In Defense of Labor Unions

image-20150324-17672-1azzmd0

Though unions have greatly shaped the United States throughout much of the 20th century but have fallen out of favor in recent years. While in the 1950s about 1 in 4 workers were unionized, today only 1 in 10 and that number is declining fast. Unions have lost a lot of their power due to things like outsourcing, right to work laws, negative economic conditions, special interests, companies prohibiting them, or other factors. Not to mention, there isn’t a very favorable attitude toward them either for they’ve been blamed for taking away jobs, hurting the economy, or inconveniencing the populace. Some say that unions have served their purpose and aren’t needed anymore. However, as we all remember Scott Walker’s attempt to strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights and fast food worker strikes, many Americans don’t really want to see them go away. In fact, perhaps labor unions are still as relevant as ever today and actually do help this country.

Here's a German painting of a bunch of guys working in a foundry during the 19th century. Notice how there's no attention being paid to workplace safety. Also, imagine doing this work 6 days a week at 16 hours a day for less than minimum wage.

Here’s a German painting of a bunch of guys working in a foundry during the 19th century. Notice how there’s no attention being paid to workplace safety. Also, imagine doing this work 6 days a week at 16 hours a day for less than minimum wage.

1. Unions help create better jobs.

Regardless of what detractors may say, unions don’t really take away jobs since mass unemployment is one of the things unions always seek to avoid. It’s usually business management who does since they usually make the decisions whether it’s in the name of profits or power. Sure unions were probably part of the reason why many American industries moved operations overseas for cheaper labor, but not all jobs can be outsourced, especially service jobs. Even so, most jobs in today’s market aren’t unionized but many aren’t very desirable either with long hours, low wages, no room for advancement, not much safety or benefits, and are held for a rather short time. Of course, while businesses may like cheap and expendable workforces, but job seekers and workers do not. Workers don’t like such labor because it gives them little control over their lives and keeps them on the brink of economic instability. Job seekers don’t like them because it gives them more competition in an uncertain job market where obtaining a job can be more trouble than it’s worth. Recent college graduates have it the worst since many job listings have certain specifications that they may not be able to fulfill. However, this doesn’t mean that young people don’t have the skills to be productive citizens, it’s because the pool of job seekers is too big and employers are a very picky bunch and want an employee who’s already tailor made as well as with job experience. Still, though I’m not sure organized labor may make job seekers’ lives any easier, they do create better jobs and history proves it. Unions have helped make many crummy low wage, hazardous, and long hour jobs into decently paid eight-hour a day jobs with workplace safety, overtime pay, health benefits, personal leave, holidays, pensions, and workman’s comp. Jobs like these are very desirable and reduce turnovers and layoffs which may help reduce competition among job seekers since not many people are as desperate to find one. A job is only low wage not because the work is easier but because low wages are only arbitrary values set by employers. We should also understand that Costco employees work the same jobs as anyone else in the retail sector, yet they are treated much better than other retail workers. Thus, low wages often reflect not what the job entails, but the values of the employer.

In the early 20th century, the US experienced some of the deadliest industrial disasters in history. On March 25, 1911, a scrap bin fire at New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would lead to the deaths of 146 people because the owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent theft. This would lead to growth in unionization for garment workers as well as improved safety standards.

In the early 20th century, the US experienced some of the deadliest industrial disasters in history. On March 25, 1911, a scrap bin fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would lead to the deaths of 146 people because the owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent theft. This would lead to growth in unionization for garment workers as well as improved safety standards.

2. Unions help check and hold employers accountable.

While unions help improve workers’ lives, they also help check and hold employers accountable as well as serve as a middle man in workplace and labor relations. A unionized workplace gives employers incentive to treat their workers decently, helps set workplace standards, limit unfair labor practices, and does all it can to ensure that workers receive a fair deal. As a political lobby, they call for legal incentives in order to assure worker’s rights are recognized by law and that employers should observe them. Without unions, many employers would simply get away with treating workers like crap as well as run his or her business with little account to them. And for many years, workers have suffered in the name of profit. Sure there may be companies like Costco who provide their employees with a living wage and benefits, but they’re not the norm in the service industry or any non-unionized industry. Before many blue collar work places had unions like the coal mines and steel industry, it wasn’t unusual for workers to be paid shitty wages and treated like crap. And when these workers finally got the salary, hours, and benefits they wanted, it wasn’t because the management was trying to be nice to them. Then there’s the fact low income workers in non-unionized workplaces are especially prone to becoming victims of wage theft (especially undocumented immigrants), in which employers deny their workers their wages and benefits rightfully owed like minimum wage violations, overtime pay, employee miscalculation, illegal deductions, working off the clock, or not being paid at all. In the US, wage theft is very severe, widespread, and costs the country $40-$60 billion each year which is more than how much money the country loses due to robbery ($340 million), burglary ($1.4 billion), larceny ($5.3 billion), and auto theft ($3.8 billion) as of 2012. This is a crime but because these workers aren’t allowed to form unions due to company policy, a lot of wage theft goes undetected and laws against it aren’t often enforced. And even if workers do win their cases on wage theft, they usually don’t receive a dime of what they’re owed by the employers. Unions can be effective in deterring wage theft since they tend to go on strike over such incidences.

