Labor unions have come under fire in the news recently.  Opinions seem to fall pretty clearly as expected, along party lines.  Today’s joint post is by jmb275 and hawkgrrrl.

jmb275:  Personally, I’m not a big fan of unions. I don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs. Essentially you end up with a stagnant workforce who is unmotivated to succeed, but has power to bankrupt the company.

hawkgrrrl:  I agree with you on this topic.  Collective bargaining is ostensibly the benefit, but in reality, unions are another business, and they are in the business of taking money from the workers and slowing down business to force the hand of management (which demonstrates their value – if they don’t influence, they lose power).  They only thrive under certain conditions:  1) when businesses are too short-sighted to see the impacts of poor working conditions and high attrition rates, 2) when employees are not smart enough to get their needs met any other way (e.g. through more direct collective bargaining), or 3) when industries have a legacy of being dominated by unions.

hawkgrrrl:  What employees sometimes fail to realize is that once they unionize, the union is nearly impossible to get rid of.  It’s like a golem to solve your problems (the Jewish monster).  Unions often rely on low-brow intimidation tactics like putting a large inflatable rat in the parking lot to discourage workers from working with “management,” even if management is inclined to work with the employees.  Once a union enters the picture, the discussion is over.  I question whether there is a place for unions in a meritocratic society.

jmb275Clearly, the upshot is that by collective bargaining people have the power to disallow abuse from the corporation. This is certainly important, otherwise we leave it to the gov’t (which I do not endorse). But I think it has to be balanced against the union itself becoming so large as to be abusive and diminishing the quality of work produced.

jmb275:  I think it’s one of the few places in our capitalistic society in which corporations really can be held to the fire (which ends up being both good and bad). I think for the most part, at least regarding the big unions it ends up bankrupting and crippling companies and industries in general (think auto industry and public education sector). Additionally, you get shoddy products (or in the case of education you get pathetic teaching) because of lack of motivation to succeed. I’m particularly saddened by the state of public education in our country, and I think much of the blame rests squarely with teachers’ unions and the roadblock to progress they create.

hawkgrrrl:   The Wisconsin thing – well, I think it’s a little more complicated when you work for the government anyway.  Honestly, government work is just as bad IMO as unions at discouraging productivity and eliminating performance incentives.  There’s a real old school mindset at play there that rewards tenure over performance and believes work is a right regardless of economic factors, quality of output, and individual performance.  And I agree with you that it’s based on valuing wealth redistribution rather than meritocracy.

jmb275:  As usual people would rather trade liberty (or more aptly the ability to really succeed and innovate) for security. To me, it seems like in the effort to make things “equal” (which is a myth anyway) they crush the ability to become better (halting progress).

hawkgrrrl:  I’ve also been reading Tony Blair’s book, and he talks about how he worked to change the Labour party to New Labour.  He was alarmed to discover that many in the party were set on wealth redistribution and resented the fact that when the working class had equal access to opportunity, they strove to be middle class through meritocracy.  Meritocracy was ingrained in people, something that many in the Labour party were blind to.  Redistribution of wealth just doesn’t resonate for the recipients – people want a leg up, fair opportunity, not equal outcomes.  They don’t want to be unfairly disadvantaged, but once you eliminate the unfair disadvantages, they want to enter the game and play like everyone else.

jmb275:  Personally, I would prefer a more libertarian approach in which employees were more willing to seek out employers who met their expectations. This incentivizes employers to be generous and fair with employees and shifts the burden of responsibility to the employee. In general in our society I think we have lost track of what it means to express our disagreement or agreement by means of our work or pocketbook.
hawkgrrrl:  I just watched the film Made in Debenham about the female auto workers in Britain in the 1960s who fought for equal pay. Their company had classed their work as “unskilled” so they could pay them a fraction of what men made.  The female labour secretary was cautioned not to listen to them because it would only give credence to their argument.  She retorted (I’m paraphrasing):  “Their argument is just.  Equal pay for equal work.  I do not give their argument credence.  Their argument has credence.”  In the movie, the union guy is just playing both sides:  patronizing the female workers, but selling them out behind the scenes.  This is why the women workers finally take matters into their own hands to organize and work with the Labour Secretary to resolve the issue.  While they did work together (collective bargaining), they did so despite the union in that case, not because of it.
jmb275: I am currently in a situation in which many of my coworkers are attempting to form a union similar to the one some of our colleagues have. They trumpet the “collective bargaining” chip, pointing to perceived injustices that allegedly a few have experienced in return for all of us paying yearly dues. Of course they would have to employ full-time workers for our newly formed union. I’m left wondering what the benefit is for me personally in exchange for my dues, and also where all the injustices are. As far as I can tell, my employer works pretty dang hard to ensure I’m happy and provides me with a large number of resources for recourse, etc. There are a lot of people who would give their left arm to have my job.
hawkgrrrl:  I have a lot of smart friends who disagree with us.  For the record, I have an even demographic split between GOP and Dems in my FB friendships; however, I think the Dems are up later at night.  I threw out a quick poll on FB asking “For or against unions and why?,” and here’s what some of them had to say:
  • “As long as the union keeps the best interest of the employees in mind. I’m for them in our industry. The problem is some them especially the IAM are for themselves.  I’m for them because we have no say in decisions that affect us. Plus we have no recourse or support if we get in a bind and the company decides to fry us.”
  • “Against.  They are in it for themselves.”
  • “If we truly had a say in what goes on I’d say no. After more then 22 years in this industry we’ve always been told take and smile. Suggestions rarely are heard even good ones. The company won’t back you unless in their best interest.”
  • “For the most part I”m against. I think they had their place at one time, but it seems they’re mostly in it for themselves now.”
  • “For. Unions are often the only thing keeping middle class jobs middle class. When the unemployment rate is high, individuals on their own are nearly always replaceable, so it is too easy for companies to take advantage of them.”
  • “Unions stopped child labor in America. For that alone they should be lauded forever. But unions also stopped business from making people work in unsafe conditions, or cheat workers out of their pay, or to be able to openly apply force …in controlling the workers. You don’t have to look very hard to see evidence of corporations openly assisting in the oppression of people worldwide – now and throughout history. Look up a little of the real history of Chiquita banana company and their hijinks – and they only sold fruit…how nasty do you think the oil or the mineral industries could be? Read about the meat processing industry nowadays. A lot of immmigrants (legal and illegal) working in that industry. Poor treatment of workers. Not very unlike “‘The Jungle”? My point being – things have not changed. The people must look out for their own best interests collectively because government will bend over for a buck. If anything we need more unions, stronger unions, and really importantly multi-national unions.”
  • “I really support unions. I highly recommend ‘A People’s History of the United States’ by Howard Zinn – GO LABOR! GO WISCONSIN! GO INDIANA!”
  • “Technically teacher are an association, but serve their members in many of the same important ways. Totally support the public employees in Wisconsin — and the brave Dems.”
  • “My husband belongs to one that has really worked hard to ensure air traffic controllers get fair wages and benefits. Thankfully, this also meant that the recently proposed federal government pay freezes didn’t apply to him!”
  • “For … unless we find some better way to make our concerns level with corporations and markets.”
  • “I have no problem with them as long as no one is forced to join in order to work.”

I also thought I’d add a few quotes from others:

  • “Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions.  One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.” Molly Ivins
  • “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining… We demand this fraud be stopped.”  Martin Luther King Jr.
  • “With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men.”  Clarence Darrow

So, what are your thoughts?  Are you for unions or against them?  Do you have personal experiences that created your perceptions?  Discuss!