The Case for Unions

Oct 9, 2015 | Class Issues, Economic Policy, Plutocracy

Published: The Daily Dot (October 9, 2015)

On Wednesday morning, Huffington Post employees sent out a letter to their colleagues calling for them to unionize. “We believe organizing is the best way both to preserve what’s already working and to bring about positive change,” they argued. “Simply, a union will give us a voice in our newsroom’s future.”

The Huffington Post writers may be making headlines right now with their movement to unionize, but they are hardly the first online publication to work toward that goal. Gawker’s media staff made the decision tto unionize back in June, followed swiftly by Salon, Vice, the Guardian, Al-Jazeera America, andThinkProgress. Considering that increasing numbers of Americans are receiving their news and political opinions from the Internet, the digital media unionization trend is noteworthy.

This raises an important question: Do unions work? In short, yes they do. When unions are stronger, the rise in wages increases broader purchasing power among consumers, feeding economic growth and enabling employers to hire even more workers.

What’s more, unions actually improve the economic status of non-union workers as well as unionized ones. Since the benefits that accrue to organized workers frequently become the norm within their respective industries, employers that don’t have a unionized workforce face pressure to provide similar wages and other perks—lest they face a labor problem of their own.

What’s more, unions actually improve the economic status of non-union workers as well as unionized ones.

Perhaps most importantly, widespread unionizing would significantly alleviate income inequality in this country. “One big reason America was far more equal in the 1950s and 1960s than now is unions were stronger then,” explained former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. “That gave workers bargaining power to get a fair share of the economy’s gains—and unions helped improve wages and working conditions for everyone.”

He also pointed out that America’s peak years of inequality, 1928 and 2007, were immediately followed by the worst economic crashes in our recent history. On both of those occasions, unions were significantly weaker than they had ever been before.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t disadvantages to unions. In a piece for Business Insider defending unions, Henry Blodget noted that unions can create a divisive culture within companies, drive businesses to move jobs overseas, become career employment for their (often overpaid) leaders, and force employers to treat all workers equally regardless of their relative skill and effort.

These are serious problems that, in the past, have convinced many Americans to think twice about supporting unionization.

Yet as Blodget himself points out, “great companies in a healthy and balanced economy don’t view employees as ‘inputs.’ They don’t view them as ‘costs.’ They don’t try to pay them ‘as little as they have to to keep them from quitting.’ They view their employees as the extremely valuable assets they are (or should be). Most importantly, they share their wealth with them.”

So why did unions become so weak? Much of the problem can be traced back to a single origin—the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Back in 1981 (less than seven months into his first term), Reagan famously threatened to fire nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off an illegal strike. After following through on his threat for all employees who didn’t return to their posts, Reagan established a precedent wherein the power of strikes to assert employees’ interests was lost.

These are serious problems that, in the past, have convinced many Americans to think twice about supporting unionization.

Before Ronald Reagan’s termination of the airline workers, strikes were commonly used to force both public and private sector employers to be responsive to employees’ demands. When Reagan terminated the airline workers, however, he emboldened businesses to view it as culturally acceptable to simply replace unhappy employees, rather than listen to and accommodate them. Today, employees who try to unionize their work force have a one-in-five chance of being fired for doing so, regardless of whether their efforts are legal or have legitimate grounds.

Reagan’s game-changing decision occurred more than three decades ago. Today, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—recently unveiled a plan to make it easier for workers’ to join unions.

“Millions of Americans who want to join unions are unable to do so because of the coercive and often illegal behavior of their employers,” Sanders argued. “The benefits of joining a union are clear: higher wages, better benefits and a more secure retirement. If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class, we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country.”

While legislation like Sanders’ proposed Workplace Democracy Act is a good start, it won’t be enough. Another important step is spreading information about why unions are so important. Although 58 percent of Americans approved of labor unions as of August, that number was consistently north of 60 percent before 1972.

Right now, many Americans don’t fully understand the benefits of being in a union, and as a result, they don’t prioritize it as highly as they should. The fact that the Sanders campaign is gaining traction by focusing on labor issues is certainly a promising step in the right direction, but it is a trend that needs to continue outside of the realm of presidential politics as well as within it.

Although 58 percent of Americans approved of labor unions as of August, that number was consistently north of 60 percent before 1972.

Perhaps the best observation about the importance of labor unions came from, ironically, the Republican president who happened to govern this country at the time when they were strongest—Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Unions have a secure place in our industrial life,” he observed. “Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

This is precisely the point: At the end of the day, a worker’s ability to join a union is nothing more or less than an individual’s desire to have some measure of control over their compensation and workplace environment. More than an economic issue, unionization is a matter of civil liberties. When the workers at the Huffington Post decided to unionize, they weren’t simply fighting for more money, but for the ability to have their contributions to that publication given the respect it deserves.

Let’s hope the rest of America will someday follow their lead.