'Unnecessary' and 'Political': Why Unions Are Bad For America

We asked you to tell us if unions were necessary to restore wealth to average American families. Some of you said yes. Some of you said no. There's a comment section below. Keep talking to us.

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I was in a union and 'unions are unnecessary'

I worked in a unionized refinery and my personal experience has been that unions are unnecessary.  As an engineer, I was unable to touch any tools, provide any assistance to our technicians and operators for "taking work away from a union employee."  While not always the case, the union gave protection to the laborer to be  extremely lazy and unproductive because as long as he showed up to work on time, there was no way he could get fired.  The technicians and operators started at $28.00 an hour, which was more than I made as an engineer.  Obviously they have a much lower ceiling and top out pretty quickly, but that is an enormous amount of money for someone who can get away with being lazy as he wants.  Also, during lead ups to labor negotiations (there were two big ones while I was there), there was ample evidence of sabotage to the plant while engineers were being trained to operate the refinery in the event of a strike.  I cannot for the life of me understand why one would put people at risk in order to protect their job.   

There were several unionized technicians and operators that were very pleasant and worked hard when asked to do so, but this was not the norm.  Additionally, often the best unionized workers were promoted to management and were no longer protected by the union.  

I understand that there was a time in the nation when we had fourteen year old kids working 18 hours a day, but we have long since moved past those days. 

I'm all for finding ways to close the income inequality gap (higher taxes, more efficient tax code), but I assure you that unionizing labor will not solve our problem.

'The right to leave'

With all this discussion of power, people seem to be missing the biggest bargaining chip of all - the right to leave. An employee has the nearly unfettered right to walk away from a job. Even with noncompete clauses and other employment contracts, there are very, very few cases in which an employee can be forced to work. Conversely, a company has numerous restrictions on when, how, and who they can terminate.

WHY UNIONS COULD INCREASE UNEMPLOYMENT

Consumers will naturally gravitate toward the best value, which is why Wal-Mart has been successful by imparting downward pressure on prices and the cost of living. That you don't like them because it hurts your profit margin selling whatever it is you're selling doesn't change the fact that basic laws of supply and demand have led to consumers getting the goods they want at lower cost. Subsidies impede creative destruction (though maybe you'd rather still be a peasant in the Dark Ages?), and tariffs force up prices for everyone, decrease choice, and increase the cost of living -- which particularly hurts the poor. I guess you just don't care about poor people, huh?

By the same token, employees will work for the employer offering the best terms of employment. Right now there are more job-seekers than jobs, so the leverage lies with employers. The opposite is true in a good economy. Making it more difficult for businesses to hire and adapt may mean some people get better terms, but a larger percentage get no job at all.

WHY WOULD A YOUNG PERSON JOIN A UNION? 

I was on the executive board of the Providence Newspaper Guild TNG/CWA Local 31041 from 2005 to early 2007. I think unions are relevant, but are stuck in time. They're relevant because they hope to create fairness in employee pay -- a flatter salary system, rather than all the money flowing to the top of the food chain. But, their strategies and focal points were stuck in an era that had no relation to reality. It was like trying to argue for the rotary dial phone. Sure, there is a need for the telephone, but any new ways to use them are forbidden. My experience was baffling and eye opening.
 
I was the youngest member on the board (32!). We managed over $1 million in dues, about 500 employees, and a handful of lower boards. The average length of employment was over 18 years and like all newspapers, the ProJo was in terrible decline. I remember journalists vehemently protesting the paper's online presence and calling on the union to prevent the company from hiring content producers. It was, to me, out of touch crazy talk. It was like watching an episode of Mad Men, where the vernacular was from an entirely different -- and dead -- era.
 
We all had decent pay and a process for employee review, but the union prevented the paper from moving forward. The sales department, I'm not kidding, used a proprietary phone and terminal system from the 1970s and '80s. Literally these big machines with huge keyboards with weird symbols and codes. The screens were CRTs, with black backgrounds and a green cursor. Parts for these beasts were cannibalized from 10 or so other dead behemoths piled in a closet - they were no longer made.
 