Here's a rough list of what labor unions have done for American workers. Sure unions may represent special interests, yet their interests tend to benefit practically everyone.

Here’s a rough list of what labor unions have done for American workers. Sure unions may represent special interests, yet their interests tend to benefit practically everyone.

3. Unions help promote the democratic process as and 1st Amendment rights.

While unions may be corrupt, they nevertheless serve as a powerful lobbying voice for a major demographic that couldn’t afford a lobbyist otherwise. For years labor unions have always provided a political voice to the common man as well as helped lobby for legislation in favor of ordinary people. In fact, worker’s rights has always been a special interest to unions, which affects most Americans. In the workplace, unions give workers a voice in major workplace decisions as well as protects workers’ 1st Amendment rights relating to their professional lives. If workers feel they’re being treated unfairly they can talk to each other, address their grievances, negotiate a compromise, or go on strike if employers still won’t listen. In many ways, unions help promote the democratic process in both government and in the business world since they stand for a worker’s right to be treated with dignity and respect. Not to mention, they also lobby for a worker’s right to self-govern which is a very American value indeed. Besides, while unions may be identified to the political left, they are probably the closest thing in the K Street lobbying world that best represents the interests of most Americans, especially after Citizens United when most lobbies and corporations don’t. This goes to even non-union members as well as those who oppose them and that’s why having non-union members pay dues in a unionized workplace makes sense. In fact, a lot of their campaigns might pertain to measures like raising the minimum wage, protecting migrant farm workers, mandated paid leave, and other policies designed to help even the lowest earning workers. They even campaigned for policies advancing civil rights for women and minorities as well as protecting the environment. And within companies, unions area powerful, sophisticated player concerned with more than just the next quarters profits at shareholders’ meetings.

Famed union organizer Walter Reuther understood the value unions had in the American economy. When asked how he'd planned to get his men to pay union dues while being shown automated production lines at Ford, Reuther replied, "How do you plan to get them to buy your cars?"

Famed union organizer Walter Reuther understood the value unions had in the American economy. When asked how he’d planned to get his men to pay union dues while being shown automated production lines at Ford, Reuther replied, “How do you plan to get them to buy your cars?”

4. Unions greatly contribute to the economy equality and promote economic activity.

Since unions help create and expand the middle class, they also help decrease income inequality and generate activity in the modern consumer economy. Unionized workers earn more money than their non-union counterparts as well as likely to spend more. The middle class has always played a critical role in a nation’s economy and the US is no exception. Higher earning workers make good consumers since they have more disposable income as well as a great demand for products. And the bigger the middle class, the more consumers there are, the more money businesses make, and the better the economy. Also, higher incomes provide governments with more tax revenues.

As far as non-union workplaces go, Wal Mart has become the poster child of workplace violations as well as paying its employees poverty level wages. It's said that Wal Mart's low wages cost US taxpayers about $1.5 billion a year since the retail giant has a lot of workers on public assistance.

As far as non-union workplaces go, Wal Mart has become the poster child of workplace violations as well as paying its employees poverty level wages. It’s said that Wal Mart’s low wages cost US taxpayers about $1.5 billion a year since the retail giant has a lot of workers on public assistance.

5. Unions save taxpayer money.

Of course, in 21st century America social programs are a mainstay, yet many on government assistance have also been bashed as lazy unemployed freeloaders or drug addicts (personally I’d rather have my tax dollars go to some worthless bum’s government assistance payment than corporate subsidies.) Sure there maybe a few freeloaders among welfare recipients but the public assistance pool is pretty diverse group including the disabled, children, veterans, mentally ill, elderly, chronically ill, and even the working poor. Such public assistance is greatly limited and only provides short term aid. Now the working poor are a pretty unlucky bunch who are probably more likely to end up on public assistance than anyone else in the workforce. They are also more likely to work for an employer prohibiting unionization like Wal Mart as well as have a low paying job with terrible conditions and awful labor practices. Though many conservatives don’t like public assistance programs or unionism, many fail to realize that bad labor practices can cost taxpayers millions, especially if there’s no labor union to challenge them. Low wage workers aren’t just least likely to support themselves and families, they are also more prone to on the job injuries resulting in disability or death, develop work-related health problems which may become serious if left untreated, unemployment, and other things. In many ways the working poor are either welfare cases or welfare cases waiting to happen (including those with dependents). And to some workers, government assistance may be the only option since employers may not listen to demands or maybe even fire someone for whatever reason, especially when it comes to forming a union. A company like Wal Mart is notorious for shifting it’s labor burdens on the taxpayer which isn’t fair for anyone. Since unions help clamp down on bad labor practices, they also help save taxpayer money.

