Are unions still relevant?
March 12, 2008 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Are unions still relevant?

Why do we need unions now? Aren't safety, wage, and other concerns addressed by govt regulations/standards these days? Any distinct differences between right-to-work and union-friendly states?

I understand the importance of unions historically and philosophically, so that's not really what I am looking for here.
posted by doppleradar to Work & Money (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do you feel as though you are as well represented in government as Exxon?
posted by zeoslap at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2008 [8 favorites]


When republicans are in office, regulatory departments are either hamstrung or broken up. The golden mantra of "the market will take care of it" is used even though that's only in a perfect market where all players have perfect information.

Also many companies are trending toward contract employees, who get benefits from their (middleman) agencies if at all. If anything, unions are *more* needed, now, than they have been in the recent past.

That said, unions in the US are a mixed bag. I worked for a company that moved much of its operations from Pennsylvania, with heavy union coverage, to Arkansas, where they can fire you if you fart too much. The union workers had a sense of aggravated entitlement, and wre paid double my engineer's salary to sit on their asses a lot. The non-union guys were mostly go-getters, smart bunch of fellows (and the smartest were able to percolate to the top), but the company was able to pay these guys, who had to personally stamp every weld they made for safety reasons, so little that a couple, both working at the plant full-time, barely scraped by.
posted by notsnot at 11:02 AM on March 12, 2008


Aren't safety, wage, and other concerns addressed by govt regulations/standards these days?

No. Simple question, simple answer.

OSHA sets safety minima, and even then there is significant pressure on workers to ignore the rules.

There is no wage regulation or standard apart from the minimum wage, and certain requirements on government contractors to pay a "prevailing wage."

There are very, very few benefits standards set by the federal government or state governments. Among those very few are the FMLA, which guarantees you the right to unpaid leave for family/medical reasons, and COBRA which guarantees you the right to pay your ex-employer their full cost plus a small premium to remain briefly on their health insurance plan, if there is one.

You want to see what unions do, compare the contracts and working conditions and especially the benefits of heavily-unionized areas such as K12 education and state/local government to hardly-ever-unionized private-sector cubicle-monkey jobs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:02 AM on March 12, 2008


The reason all those things are taken care of is because unions fought for them. Is there any reason to beleive that those rights wouldn't erode once there stopped being organised advocates for those rights?
posted by Kololo at 11:04 AM on March 12, 2008


When talking to older relatives in another country, they were a bit shocked at the working conditions in the USA, and suggested that it was a consequence of my generation discarding unions, having taken for granted the things that unions achieved.

But as a direct, real-world comparison, someone I know who works in retail in the USA found that even within the same company, under the same roof, the conditions enjoyed by the unionized department (which do the same job, just selling a different line of merchandise) were noticeably better than the abusive practices that were the norm for the rest.

I also work in a profession that could hugely benefit from unionization, but is peopled by employees with a strong idealogical opposition to unions. So it won't happen, and workers instead grow a destructive culture of massive unpaid overtime being the ongoing price of having a career.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:14 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Even if all the reasons unions existed were now no longer problems at all, to call the unions irrelevant assumes that the problems wouldn't come back if the unions went away.]
posted by winston at 11:19 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


doppleradar, it seems to me that this is somewhat akin to asking, "with all these criminal laws on the books, why are police forces still necessary?" In theory, unions help individual employees bargain for better contracts, and defend their interests day-to-day. Lobbying for laws defending the rights of employees was just one role that unions play.

It's true that unions are not always virtuous; nor are all managers, nor all police. But it doesn't mean they should all be cast aside as anachronistic.
posted by ibmcginty at 11:19 AM on March 12, 2008


Aren't safety, wage, and other concerns addressed by govt regulations/standards these days?

No. Regardless any opinion about how useful unions are, collective bargaining addresses many concerns that are not covered by government regulations. For example, what government regulations would have resolved the recent Writers Guild strike?
posted by burnmp3s at 11:21 AM on March 12, 2008


When I lived in DC (okay, Takoma Park, really), my Red Line metro ride would take me past some union's building (maybe IBEW? Can't remember) that had a mural painted on the outside, the text of which read something like: Unions! The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend!

Always made me smile.
posted by rtha at 11:24 AM on March 12, 2008


Aren't safety, wage, and other concerns addressed by govt regulations/standards these days?

Sure, minimum wage. Doesn't say anything about a living wage.

