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Why Unions Matter, Part Four

November 6, 2018

To finish up this series, I am going to address many of the most common objections about unions, and show why these either don’t hold water, or are based upon misconceptions.  There are many; I am going to focus on the five most common I encounter in opinion pieces, views expressed to me in person, and social media posts.

    1. People needed unions in the past, but not today.  I think my discussion of the costs of neoliberal economic policy has debunked this, but just to sum up:  wages are in decline, the cost of living has increased, profits are at record highs, both of which can be directly attributable to the decline of unions beginning in the 1970s.  If it were true that unions were no longer necessary, then the decline in union membership would lead to an increase in wages and quality of life. In fact, the opposite has occurred. 
    2. Unions obtain benefits for themselves other workers lack.  Why should they get special treatment? My usual response to this is: if you work in an industry where some of the workers are unionized, and others are not, and you find yourself in the latter category, then… why aren’t you unionized? Chances are that union you resent would be very happy to have you as members. Furthermore, the assumption that unions get “special treatment” is not a valid one; unions get fair treatment for their employees.  If you find yourself resenting union benefits, it’s likely because you are not being treated fairly. Lastly, even if you are non-union in a heavily unionized industry, you do benefit, because that union tends to drive the wages and benefits up.  A nonunion employer still has to compete the union employer. I knew someone who was a non-union ER nurse, and her wages and benefits were very strong because most of the nurses in her town were unionized.
    3. I’m a non union salaried professional who has to work with union employees.  Their contract lets them go home before me and my assistant makes more than me.  How is that fair?  Simply put, it’s not fair. But the problem may not be the union contract, it might be yours.  If you are expected to work more than a forty hour work week, and your are not paid more than your assistant, then I don’t think you received a fair deal.  I think the problem is your employer taking advantage of you. Too bad you are not in a union…Additionally, as a salaried professional, you probably think of your job as a career.  To many blue-collar union employees, they have a job. They aren’t doing it because of their dedication to whatever industry you happen to be in.  They want to put in their 40 hours and go home to their families. That, frankly, sounds much healthier than working 60 hours a week and collapsing onto  your bed for a restless night sleep. And if that’s the only way you can get the job done…then the problem is your employer.Image result for teacher strikes
    4. Unions protect incompetent workers.   There is some validity to this.   As a teacher, we often hear this common objection  We are told it’s impossible to fire union teachers, or state employees.  And yes, just cause clauses and due process procedures do make it harder to dismiss contracted employees.  But it is hardly impossible. If an administrator or supervisor feels that an employee is not doing their job, they can follow the process and have them dismissed.  They just have to be able to document the problems. An attentive, competent leader should be able to do that–and usually they succeed. Many supervisors, however, don’t want to bother.  Or those that do fail to follow procedure. If that’s so, the issue isn’t the bargaining unit–the issue is leadership. School reformers spend a great deal of time discussing the problem of teachers in schools, but rarely discuss administrators.  Any teacher will tell you that there is a dearth of good leadership in schools. Administrators are often failed teachers, who by definition, tend to be poor leaders, or individuals with business backgrounds and no educational experience. As a result, they are largely ineffectual.  A few years ago, I worked with a teacher close to retirement who ceased to read the work handed in to him. He would assign a grade based largely on how he felt about the student, but never read their work. Students would intentionally put silly messages in the work to see if he noticed; he never did.  This was common knowledge at the school, and students complained about it. The school leadership could have done something about it, but they chose to ignore it. And while certainly the teacher’s behavior was on him, it wasn’t his union contract that protected him. It was poor leadership.
    5. Why do you need due process, anyway?  The era of sweatshops is over in the United States.  First of all, I’m not sure I’d say that to a fast food employee.  Or, someone working in a garment district…in a sweatshop. Aside from that, though, due process protects employees from personal vendettas and incompetence. If you think neither are a real problem in the workplace, then I suspect you are not actually employed.  I have had colleagues had their lives turned into a living hell due to the personal vendetta of a superintendent. I have also had many female colleagues made uncomfortable by a sexually inappropriate male colleague who held power in the district. A colleague in another district was falsely accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student, and another was disciplined for the poor performance of students she didn’t actually have in class.  Whether these incidents were the result of vendetta or incompetence is not always clear. Regardless, due process offers union employees a level of protection. Keep in mind: I work in a school. I am supposedly surrounded by intelligent, educated people. So if it happens there, it can happen anywhere. All workers should be entitled to some level of due process. If most employees do not have this protection, the solution is not to eliminate it for those that do have it.  Of course, there are some laws that can protect non-union employees from some of these situations. How, then, did those laws get on the books? Union organizing.

In these last four posts, I have attempted to make it clear why unions are still important today–arguably, as important today as they have ever been.  As human institutions, they are by definition imperfect, but I think the historical and economic evidence make it clear that they have done more to benefit working and middle class people than just about any other force in history.  And that, more than ever, is why individuals with power and wealth have worked so hard to discredit and dispose of them.

The truth is, they have nearly succeeded. The only thing that can stop them is us.  

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