'Indispensable': Why the Middle Class Needs Unions Now More Than Ever

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We asked you to tell us if unions were necessary to restore wealth to average American families. Some said no. Some said yes. Keep talking.

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'Organized labor is central to any solution to our current economic problems'

The question of whether unions are necessary is misguided. There is no other proven method to ensure that working-class people receive decent wages, safe working conditions, or a voice on the job. Unions continue to provide workers high-quality representation, helping them receive a fair share of the income their work generates while protecting them from capricious bosses, hazards on the job, and harassment from superiors. There are no other known systems that provide workers these benefits.

The better question is why unions have declined. There is a clear answer to this question: a half-century of intentional union-busting from corporations with assists from federal and state governments. Historians have shown that the supposed "Grand Bargain," where companies agreed to unionized workplaces in return for an end to radical workplace action was never accepted by corporate America. Even before World War II, corporations looked to move their unionized factories to non-union states. When unions proved too popular across the United States and when federal labor and environmental protections began affecting profit margins, corporations lobbied the federal government to promote globalization, first through the Border Industrialization Project that allowed American companies to build on the Mexican side of the border and then through a full-scale race to bottom, as companies traveled the globe looking for easily exploited labor. None of this has made unions irrelevant; rather, recent labor defeats are simply the next round in this corporate assault upon the rights of working people.

Simply asking a question like whether unions are necessary gives credence to right-wing talking points about organized labor. We need to focus on how to fight back against the corporate malfeasance and greed that has undermined the American working class and plunged the economy into stagnation that has already reached a half-decade. Organized labor is central to any solution to our current economic problems. It is worth noting that the heyday of organized labor coincided with the longest period of growth in the history of the American economy. Only strong unions can provide a fair piece of the economic pie to the working and middle-classes, creating a robust economy that benefits all Americans.  - Erik Loomis

HOW THE GOP KILLED THE UNION BY A THOUSAND PAPER CUTS

You'll note that the steepest decline in membership takes place around the time of the Reagan and Bush administrations.  It isn't coincidence.  For 12 years, a Republican appointed the members of the labor dispute resolution panels and the general counsels who would prosecute violations of labor law.  I'm guessing that employers took advantage of a general lack of urgency during that period, and unions had no meaningful response that didn't involve an armed uprising.

Labor disputes aren't heard by courts until they've passed through a panoply of administrative bodies whose purpose is to hear and settle labor disputes.  In the U.S., there are three:  the National Labor Relations Board (handling state/city public employees, Postal Service employees and the private sector, excepting those airline and railway employees covered by the Adamson Act), the National Mediation Board (those airline and railway employees covered by the Adamson Act), and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (handling federal public employees).  In theory, these bodies act to relieve pressure on the court system for grievances between the employees who are either represented or seeking to be represented by a union, and their employer.  The general counsels prosecute violations and give out penalties.

In practice, employers know that there are rarely real consequences to be suffered from flouting any of those boards, and this is especially true when a Republican appoints their members.  What penalties there are do not deter employers, who are willing to take a chance on paying the modest damages involved with harming most employees in order to deter others.  While a Democrat is in office, you have a chance of seeing the NLRB or FLRA do its job in a timely manner and in accordance with the law, as with Boeing.  But half of the time, you can't reasonably expect it.  Unless unions can count on the government to help them, then they fail until things are bad enough for the membership to consider violent alternatives (and thank God they aren't). -- kindasorta

'Organized labor is critical'

In any country based on a capitalist, free enterprise system where coordinated labor is used to produce commodities, organized labor is critical to assure wages and rights for workers.  Parity in negotiations between labor and management is of key importance.  While management, by design, possesses the ability to coordinate labor pricing, workers do not.  Working classes need an organizational structure that allows them to negotiate pay and benefits with a similar management structure, otherwise it is as if an invertebrate is trying to haggle with an vertebrate, they may make some noise but not a whole lot can happen. While this does not necessarily need to be a Union, a structure of some type that allows labor to concentrate power is critical to negotiating higher average labor prices. -- Jason Richardson

'Mutual respect and real partnership ... or class warfare'

Unions may or may not be an answer (an answer --- there isn't just one answer) but something needs to be put on the other side of the scale to counterbalance management dictatorship.

As anyone who's worked for a major corporation knows, you dont negotiate with your manager at review time. You can complain, beg, wheedle or whatever -- but he or she already has decided pretty much what you'll get, an answer dictated by , among other things, algorithms that decide how much excellence  can be acknowledged and failure that must be discovered. 

The Germans have discovered Worker Councils -- they have members who sit on corporate boards and create a true partnership, rather than the ex cathedra power monopoly exercised by American management. This monopoly is as bad for management as it is for all those little dots on the chart representing "resources," a corporate euphemism for people -- because it means that management is by definition out of touch with employees.

There needs to be mutual respect and a real partnership. Or there will be class warfare and a fatal cynicism.  -- arvay

Unions: 'A necessary evil'?