That being said, i generally feel that unions supporting real working class workers (SEIU, UFCW, service sector, janitors and the like) have really done good work - less so to the old line unions in manufacturing, which seem more interested in self protection than social justice.
posted by waylaid at 11:47 AM on March 12, 2008


If you understand the point of unions historically and philosophically, you'll understand why they are still and will remain necessary. The point of a union is to keep the owners of the means of production from exploiting workers. Owners want labor costs (and costs of safe conditions, etc.) as cheap as possible. If they could get monkeys to do everything for free, they would. That will always be a concern for the worker. Workers' only way to combat this is to organize, because that single owner can't and won't do the work himself. He needs them and that's their bargaining chip. Since it will always be the owner's goal to minimize costs, he will always try to minimize production costs such as labor. So workers will always, in this system, need to organize. Otherwise they'll work for peanuts, just like monkeys.

IANAE, but look at real wages in the USA. They have been flat since at least 1973 (especially for lower education levels). And at least since Reagan took office, organized labor and related regulations have been eroded steadily. It grows steadily more difficult to organize. Labor membership is half what it was in 1973. The NLRB can't pretend to enforce the rules on the books. They have a case backlog of many years, and that's just the ones they think they have the capacity to address. And look at companies like Wal-Mart. They won't allow unions. They try to get their people on welfare and government health plans for the poor rather than pay them a living wage and provide benefits (See "Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price").

So the loser in all of this, plus with outsourcing and moving to contract labor, is the un-unionized worker. The reason that so many unions are the "international brotherhood" of this or that is that they realized that if you unionize in one shop, owners will just hire people from the next block. Unionize in one town and they'll hire from the next town over. Unionize in one state and they'll move to another state. Unionize in one country and they'll import labor or move abroad. But if everybody in the world in an industry unionizes, owners have to work with them. It's too bad that never quite took hold.

Unions do have a bad reputation - guys ostensibly sitting around doing nothing. Part of this is just that - people with no real understanding of the system just saying "hey I don't have to move". And part of it is the result of hard-won gains, "hey we no longer have to work 18 hours straight to avoid getting fired; we get a break." And unions have been corrupt in I'm sure many cases. Human weaknesses haven't changed.
posted by Askr at 11:49 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


The golden mantra of "the market will take care of it" is used even though that's only in a perfect market where all players have perfect information.

One could perversely argue that people organizing to better their conditions is a good example of the market taking care of a situation. Seeing a need and fulfilling it. Provided you agree that labor constitutes a part of the "market", of course.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:51 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Right to work states seem to have most of the economic growth in the country. They are getting more of the newly-created jobs (which isn't surprising) but they are also getting more of the internal migration, suggesting that they aren't that toxic to labor. If private sector unions were so attractive you probably would see more people moving from North Carolina to Michigan or New York than other way around...
posted by MattD at 12:25 PM on March 12, 2008


Right to work states seem to have most of the economic growth in the country. They are also getting more of the internal migration, suggesting that they aren't that toxic to labor.

I would suggest that what you're seeing is merely people migrating to where the jobs are. Of course "right to work" states are seeing economic growth. If you want to avoid dealing with unions and pay your workers a lot less, that's where you'd move your business. All that's happening is you're seeing the conversion of traditionally local labor into a migratory labor force. This is more an example of just how bad the job market really is in parts of the country than a referendum on the relevance of unions.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:34 PM on March 12, 2008


But Thorzdad, why is the job market so bad in those parts of the country? An argument could be made that some unions are exacerbating (or even creating) that situation. As unions' demands for higher wages increase, the employer becomes more likely to move to a right-to-work state, where he's not beholden to the union, or even to Mexico or the third world, where he's not beholden to anybody. I think most corporations will pay a small premium to remain "made in the USA" (with higher American wages, relative to foreign countries, partially offset by transportation and taxes), so they'll move out of "union country" to make that premium as small as possible.

I think unions can be, and are, still relevant in terms of ensuring greater safety, protection from wrongful termination, etc. ... but when a union has devolved into a political lobbying group and a broken record demanding higher pay, it often becomes more harmful than helpful.
posted by SuperNova at 12:54 PM on March 12, 2008


I am an attorney who represents unions and I can tell you this:

1. Unionized workers almost always have higher wages than their non-union counterparts.

2. Unionized workers have traditional pensions which, if funded correctly, will provide guaranteed income for life. Having the pension fund (rather than the employee) bare the risk for investment losses provides a measure of security.

3. Unionized employees often receive retiree health benefits (which can be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars)

4. There are still health issues in the workplace that are addressed by unions -- silicosis is a big issue in the construction industry, proper rest is a big issue for pilots and aircraft mechanics.

