Union fights and fiscal shortages continue to dominate the news cycle for the second straight week. This has led to a national conversation about unions, their practices, and workers’ rights in a modern economy. I’ve been thinking for some time that unions have not been effective, at least by the current model. Turns out Andy Stern, Mr. Union himself, has also been thinking along those same lines. It’s certainly fair in light of these current events to examine our rhetoric on unions and ask ourselves whether or not they have outlived their usefulness.
The pro-union arguments of today are vast and varied, but typically fall under three categories: Unions protect workers; unions have a trickle-down effect on the job market; and, every right workers enjoy today they owe to unions. Let’s examine these in detail, shall we?
Unions protect workers.
This is a debatable point. Once upon a time it was demonstrably true, but the unions of yesterday worked hard (in a world with different realities, it’s worth mentioning) to lobby for laws that required humane treatment for workers. Lunch breaks, short breaks, the minimum wage, a process of discipline that must be recorded, protection for medical issues, maternity leave, and attractive benefits packages are all the result of hard work by the unions of yesterday.
But we live in today, not yesterday, and we have those protections thanks to those laws. While it’s true that unions worked to achieve all of that, it is also true that unions have not always (and are not always today) the best friend of workers. Union intimidation is a fact of our history, one that continues today. That intimidation may be turned on the employer and employee alike, depending on what the union wants. In the case of employee intimidation, the idea that workers are protected from unions is turned on its head.
In addition, there is the question of just how much protection is provided someone who does not want to join a union, but must pay dues nonetheless because the workplace is unionized. A tremendous amount of resentment has been built up toward unions over this practice. Union leaders argue that their ability to collectively bargain depends on the assistance of every employee, but that argument is counter-intuitive to the American mindset, which has been predicated on the notions of freedom and choice. The fact of forced union dues is anathema to Democratic principles as the public understands them.
The imbalanced partisanship of unions also puts workers at risk. The largely Democratic partisanship of unions hurts workers, especially when Republicans are in control. The current state of affairs demonstrates that amply. But despite the desire of many on the left, Republicans and conservatives aren’t going away, and they will capture power in cycles, as they have always done. This is the reality of our system of government. We continue to oscillate back and forth between political parties that are characterized by either a desire to advance too slowly for some, or too quickly for others. Our system is designed to balance these two human impulses, to create a fair way for everybody to get some of what they want. When unions align with one side and demonize the other, they risks making unions a target when the side they demonize is in power.
But the partisanship hasn’t recently been an effective strategy for unions on the Democratic side, either, as demonstrated by the spectacular failure of a Democratic-dominated Congress to pass unions’ signature piece of legislation, Card Check.
Unions have a trickle-down effect. Continue reading