You Need a Union

Pete Seeger

Click on the picture to hear Pete Seeger.

In perhaps the best era for the American worker, unions may have reached their peak power during the Harry Truman era. That’s about the same time the drumbeat against them began. I’m not sure how much of this was true, or how much of it was partially true but encouraged and enhanced by corporate PR that has always wanted to eliminate or disregard assertions of worker power. But let’s look at why you probably haven’t wanted to be associated with a union.

  1. They’re corrupt. There have certainly been headline incidents of union heads enriching themselves and pilfering funds. Right up there with corporate heads and government officials enriching themselves and pilfering funds. A more educated and involved membership could help to watch over such fancy accounting.
  2. They’re only for working class grunts. Yeah, that’s what they’d like you to believe. Because if you’re white collar, maybe telling you you’re elite will allow employers to compel you to work without a lunch hour, work at night, work on the weekends…work at their beck and call, because, well, you’re on a salary.
  3. They’re adversarial and only care about the welfare of their members, not the rest of society. This has been going on at least since World War II. Employees being treated fairly don’t have to be adversaries, and member ship groups (including lobbying groups, non-government organizations, and non-profit advocacy organizations…and members of Congress) exist to be strong advocates for their constituents.
  4. They’re racists. Groups that feel threatened will always try to exclude others who might be threatening, especially when there’s a small pie to be doled out. On the other hand, when unions have substantial minority membership, then they’re “only” for that minority. I don’t agree with either stance, and think that it’s in the self-interest of unions to have a large, diverse, and active membership.
  5. They’re selfish in their negotiations. This complaint mainly seems to be based on envy—unions have been able to negotiate better working hours, better vacations, better health insurance and far better pensions than most workers get—in fact, that’s a reason for them to exist. But the real question should be, why doesn’t every worker get these benefits? I used to think, for example, that teachers got outrageous pensions. Now I question why everyone doesn’t get a livable retirement pension.

If you still hate unions, I invite you to watch two movies and get back to me. The first is Germinal, starring Gerard Depardieu. The second is the newer movie, American Factory.  The reason people eventually turn to unions is because they are so exploited and endangered, with little or no recourse, that their only choice is to risk everything.

Nearly everyone I speak with in the healthcare field could use a union. More and more healthcare is driven by gig work (with no benefits), outrageous productivity requirements (aka a virtual assembly line where the belt is continually speeded up), expectations that you will work through lunch and take more home, and fire-at-will if the professional tries to complain about the impossibility of delivering quality patient care. I’m not as familiar with other industries, but I do hear stories. Gig work is a huge step in screwing the worker. The employer has managed to shed the last vestige of responsibility for the worker—hire and pay only when they can make money off the worker, no overhead in providing facilities or equipment, the worker responsible for providing transportation, no benefits (unemployment, days off, health insurance, disability) and, the first to go, no retirement. Getting rid of pensions (the backbone of the WWII generation’s retirement), was only the first step. But hey, you’re free to work flexible hours, and provide your own home for a work site. And gee, we’ll pay you a little bit more than the going wage, so you’ll get snookered into thinking it’s a better deal. (See my post, here, on calculating that.)

Unions need to find a way to organize workers from different employers, different from the model they’ve used historically. They can call themselves professional associations for all I care, but if they walk like a union, quack like a union, and negotiate like a union, they’re a union. As the strong unions in the Scandinavian countries have demonstrated, unions can be partners in advancing the interests of all concerned, including employers, who can benefit by more satisfied, productive workers.

Oh, and one more suggestion. Go watch Metropolis. You might not think it’s science fiction any more.