5. Unions do provide a voice in Congress and to the president for working people.
posted by bananafish at 1:05 PM on March 12, 2008


Are unions still relevant? Only so much so as things like democracy and justice. Unions are organizations of workers who know that we need to be united in general solidarity to advance our interests. We will always need unions until we don't have bosses anymore.

As for the people arguing that unions are creating job loss or that companies will voluntarily raise conditions and keep them healthy, I'd invite you to visit the United States where that isn't the case at all. Companies will go wherever the production is cheapest (though there are exceptions, if this was science, those exceptions would be in the margin of error). U.S. workers cannot compete with four dollars a day. And before anyone thinks I'm copping a racist "they're stealing our jobs" gambit, the u.s. government has invaded, attacked, overthrown, ran puppet governments, and generally sowed discontent and control in every country that those companies now contract factories in (or threaten to go to if workers don't expect a living wage). The companies will say they were forced to because of union demands, but that's because it sounds nicer than "we're greedy and we thrive within a system that worships greed." That premium that Supernova mentioned about "made in the USA"? They just print it anyway, even if it was made elsewhere. In the New Era factory in upstate New York, the caps say "made in the USA." Some are, but a bunch have a single item on it that is constructed in the United States. Which one? The "Made In The USA" label is sewn on in the U.S.

As for me: Unions relevant! International solidarity even better! The day we stop having bosses altogether? Priceless.
posted by history is a weapon at 1:15 PM on March 12, 2008


No, the government hasn't addressed these issues, at least not satisfactorily. People up thread have addressed the reason for unions and why they are still important today. I just want to chime in and say that I wish there were more unions in this country. Ensuring that workers get sick days and vacation days and are allowed to report safety issues and get paid a working wage--those are really important things. But they're all contradictory to making a big profit. American laws tend to favor "big business" over the worker, which is why we still have a ridiculously low minimum wage and why employers can get away with forcing people to work 18 hour days without a lunch hour and discourage them from reporting safety issues (most people can't afford to lose their job if they don't do what the boss says to do).

So you might ask, if unions are so great, why aren't more workers unionizing? Well, because if the workers unionized, the employers would just go find people who weren't part of the union and hire them.

Unions are certainly not irrelevant and I don't think they will be irrelevant until we (the general American public) stops being afraid of our government and starts challenging the status quo and demanding a change.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:17 PM on March 12, 2008


Unions are still relevant, in short, because government is not yet as awesome as your question implies. Here's a chart.

(I totally clicked on this question because I thought you were asking "are unicorns still relevant?". My answer didn't change at all when I realized my mistake. OF COURSE they are.)
posted by dizziest at 2:30 PM on March 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I would hesitate to give a one-size fits all answer here, but in general, I believe that there are avenues for people to get their grievances resolved in ways other than by unionizing, including the safeguard agencies the government has created over the years. For those who are looking at business as "the big bad guy", keep in mind that unions are a business too. They also have their heirarchy. The unions' business is run on money they get from union dues automatically taken out of their members' paychecks.

The personal issue that I have with unions is that I feel no one can speak up for me better than I can. I don't need to pay someone to do that for me, and I certainly don't want to pay to protect the lowest common denominator, which is sometimes the case in union shops.

The ONLY power that unions have in the end, is their ability to go on strike. They can't force a company to pay what they cannot afford or what they are unwilling to give. It costs businesses with unions alot more to operate, by virtue of administrative fees alone. Personally I would rather see that money go to R & D, for example, or really anything that would make the company more competitive over the longer term. Often that money goes to higher wages in order to avoid unionization. Bottom line is that you can make all the money you think you deserve and get all the benefits you need, but in the end, if your company isn't competitive in the marketplace they play in, you will be out of a job and the company will be out of business.

Our marketplace has expanded exponentially due to technology, and our competition is all around this world. The USA is currently way too dependent on being a service economy. Unions are now putting alot of emphasis on organizing service workers. OF COURSE THEY ARE! They are in a survival mode like many other businesses. They need your union dues to survive, just like your company needs minimally your sweat or ideally your best ingenuity and your best effort to survive.

Union or no union isn't really half so important as working for someone who is competitive in their marketplace. Of course there is always self employment, where YOU are that big bad guy/gal spending money to make money... wisely....or not?
posted by LiveLurker at 3:53 PM on March 12, 2008


Just to clarify, I'm not "anti-" or "pro-" union. There's a lot of emotion in the answers so far, so maybe I didn't phrase the question correctly.