Here is a diagram on the difference being part of a union makes at work. Since union workers are protected under legal contract, they aren't liable to as many workplace abuses as their non-union counterparts. Whereas if a non-union worker is unfairly treated, there is nothing they can do.

Here is a diagram on the difference being part of a union makes at work. Since union workers are protected under legal contract, they aren’t liable to as many workplace abuses as their non-union counterparts. Whereas if a non-union worker is unfairly treated, there is nothing they can do.

6. Unions give workers more control of their lives.

Not only do unions help create a middle class as well as provides a voice for workers, they also allow workers better control of their lives even beyond the confines of their job. Bad labor practices can hurt families and ruin a person’s life. And it’s not unusual for a low wage earner to take more than one job which can result in more time away from home, coming in sick, sending sick kids to school, or leaving them unsupervised from hours on end. Low wage jobs don’t give workers enough to live on or even any room for social mobility. In fact, many of low wage workers live in poverty as well as have their kids suffer the same fate. In many respects, bad labor practices can have long term consequences for not only workers but workers’ families. And in many respects, unionization has helped many kids from working families go to college. Not only that, but since unions give workers leverage against their employer, workers not only can collectively bargain for higher wages as well as know how much each worker owns, but also go to their managers with safety concerns or ideas to improve efficiency and know that they’ll not only get a hearing, but also be protected from possible reprisals.

Wal Mart is notorious non-union workplace which is known to face class action lawsuits every year amounting to millions of dollars. This has given them a very infamous reputation in the field of labor relations. This is especially when the retail giant decided to open on Thanksgiving. And since it's the leading retailer, many stores ended following suit.

Wal Mart is notorious non-union workplace which is known to face class action lawsuits every year amounting to millions of dollars. This has given them a very infamous reputation in the field of labor relations. This is especially when the retail giant decided to open on Thanksgiving. And since it’s the leading retailer, many stores ended following suit.

7. Unions help companies and businesses.

Since unions crack down on bad labor practices, they also help their workplaces in many ways. For one, they make the workplace a much cleaner and safer environment for both workers and consumers alike. Paid sick leave can help keep a worker’s illness from infecting not only their peers but also customers. And paid sick leave for a sick child can prevent other kids from getting sick as well. Unions also help employers by not just giving them consumers but also save money on fighting lawsuits as well as gives them a better reputation. A business with good labor standards not only makes consumers more willing to buy from them, but also makes employees happier working for them, may be even proud. I mean look at Costco’s reputation is much better than Wal Mart’s for this reason. Of course, Costco doesn’t have unions either but it certainly wouldn’t be the company it is if unions never existed.

This is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Some time ago, Brady was implicated in Deflategate and the NFL charged him with a 4 game suspension. Brady appealed to the NFLPA (which is the players' union) and got that suspension removed by order from a federal court. Yes, I know this is a terrible example of unions at work. However, if people think unions are either outdated or bad, then why do unions for people like Tom Brady exist?

This is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Some time ago, Brady was implicated in Deflategate and the NFL charged him with a 4 game suspension. Brady appealed to the NFLPA (which is the players’ union) and got that suspension removed by order from a federal court. Yes, I know this is a terrible example of unions at work. However, if people think unions are either outdated or bad, then why do unions for people like Tom Brady exist?

8. Professional athletes and movie stars have unions.

I know that many people associate unionism with teachers and blue collar workers. However, we should understand that unionism isn’t just confined to the public sector or blue collar jobs that don’t earn a lot of money. For instance, professional athletes have their own union like the NFLPA that helped New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady get out of a 4 game suspension after he implicated in the Deflategate scandal. People in show business also have unions like the Screen Actors Guild whose most famous president was Ronald Reagan at one point. Now neither group is economically in dire straits, but they have union representation nevertheless. That’s because no matter how rich you are, if you’re working for someone, sometimes policies won’t be in your favor. So if rich people feel they need unions, maybe their poorer counterparts feel the same way. Besides, even the most conservative union members wouldn’t want to get rid of theirs.

Here's a satirical cartoon making fun of union opposition. However, it makes a good point on how business don't like certain policies that unions advocate. Then there's the fact that companies don't want to pay extra costs to protect and make them happy or deal with strikes.

Here’s a satirical cartoon making fun of union opposition. However, it makes a good point on how business don’t like certain policies that unions advocate. Then there’s the fact that companies don’t want to pay extra costs to protect and make them happy or deal with strikes.