Why couldn't the sales department upgrade? Training. The employees were essentially in the same position, on the phones taking ads, for an average of over 20 years. No bs. They were older women, and training them would have cost thousands of dollars because the women were too old to learn new technologies. So, the union saw no need for upgrades and blocked it for years.
 
I ran for the seat after I was denied by my superiors to streamline a work process, one that would have saved the company thousands of dollars immediately. I outlined a plan, including implementation, a management scheme, and roll out schedule. I even prepared a list of objections, so my pitch would be polished and surely accepted. To my surprise there was unanimous agreement that the plan was effective - no objections but one: it wouldn't work because of union rules.
 
I did not anticipate that response. Afterward, I had a bizarre conversation with the union steward. He focused on the fact that my innovation "would benefit the company, not employees so it will never work around here."
 
Stunned, I ran for an open seat to see from the inside why ideas and innovation were frowned upon. Once on the board, I first could not believe that no one was under 45. In fact, most were well into their 50s and 60s. To them, everything was a battle, "us vs. them." Management was Enemy #1, with the internet an emerging threat. Meetings were strategy sessions that focused on two things. First, meeting member needs (these were the good works, like settling discrimination suits for underrepresented workers). The second priority was more energetic, and focused on how to defeat the company. I did not understand the second part, and was assured with a wink and a nod that "it was the right thing to do, just look at history."
 
I argued with my fellow board members that young people needed to be involved with the union, that they needed a plan to transfer and promote the union to a new generation. I also argued that innovation was stifling employees from being recognized and promoted - to the default, robotic objection of, "seniority trumps all." If anyone wanted a promotion, everyone in the company would have to be notified of the new position with senior employees having more weight on the applications. The whole system was so utterly foreign to me.
 
Then, I heard from the inside that Belo was about buy out the ProJo. I left in a hurry to avoid a slaughter and went back to school to become a climate change specialists.
 
Unions may be necessary, but they're killing themselves by sticking to old ideals and arguments that no longer apply to the 21st Century. Why -- honestly -- any young person would want to join a union, I have no idea -- Michael Cote

'Unions and government are a bad match' 

The difference between public sector and private sector unions is critical.  What on earth is the argument for taking gov't action to dismantle the remaining private sector unions?  If they are fading on their own, and given that hardly anyone is these days blaming them for the biggest economic problems facing the U.S., why put them under attack?  I don't think either Republicans or Democrats would contemplate doing that; it doesn't make sense in terms of electoral maps for one thing.

Public sector unions are something different altogether.  They seem ill-conceived, and there's nothing like a big financial squeeze in state budgets to shed a light on their dysfunction.  Management (whatever that is, presumably the state legislature but arguably the taxpayers) can't pack up the shop or outsource or close down operations or anything that resembles the big cards that management plays in the private sector when negotiating with unions.  By the time agreed-to pensions and other expenses come on line and begin to weigh on the state budget, they're just another budget item at the state level and it becomes a question of tax rates and so on, all worked out in arrears.  It's just unworkable, untenable.  Unions and government are a bad match. - bystander

If you want more money, 'go somewhere else'

You negotiate with your feet.  If you are treated worse than market value, you go somewhere else.  In times like now when everyone's market value is less, and there are fewer options, you take what you get and you like it.  When times get better, that is when you get your due.

Companies that don't pay their people what they are worth go out of business.  Companies that pay their people more than they are worth go out of business even faster.

ALL ABOUT CAPITAL-D DEMOCRATIC POLITICS

I don't know why, but the US union movement veered in an adversarial direction, probably in the 1950s.  The dominant theme of industrial unions in their heyday was a pathological opposition to management that resulted in the death of the heavy industrial companies that employed them.  Just consider the ways in which the UAW and auto workers interacted with the big three, which eventually led the biggest and most powerful corporations in the country to bankruptcy in a generation (and not because the product became defunct, as shown by the success of the transplants).  It was not so much pay and benefits (although with the big three, it was largely that), but rigid work rules, featherbedding, and a reflexive opposition to anything management wanted to accomplish.  I have personally seen AFL-CIO operatives take positions during hearings on OSHA regulations which, if implemented, would clearly result in their members losing their jobs. I can only assume that they testified as they did not to benefit their members but because "management" (industry) was taking the opposite position.