The motivation for asking was my recent move to Boston from a right-to-work state, seeing the large union presence here, and the uniform resentment and negativity that (non-union) native Bostonians seem to have towards the teamsters. The bad feelings have been so weirdly consistent that I figured surely they can't be all bad...
posted by doppleradar at 5:13 PM on March 12, 2008


Are unions still relevant?

Ask a janitor. Here in Houston, the SEIU obtained substantial wage increases for their members.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:18 PM on March 12, 2008


rtha:
When I lived in DC (okay, Takoma Park, really), my Red Line metro ride would take me past some union's building (maybe IBEW? Can't remember) that had a mural painted on the outside, the text of which read something like: Unions! The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend!


Oooh, if it's the IBEW I used to work there years ago. :-) They didn't have a mural then, but the buiding was on Kansas Ave NE right next to the Red Line tracks.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:20 PM on March 12, 2008


SuperNova...So, is your argument that workers should never ask/negotiate for higher wages, for fear that the employer will simply offshore the work instead of paying an extra $2/hr? You're arguing, at best, for indentured servitude. There's far more to the equation than the simple and handy strawman of "greedy unions".

Indeed, unions have a greater habit of working with the employer to arrive at an equitable arrangement for both sides. Are there exceptions? Of course. Just as there are employers who are going to move the work to Mexico no matter how much the union concedes in wage and benefit give-backs.

I think unions can be, and are, still relevant in terms of ensuring greater safety, protection from wrongful termination, etc. ... but when a union has devolved into a political lobbying group and a broken record demanding higher pay, it often becomes more harmful than helpful.

Please make up your mind on this. Surely, you understand that ensuring safety, protections, etc. require political lobbying. That's how the system works, for right or wrong. Certainly, business groups have no problem lobbying against those very same protections. Are you suggesting unions sit idly by?
As for the "broken record demanding higher pay"...what say you to the corporate investor's broken record chant of "maximize profits"? This is the very siren song that has directly led to so many jobs being sent away in the first place.

Your whole argument seems to come down to one where the workers and their unions should simply shut up and take what they are given, their jobs being dangled before them, only to be tossed to the third world should the workers dare ask for another bowl of gruel.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:22 PM on March 12, 2008


I was gonna say that this seems sort of chatfilter-y, but given that there seems to be an overwhelming consensus, maybe not.

I think that many unions have made themselves or been made irrelevant, especially the manufacturing behemoths. But unions in general are still extremely relevant. I think it's up to the labor movement to evolve with the post-industrial economy - some unions, like SEIU, already are doing that.

Livelurker, I think it's great that you feel empowered to be your best advocate, but...well, that might not always be the case for everyone. For instance, someone making $8/hr can't very well hire a lawyer to defend them if their boss is trying to cut down their hours because they refused his advances. But if that person has a union, then they can file a grievance.

To be honest, I think that unions help the market operate more efficiently, thought most neo-classical economists would disagree. They allow firms and employees to negotiate fairly and on a level playing field for wages. If the negotiations are done well, then they can help ensure that no "value" is left on the table - ie, the wages are a good compromise between willingness to pay and willingness to accept a wage.
posted by lunasol at 7:55 PM on March 12, 2008


The motivation for asking was my recent move to Boston from a right-to-work state, seeing the large union presence here, and the uniform resentment and negativity that (non-union) native Bostonians seem to have towards the teamsters. The bad feelings have been so weirdly consistent that I figured surely they can't be all bad...

Well, yeah. I'm from Boston and it's an old political machine town, and the unions have always been a part of the machine. This is part of how they would ensure their members interests (and their own) were served, but it also naturally causes resentment.

Similarly, city hall always causes resentment - hey, you can't fight it! But surely, no one's suggesting city hall is irrelevant!
posted by lunasol at 8:00 PM on March 12, 2008


the uniform resentment and negativity that (non-union) native Bostonians seem to have towards the teamsters

Well, yeah. I'm not that fond of the Teamsters myself - they have a past history of corruption and many other issues. One bad egg doesn't make the whole lot bad, though.

To the original poster: Check into what SEIU, LIUNA, UFCW, AFSCME, and UNITE-HERE are doing for service sector workers. These are the unions that are growing and supporting working class service sector workers (ignore some of the older ones that are primarily just trying to hold their own membership - UAW is a classic example)
posted by waylaid at 6:35 AM on March 13, 2008


Unions will always be necessary. Corporations never choose people over profit. The endless pursuit of the bottom line inevitably leads to treating employees like trash. You can't trust a company to do right by it's workers.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:45 AM on March 13, 2008


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