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.

If the employment picture is so great, why are people unhappy?

Don’t believe everything the President tells you. In fact, it’s a generally accepted principle that for anything he says, the opposite is true. Which is really chilling when he announces that we have the best employment and economic picture, well, since forever.
That’s not the felt experience of nearly every client (or family member, or friend) that I see. Although most people I see do have a job, I see certain factors that paint a far less rosy picture:

• Even if you have a job, you’re scared that it may evaporate. Corporate and institutional loyalty to employees is long gone. People definitely get fired at will, or on a whim.• If you’re young, you’re expendable. They can definitely find someone with your (limited) skills.
• If you’re old, you’re also expendable. They can definitely find someone younger for far less, and who cares about your experience. Your skills are probably out of date anyway.
• Ha-ha on worker protections. Do you really think this administration is going to go full throttle on discrimination claims, disability accommodations, or workers’ rights?
• You probably don’t have a union to protect you. Somehow employees were convinced that unions weren’t for “professionals” and that union dues would send them into poverty. Being on your own with no backup is certainly worth it, right? To the employer, that is.
• If you just graduated, you may feel hopeless about finding a job at all, and therefore aren’t counted as in the labor market. Congratulations if that $120K-$250K you just spent got you any services at all from your school’s Career Services office.
• The gig economy has infected even so-called full time, in demand jobs. Staffing companies have appeared like cucarachas in the so-called in-demand fields like health care and computer services. They may offer you a tiny bit better hourly rate (and it’s always hourly, not a salary), but your benefits are non-existent, they probably aren’t going to contribute to any retirement plan, your paid days off may not exist, and you’re very likely to be held to unreasonably high “productivity” standards. You’re working for Uber, whether you know it or not. So yeah, I guess you’re in demand.
• We have a miniscule social safety net nowadays. Social Security is unlikely to be anywhere near enough to cover expenses. You’re a unicorn if you still have a pension, and even if it exists you’ll have to work longer to qualify than indentured servants in the colonies did.
• Good quality childcare is so expensive that it’s not even worth it to work in some professions (you know, the helping, socially useful ones).
• Make me laugh, let’s discuss health insurance. If you leave your job, once it runs out you’re back on the exchange. And if you take a new one with group insurance, unless the employer has the same insurer, you’re probably going to have to meet a second deductible. If you do find yourself in this situation, be sure to discuss this with the new insurer—some will give you credit for having met your deductible. Despite how it looked when the Affordable Care Act went into effect, most of us are afraid to leave our jobs because of the cost of insurance. Oh well, at least we can get it now.

Except for the childcare (mom stayed home until I went to school) NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THESE POINTS was true for my parents (born in 1913 & 1915). Sure, there’s lots that was wrong in previous eras (discrimination, worker safety), but full employment under Harry Truman (I just finished David McCullough’s biography) looked a lot different than what “full employment” means today. And not in a good way.