management from being interfered with by the rest of the family. My wife, on the other hand, worked for a large organization that typically placed people with no management experience or training in charge of local offices across the country.

    So they came to understand that people who worked for SOBs needed to organize and to protect themselves from the things that SOBs tended to do to their employees.

    I was lucky enough to work in a high-tech field that made it easy for me to move from unpleasant managers to work for people who respected my skills, and whom I in turn could respect. Also, Civil Service helps, also too.

    I was technically a union menber most of my career, although there was never a binding union contract with my employer. But there was legal support if you needed it, and the unions made sure the civil service protections weren’t just window-dressing.

    If it wasn’t for unions, there wouldn’t be a 40 hour work week, nor weekends, nor vacations, nor health-care. People would work until they dropped dead, just as it was in the 1800s and early 1900s. If you don’t know that this is historical truth, then you are shy of historical education.

    In West Virginia there was a big industrial construction project, to build a dam, and run a tunnel under a mountain for the water gathered by the dam for hydro-electric power generation. Once they started the tunnel, the company learned that the rock they were drilling through was valuable for industrial processes.

    They widened the tunnel to extract more silica, and they didn’t use the water spray available for the drills, because it slowed the work. As a result, hundreds, perhaps thousands of workers died of silicosis, many were buried without markers in the dumps where plain waste rock was dumped. Look up the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster.

    A deliberate murder of hard working men for profit. They knew about silicosis, and that their rock was pure silica. They knew the water spray to dampen the dust would prevent the disease, but it cost them a nickel more, so they let the men die like flies.

    We don’t need unions. They just protect lazy workers. Yeah, right. Tell me another one!!

    • sharculese

      If it wasn’t for unions, there wouldn’t be a 40 hour work week, nor weekends, nor vacations, nor health-care. People would work until they dropped dead, just as it was in the 1800s and early 1900s. If you don’t know that this is historical truth, then you are shy of historical education.

      Oh look, it’s the beginning and end of everything that needs to be said about unions*, in one succinct and eloquent paragraph.

      *statement not intended to actually excuse people from getting educated on the history of labor

      • J R in W. Va.

        Oh look, everything you need to know about unions in 9 words:

        “A deliberate murder of hard working men for profit.”

        • DrDick

          As a proud fourth (or more) generation union man, I heartily endorse all of this.

  • sharculese

    On the subject of unions refusing to work, the first that was drilled into me by the guy who taught me to do theater construction was ‘never do anything that is not spelled out in your job description, or they’ll assume they can take advantage of you and everyone like you.’

    And before I left theater, I worked for some shoestring organizations where I broke that rule because I believed in what they were doing, and I would do anything to see them succeed. (and of course, everyone else there agreed, and the TD was along side us doing the same bullshit). But for assholes with money, I obeyed it absolutely, because that was the best possible advice I could have been given.

  • cpinva

    ford announced it’s recent profit sharing bonuses today, the largest in the company’s history. the average per worker is $8,300 which, as noted by several economists, will have a projected “ripple” effect of approx. $21,000, in the local economies. i could be wrong, but i’m going to go out on a limb, and guess that profit sharing plan came about as the result of collective bargaining, between the UAW, and ford, not as the result of great magnaminity, on the part of ford’s management.

    unions, like any other organization, have a diverse quality of membership, some really, really good, some really, really bad, but on average, ok. however, union members are kind of funny, about matters such as safety. if another union member is doing something, that puts others at risk, management generally doesn’t need to say a thing, the union steward will take that person aside, and stress the importance of following safety rules. if that doesn’t work, that person will be gone in short order.

  • Dave

    The real trouble with American Unions is that nobody sees them as a vehicle to develop a social democracy. Even in a dreamworld of greater union influence, there’s no appreciation of the possibilities of movement, no political momentum, just capital and labour, standing there punching each other in the face, for ever….

    • rea

      Well, the purpose of unions is not to develope social democracy, wahtever that is. The purpose of unions is to give the workers greater bargaining power in dealing with the employers over terms and conditions of employment. And it does not have to be a matter of “capital and labour, standing there punching each other in the face”–short-term profit by immiseration of workers is not going to be in capital’s long-term interests. Henry Ford, for all his many faults, at least understood that you have to pay your workers enough so that they can become your customers. The world needs better, smarter capitalists . . .

      • Linnaeus

        Well, the purpose of unions is not to develope social democracy

        No, it’s not their express purpose, but what they do can help create and support social democracy.

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