I have been a proponent of labor unions for all of my adult life, and for years have dedicated my Twitter feed to reporting labor news. Many people know very little about unions nor have they ever given much thought to the issue of union versus non-union workplaces. That was until Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, launched a transparent attack on unionized state workers, using a manufactured budget crises as cover.
So why unions? What do they do and why do they matter?
Unions Have Benefited All Workers.
If you have a job in today’s society, you are protected by basic labor laws. Under state and federal labor laws, your employer must pay you a minimum wage for the work you preform. Your employer also cannot require you to work more than 40 hours per week without paying you overtime. No matter where your workplace is—be it an office, a retail store, a factory, or a construction site—there are safety procedures in place that your employer must comply with which make your job safer.
Aside from legally mandated issues, most workers have weekends off, or at the least, two days per week off. Most workers are offered benefit packages including insurance and/or paid vacation time.
All of these things are in place today because of the work labor unions did decades ago. So whether or not you’ve ever been a union member, you have benefited from the hard work of past union leaders.
What Does A Union Do?
Save for those with huge trust funds or the select few who started a dot com company in the late nineties and sold it for hundreds of millions of dollars, each of us needs to work. It is rare to find someone who labors merely for the fun of it.
In order to pay our bills, eat, clothe ourselves, and support our families, we sell our time and ability to work to our employers. When our employers buy this ability, it can become easy for them to treat us as personal property. An inherent evil of capitalism is that profit is the main goal of a company. In the pursuit of higher profits, it becomes easy for many employers to stop treating their workers as human beings. Workers show up on a company’s balance sheets not as a name but as “cost of production.” As such, basic rights of the individual get put aside and people are not always treated fairly.
Unions work daily to ensure fair wages and benefit packages for their members. They also secure safer workplaces and the right to a fair hearing for complaints against an employer. Without a union, an employee must seek raises on their own, and should they want to file a complaint about workplace safety or discrimination, they must communicate with their boss one-on-one. A single voice often proves to be too quiet for an employer to truly listen, and in some cases can even put the employees job in jeopardy.
The remedy to this problem is for workers to organize into a collective group; a unified voice seeking better working conditions for all employees.
It’s Not About More; It’s About What’s Fair.
Many anti-union voices like Governor Walker purport that union members are seeking more than what non-union workers are getting and that they’re attempting to gain even more. Sure, there’s some truth in that argument, but the focus seems to be on the wrong thing. Why are companies with unionized workers paying them more than their non-union counterparts?
The truth is, most companies don’t pay their workers what they could. It’s Capitalism 101. If your workers are in fact your cost of production, you want to keep that cost as low as possible. Workers make low wages not because the market dictates the low wage. It’s because the company is seeking to produce their product as cheaply as possible, and an individual worker is not powerful enough to demand more for their services.
Workers organized into a union carry more power. The union, as a collective voice for all the workers, will be heard by the employer more than a single worker. That collective voice often gets better results, which translates into higher wages and a better benefits packages. Does that mean they’re overpaid? No. It simply means the union has negotiated a better deal for its members.
This should not be seen as a reason to dislike unions. Indeed, this should be encouragement to any worker to organize or join a union.