9. Anti-Unionism is all about big business wanting more power and control over their labor force.

In recent years, Unionism has been on the decline for 2 reasons. First, a lot of blue collar paying jobs were lost during the 1980s, many of which had union representation. Second, many people in the private sector work for big corporations that simply won’t allow them. It’s very well known that big business doesn’t like unions and calls them obstructionists. Yes, unions may have their faults and might inconvenience people. However, I always think that the reason why many workplaces in the country prohibit workers from unionizing has more to do with them wanting more power and control over their workforce than anything else. And if it’s not the workplaces, then it’s free market conservatives who think that corporations having free reign is best for the economy (when in reality, it’s not). For instance, a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee was prevented from unionizing by the state legislature, not management. Sure they want to hire and fire whoever they want. But they also want to control their employees’ hours and only want to pay them as much as it takes to keep them there. Passage of so-called “right to work” laws aimed at curbing union influence, have led to decreased wages and increased poverty rates in several US states. And it’s clear that these laws weren’t aimed to benefit workers but large corporations seeking more power and control of their labor force.

Nearly have the states in the US have "Right to Work" laws in which non-union members don't have to pay union dues in a unionized workplace. Yet, these laws minimize union power as well as lead to devastating consequences such as lower wages, higher uninsurance rates, higher poverty rates, and more workplace fatalities.

Nearly have the states in the US have “Right to Work” laws in which non-union members don’t have to pay union dues in a unionized workplace. Yet, these laws minimize union power as well as lead to devastating consequences such as lower wages, higher health uninsurance rates, higher poverty rates, and more workplace fatalities. Such factors can have devastating consequences not only for the workers, but also for their families (especially children) and communities.

10. The benefits of unions extend to workers’ families and improve society.

While unions may have their faults, we have to acknowledge the fact that they’ve helped not just the workers themselves but also their families, their descendants, and society as a whole. For instance, before many of these blue collar jobs were unionized, it wasn’t unusual for workers to begin their jobs as children after dropping out of school. In fact, it was a very common thing, especially with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Just ask none other than Charles Dickens who wrote extensively on child labor and why it was a really terrible thing. Why? Because even though their parents might work 12-16 hour days, they could never earn enough money to support their family. Not to mention, a lot of these jobs were dangerous and could put a family in economic disaster because there was no compensation or safety standards. Even when public education was available, it wasn’t always compulsory and a lot of poor kids tended to drop out if their parents’ paychecks couldn’t cover the rent or in the event of a family emergency. And it was because these children were put to work at an early age, they were denied a basic education and the economic opportunities that came with it. So they ended suffering the same fate as their parents. Unions have been very instrumental in curbing child labor in blue collar industries since they gave adult workers leverage so their workplaces would provide them a fair wage, benefits, an 8-hour day, workman’s comp, and medical leave as well as observe workplace safety standards. Such measures not only made workers’ lives easier, but they also allowed children to go to school and stay there as well as focus on their schoolwork so they’d excel and perhaps get into a good college so they can have better opportunities. Now this didn’t necessarily happen overnight. But it’s a major reason why cities like Pittsburgh managed to bounce back after what happened to the steel industry in the 1980s (though I admit that some industrial areas in the Rust Belt haven’t been so lucky like Detroit. But even in those places, things could’ve been worse). Still, when you’re in such cities like Pittsburgh, you’ll find a lot of professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and what not who had ancestors who were coal miners, mill workers, and factory workers. Sure they may say that some of them achieved success by hard work which certainly fits into the equation. However, if their blue collar ancestors didn’t pressure their bosses to unionize they would not be where they are today. Yet, though unions have made the world a decent, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer needed. In the US, we should be reminded time and time again that a parent’s life at work has a profound effect on a child’s progress in school, the quality of their education, life in their neighborhood, and even their health. That is still very much the reality today as it was back in the Gilded Age since a lot of service industry parents work minimum wage jobs, sometimes more than one. A child whose parents work at Sam’s Club is never going to have the same opportunities and quality life than one whose parents work at Costco, despite that both sets have the same job with the same responsibilities. However, we must understand that the Costcos in this world are a rarity and most companies have never been so accommodating to their workers. If most workers in the service industry want those Costco benefits so their kids could have better lives, then unionization might be the only thing possible for them to accomplish that.

Here's a picture of children working at a factory back in the day mostly because their parents work starvation wages and long hours. Since unions helped curbed child labor, be glad you don't have this. Or at least at Gilded Age capacity.

Here’s a picture of children working at a factory back in the day mostly because their parents work starvation wages and long hours. Since unions helped curbed child labor, be glad you don’t have this. Or at least at Gilded Age capacity.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s