Labor Unions: Effective. Political. Necessary?

I work for a school. Last week there was a board meeting, and as communication coordinator I was there to stay current on new business.

Unbeknownst to me, the teachers had decided to attend as well. They came in large numbers filling the library and all wearing blue T-shirts with yellow lettering reading, “Because our WORKING environment is the school’s LEARNING environment.”

My school is a great school, but there has been some friction between the teachers and the administration. I don’t write to disclose any particulars of the situation. Safe to say that the teachers like working there, too. That’s why they care about this justifiable concern.

An a non-union employee, I was simply struck by the draw and the mentality of those who participate in unions. At one point, a union rep–the stereotypical older gentleman in blue collar stylings of blue jeans, black sweatshirt, and a thick, grey mustache–spoke to the board about the value of work and the importance of solidarity and family.

“Sure, we have our quibbles, but we stick together,” he said.

He finished to the applause of the teachers who, too, feel strength in numbers, in unity, in wearing the same shirt.

I’m not one to want to put on the same shirt as everyone else, but I understand it. These teachers represented something bigger than their group of 25. They represented that life-outlook of seeing their best chance in life when this kind of arranged unity makes their actions impactful and needs heard. And in many cases throughout history, they’ve been right–that unless they unify, career laborers, educators, and other employees may very well be exploited by those without that need to unify (and without the empathy for those who do), and so independently accumulate and leverage their power.

Unfortunately there’s more than a streak of politics that gets brought into the fold, causing impassioned pro/anti-union stances. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a union, with this strategy of solidarity to accomplish goals. The problem is when one side or the other is forced on the unwilling.

The most extreme, of course, happened in China, the Soviet Union, and even hanging on in a few countries today, where perceived threats of the runaway capitalists made it illegal for their kind to operate. These countries would move ahead with this supposed enlightened unity philosophy not just at the forefront, but as the only life-outlook allowed to employ. The attempt to normalize this mindset and effort–to the tune of preventing emigration, executing the rich, and controlling the economy–led to catastrophe and suffering unable to comprehend and measure.

Today in the U.S., a much lighter politicization of labor vs. capitalist is in play. But it’s still there, because (perhaps by necessity) there’s an element of force still in play. My brother the school teacher has no choice but to pay union dues. That’s messed up, he says. And he’s right. The argument is that if he’s going to get the benefits of union negotiations, then he also has to pay. But this all or nothing approach, though cleaner, cuts moral corners to justify forced payment.

I’d like to see the day where people who want to be in unions, can freely. And those who don’t, won’t have to. Because as long as force is in play, then we have this unnecessary clash between philosophical factions who may otherwise view each other as people who have different tastes in music, fashion, or some other benign distinction. Force is the only reason we have pro/anti-union sides, pro/anti-union politicians, bumper stickers, lawn signs, and related political opinion pieces. One could imagine a new set of resentments against people who simply liked different music than you if there was a vote for whose music was going to be legal.

I don’t know all the ins and outs. Maybe by some set of circumstances, unions have to force membership on all if a majority of employees vote for it. If that’s the case, then I hope to see the day when those circumstances end and people can be free to choose.

I’m optimistic. I think union numbers have gone down in general, because employers are better at providing fair and contenting compensation and conditions without the need for workers to team up to fight for more. And that’s because today there are ways other than unions for workers to get their fair share. Businesses are as concerned about petitions, customer boycotts, and a negative story going viral as they are their employees unionizing. The result of technology, connectedness, a wealthier society than yesteryear means the floor for compensation and conditions has never been so high.

Isn’t this what we all want: a world where unions aren’t disallowed, but unnecessary?

6 Responses

  1. In your chosen profession perhaps it would be in your best interest to read the history of unions. Start with “Spies in Steel” written in 1927 on the foundation of unions on the Iron Range of Northern MN. The author is long dead so there won’t be any spin to his story. And after you finish and say that “that was then and it can’t happen now” think again.
    Also, next time you have a set of days off, or a paid vacation, or you have a method of expressing your concerns of being treated unfairly at work remember they all came from organized labor. And then tell your brother you have a book for him to read on his days off.

    1. Rich, I know it can happen. (Though with other means of pressure, the likelihood of an employer exploiting their non-union workforce is less than it used to be.) I support the workers’ right to band together. And I appreciate that the unions have done so for over a century to help provide workers fair conditions and compensation.

      I only ask that an employee also have the right to not pay for the union they do want to be a part of.

  2. You can’t tell me that your brother didn’t know that when he applied for work and gladly accepted the job offer that he didn’t know it was a “Closed Shop” and part of his hiring required to join the union. Can’t play dumb on that account. If he doesn’t want the protection of being a union member like his fellow workers, he can work elsewhere if he chooses.

    1. “…he can work elsewhere if he chooses.”

      Rich, that’s the same kind of cold reasoning used on the opposite side of this debate. In that case, someone may look at a sweatshop in Bangladesh and say, “What? If the workers don’t like it, they can quit and work elsewhere.”

      The truth is, both the factory workers and my brother are within systems with leverage over them. Sure, the factory worker could quit, but even given the poor conditions, that’s still the best option for him. And yeah, my brother could quit, but he’d be hard-pressed to find a school within 50 miles of him that’s not under union control.

      1. You tend to only argue the points that you want to and overlook my other statements. Please comment on the fact that your brother hired out knowing that part of the hiring process included being a union member. So, let’s say the union in good faith along with the school board in the next contract agrees to an increase of wages, vacation increase and better medical insurance and your brother doesn’t want to be in the union, is he entitled to those new agreement benefits? Another example, the school board falsely accuses him of theft, who’s there to help defend him? In the industry I retired from if you are accused of breaking work rules, theft, etc., we have a trial like setting where a union rep. of your choice will help in your defense, I was one of such reps. Believe me in 30 plus years I’ve seen many underhanded management moves to get someone they didn’t like fired. You know, I respect your point and it’s your Blog and we’re not going to change anyone’s point of view. Ask your brother for me to go to a union meeting, express his concerns, perhaps run for office in the union and try and make a difference. He has a good brother who loves him. Take Care.

What say you?