I also suspect that German labor officials are not as self-interested as US labor leadership.  For example, I note that you didn't mention such things as Gerald McEntee's seven chartered flights between August and December of 2011 that cost AFSCME $98,115.66. 

The main reason many liberals are concerned about this issue is that labor is one of the last reliable conduits of cash and foot soldiers for the Democratic party (through a mandatory tax on their members).  This was the real reason for all the consternation about Scott Walker in Wisconsin, not any so-called threat to collective bargaining.


The balance of power in the legal system is also strongly weighted towards the employees. Companies spend tremendous amounts of time and money to ensure compliance with all labor laws. The very threat of a wrongful termination suit has cowed many employers into not exercising their rights to terminate. This isn't a matter of poor employees versus big bad corporations. There are few protections that a union can provide that aren't found in our enormous legal code.

'Young people do not believe unions are providing services worthy of their cost'

The decline of unions has little to do with political attacks upon them: in our democracy, if 90% of the real workforce demanded something, they would get it. It has everything to do with the fact that young people nowadays do not believe that unions are providing services worthy of their cost. They recognize--correctly--that unions harm the hard-working and productive for the benefit of the idle and unambitious, and want no part of it.  We can even recognize that unions did provide valuable results in the past--although please miss me with one more iteration of "the guys who brought you the weekend"--without buying the idea that they are due plaudits in perpetuity for pulling kids out of mills a hundred and fifty years ago. - TheAnonymouse

UNIONS AREN'T BEHIND THE FALL OF THE MIDDLE CLASS

As far as I can tell there are two major causes for middle class woes:

1) The cost of health care.  High spending by employers over the past 20-30 years has been all but eaten up by the rising costs of health care.  It's only as you get into the upper echelons of income where health care costs become a smaller part of the total pie that people aren't being squeezed this way.  

2) Competition from abroad.  Free trade grows the world economy and in the long run will benefit America, but all of that capital flowing out of America to other parts of the world sure doesn't help in the short run.

If American workers were really being underpaid, unions would have a lot more sway, simply because employers (whether corporations or state governments) couldn't really afford to alienate unionized workers.

The only places I know of where unions are thriving are in very specific skilled professions where there's a shortage of qualified workers (diesel mechanics, for example).

'Their unfortunate demise is almost entirely their own fault'

Unions are a service industry like lawyers and accountants.  They sell a service representing and advocating for workers.  Their unfortunate demise is almost entirely their own fault.  They charge to much for their services through dues and many current members and many more prospective members do not see the value for their dues.  Slavishly committed to protecting the very worst employees by making firing almost impossible (think the Rubber Room for NYC teachers), unions have become synonymous with mediocre work and waste.  Ignoring the reality that almost all of their employees are now shareholders in corporate America through pension funds and 401k plans, union leadership persists with the dated notion that it is the unions vs. corporations.  

Unions are needed more than ever but their message needs to be completely reconsidered.  New leadership from outside the ranks is needed that understands that a union is a service. The cronyism that governs the middle levels of leadership needs to be stopped; no one currently respects it.  Dues need to be lowered. The product is too expensive. 

Most importantly, unions need to recognize that merit is to be rewarded, and poor performance is to be disciplined and even fired - easily.  Unions need to sell themselves as a catalyst for upward social mobility, as a service that will permit employees to succeed better than they would otherwise do.  Instead of seniority being the prinicple criterium for everything, merit and education need to dominate their focus.  Since the 30s,  "employers" have developed a much healthier (but still imperfect) perspective on the value of employees, dating the original and persistent union mindset of "us vs. them."   

Finally, unions need to stop looking outside for blame and to legislatures for help.  Tools like "card check" and "closed shops"  really lack merit in the eyes of the public.  Unions can and must succeed, but only if they repair themselves and start selling a product that both employees and employers see as indispensable.   
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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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