A system that ensures the rights of workers are protected, whether that be a union or some other body, is necessary. Every bureaucracy has it's shortcomings, unions are no exception, this I know from my family members' first hand experience with labor unions in Wisconsin. However, such bureaucracy may be a necessary evil. An organization that collects the people together to coordinate how they structure workers' relationships with their employers is necessary for every industry. Without that system, employers hold all the cards. Even in the plush world of office work, I wish I had a system through which I communicate my needs to my employer without fear of retribution or judgement. HR is ineffective, controlled by my employer. Any whisper that working from 8am-8pm is inappropriate exists only between lowly staff, never mentioned to upper managers due to constant anxiety that the job will disappear. My generation, those that watched their baby boomer parents work 60 hours a week as a standard, yearn for a work life balance, fair wages, respectful treatment, and a welcoming environment. I've seen my well-educated, well-prepared peers crumble under the pressure of an overly demanding employer, requiring regular work on weekends, taking one's laptop home every night, constant contact with smartphones. "Burnout" is a phrase I am hearing from fellows in my graduating class, and I am 24 years old. If this is how white collar workers are treated, what respect is given to teachers, mechanics, steelworkers, machinists? Especially in an economy where even having a job is considered lucky, no matter how poorly you are treated, any body willing to defend my rights, my ability to have a life and a job, is welcome in my country. -- Mo Foley

WHY GERMAN UNIONS WORK 

My take on it is that each side of the political circus tend to blame the other side for their own worst faults. Thus, the right accuse the left of being anti-capitalist, whereas the reality in most western countries is that when the right win, the stock markets go up for 4 days and then down for four years, whilst when the left win, it's the other way around.

The left, on the other hand, accuse the right of being too friendly to capitalism, whereas a typical right-wing government promptly introduces legislation which actually make it much harder for typical capitalists to thrive, since they tend to favor short-termism, which is almost always diametrically opposed to the long-term interests of capitalists.

Unions always have the long-term interests of the companies they're involved with at heart. If those companies don't thrive, then neither do the unions. That's what's at the heart of the German economy, since unions have members on the company boards. They've always argued against short-term dividends to shareholders and in favor of long-term investments. -- davric

WHY JAPANESE UNIONS WORK

I was, for about a year, a member of a Japanese union. I worked for a major Japanese electronics firm, and even though I was a visiting researcher, and a foreign national, somehow I still got membership into the company union, complete with newsletter, membership forms, emails to union events, the whole nine-yards.

In Japan, at least, the reason they get along, at least in the private-sector, is because the union and management are pretty much on the same side. If the management wanted to save energy and cut down waste, the labor unions would print up fliers with tips on turning off appliances when not in use and proper recycling sorting practices. If there was some bad news, it would be a good-cop, bad-cop routine. Bad-cop: Year-end bonuses to be cut due to low profits. Good-cop: Thanks to union reps, they won't be cut as much as we thought! -- A_Lee

'Unions make a difference'

I can only give my perspective as a former union member, I'm self employed now so unionizing at my office would be pointless, and current union supporter. When our bargaining unit negotiated a new contract with management, I saw a real disconnect between the people the union sent to help and the workers in our union. The people sent from the union were labor activists and busy calling everybody brother and stuff like that. We union members were joking and making fun of them behind their backs because they were, well... silly.

For the professional union employees, negotiations were some type of political statement. For union members, we simply wanted wages and benefits to keep pace with inflation even as we recognized that our industry (newspapers) was contracting. I don't know if other union members have had this same experience or even if CWA members in more typical blue-collar jobs have had this experience. But when I think about why unions in this country are in trouble, I think about my own experience and I think the fact that union staff is often trying to make a political statement that union employees aren't trying to make is an issue. But I'm no expert.

Certainly, unions make a difference in pay. I made much more at a union paper than at a non-union paper. Of course every paper I have worked at has let reporters and other staff go lately. So again, I don't know if my experiences translate to other businesses and unions. -- mishamb

'Unions are indispensable'

The laws and rights structure of the US emphasize the primacy of ownership (this is not a condemnation, just a fact) but, as with the structure of government, a healthy economy requires a system of checks and balances between owners and workers.

Owners' rights extend over the whole of a company's revenue, including salaries. In the narrow scope of a single case--one owner, considering only their own company, their own life and family--the given owner will almost always opt for a larger portion of the revenue. Is the nature of all people. Yet if that narrowly-conceived goal were pursued by every owner over a whole market economy, the market would fail: the majority of people would not have enough aggregate purchasing power to sustain the edifice of the economy. The balanced distribution of revenue is key to the long-term stability of a market economy.

However owners have all the rights to revenue, and so we rely on owners to be uncommonly broad-minded, intelligent, unselfish. But owners are common. They're human. Lucky, clever, and/or hardworking perhaps, but essentially like all other people. Unions are the one check and balance on their power--the only one. Workers have no other power or right to maintain this necessary balance except to organize and collective bargain. Unions may need to be reinvented for a new economy, but they are indispensable. -- Daniel E. Pritchard

'Private-sector unions are a useful; Public-sector unions are a different story'

You must differentiate between public- and private-sector unions.

Private-sector unions are a useful and legitimate tool for pressuring firms to allocate more of their earnings to wages. Workers should have a right to free-association and to contractually bind themselves into larger groups. There is a natural equilibrating force in the private market - if the unions make too great a demand on their employer, the employer will simply fail. The management, which stands to lose salaries, stock value, and pensions, will fight back. Most of the so-called "anti-union" legislation is negotiating the machinery of this arrangement. Things like secret ballots, automatic deduction of union dues, the right of an employer to fire union employees, seniority rights, et cetera. The merit of each of these items can be argued ad nauseam, but the scope of the debate is the relative leverage of labor vs. management, not whether private-sector unions should exist.

Public-sector unions are a different story. There is no equilibrating force. The government is backed by an unlimited capability to raise revenue via taxation. Their management counterpart are elected officials who do not have a necessarily significant financial stake in the future fiscal health of the government. Their primary goal is to obtain re-election. Furthermore, they may have a vested interest in pouring more public money into public unions, with the full knowledge that some of the money will come back to them as campaign contributions. The adversarial stand-off between labor and management in the private sector is absent in the public sector. In the public sector, the true oppositional forces are between government employees and the taxpaying citizen.

The citizens of Wisconsin have just stated their position on the matter. -- A_Lee

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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