Have Unions Outlived their Usefulness?

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.

A quote from Riverdaughter’s post explains this argument. It also presents a perfect example of what the public objects to in the argument.

I get pissed off by stupid comments like this.  What’s worse?  That Wisconsinites don’t seem to realize that what unions do has a trickle down effect on nonunion workers or that media sources like the NYTimes provide so many quotes from these dunderheads?  I mean, do we really need more ignorance cluttering up our media?

First is the argument: Unions make sure private sector wages stay apace with the modern economy by setting the bar for pay and benefits packages. It is true that union employees on average earn more than their private sector counter-parts, and pay less for benefits, facts touted by some unions. However, these findings obscure the reality that for several decades now union wages have almost always fallen (pdf) relative to a growing disequilibrium between union and private sector workers. So in reality, private sector employees make sure union wages stay apace with the modern economy, not the other way around.

In addition to the fact that it’s demonstrably untrue, the argument suffers from serious cognitive dissonance when considered in the larger political frame of unions, which are largely aligned with Democrats, and our history. The trickle-down effect was, recall, first articulated by Republican President Ronald Reagan and vociferously opposed by Democrats and their supporters. The idea was that policies that benefitted the wealthy—that increased their wealth—would trickle down in benefits to those with less. Even now you will hear the term used with derision amongst the more rabid partisans of the left. The argument—minus the derision—that trickle-down economics does not work is correct, as history proves. But now we are to believe that it does work for unions?

The arrogance of the presentation only serves to further alienate those who genuinely desire an honest conversation about unions in America today. People are never convinced by name-calling (cows) or the accusation that they are too stupid to know what’s best for them.

Every worker’s right you value you owe to a union.

That may very well be true, but it has no bearing on whether or not unions still serve a just purpose. They are not historical buildings or national treasures worth protecting at just about any cost. Acknowledging that unions once served a great purpose and helped build an ethical system of working conditions in our nation may be enough. With little left to accomplish in that regard, unions are no longer in the business of proposing and supporting workers’ rights legislation; rather, having made serious gains, they have turned their attention instead to pro-union legislation, like card-check.

Finally, along similar dissociated lines in the current conversation is the argument that unions didn’t cause these fiscal issues, the implication being the question So, why should they pay? There is some legitimate question as to whether they had a role in it as a result of muscular pension bargaining and an unsustainable commitment to defined benefits.  Even if this were not the case, it would be fair to ask public unions at the very least to sacrifice some of a system of benefits that is taxing the system. It may be fair to say that business and the rich should pay their fair share, but that is not a rational response to the question of whether sacrifices should be made. Sacrifices have to be made, or life as we know it will change dramatically.

We need only to look at Greece and Ireland to see our future if we fail to collectively sacrifice. The belief that the United States is exempt from such a fate is not a belief grounded in reality.

None of this is meant to suggest that workers don’t need protection, or that unifying in common cause is a bad idea. But perhaps it’s time to re-think the usefulness of the current model of unions. As I’ve said before, I long for a system that protects the rights of a broader range of workers, something that is more sympathetic to the financial realities of workers, and embraces a smarter political vision that can attract bipartisan support. I don’t think I’m alone in those desires.


3 comments on “Have Unions Outlived their Usefulness?

  1. WMCB says:

    Excellent piece. Institutions change over time, and the purposes they served once are not always the purposes they serve now. Because it is my nature, looking at history, to be wary of accumulations of power (whatever the source) I have become somewhat wary of unions, despite my support of their intended function in theory. I become even more wary when I see one vast accumulation of power becoming inextricably linked to another accumulation of power. That is true for the govt/corporate nexus, and the govt/union nexus as well. Accumulation of power breeds abuse and overreach. I’ve never seen it happen otherwise, in all of history.

    That’s not to say that I want them gone. I don’t. But a rational conversation needs to be had about the changing dynamic in a modern society, and adjustments made to those realities. The unions need to adapt. I predict that if the unions are not willing to do that, then anti-union sentiment will grow. Because at the moment, they are coming across to the public as a VERY powerful entity interested primarily in their own influence, position as mover and shaker, and political bennies.

    Maybe those so vehemently defending any and all unions as the untouchable “little guys” speaking truth to power ought to question WHY the public no longer shares that simplistic view of unions. Because they used to do so. Is it because the public is now venal and selfish and “deceived”? Or could it perhaps be because unions have become a facet of “The Man” in their own right? It’s laughable that one can have the prestige, money, perks, and power that union leaders enjoy – visiting and consulting regularly with the whitehouse, spending more billions to sway elections than the banks and oil companies combined, etc, and in the next breath try to pass yourself off as poor besieged underdog.

    The public is neither stupid nor buying it. Some honesty is in order if unions, esp govt unions, wish to survive. If they do not, a good portion of the blame for that will lie at their own feet. The public reaction, agree with it or not, will be entirely predictable.

  2. Lola-at-Large says:

    Excellent response, WMCB. I admit to playing a little coy with the title, because I don’t support union abolition or anything. But I do think we need to think past the partisanship and try to grapple with the larger dynamics at hand, which you articulated so well: public perception and the power axis’, among others. Unless we’re willing to ask these kinds of questions, we will never be able to break through defensiveness on either side, let alone find workable solutions for everyone.

    I was amazed by the Andy Stern interview, quite frankly. He was discussing the idea of European-style Work Councils that included both union and nonunion members. I want to know more about ideas like that, because they actually work in tandem with American ideals and conventions, such as choice and inclusion. One of the reasons that unions have lost so much public support is because they have been seen as trying to a) speak for all workers, even those who don’t want them to and b) sought to preserve their privilege over that of nonunion workers. That might seem at odds, and it is, and it’s this cognitive dissonance between the message and the action that has contributed to erosion of support. Sure, a well-oiled PR machine on the right–as is their right–helped, but they have done themselves no favors either.

  3. ralphb says:

    Glad you did this piece. It’s the question that really should be asked and answered, but won’t.

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