Trade Unions: A Rethink?

The first trade unions were formed in Britain in the late 18th century. Created in response to the inhumane living standards and wages that followed the Industrial Revolution, unions serve as independent bodies to protect and advance worker conditions. Unions have been integrated within most professional work settings, but there have been an increasing number of complaints that unions deter productivity and have a number of other negative consequences. Gabriella will be arguing that unions should not be shackled by federal restrictions as they are critical to worker safety and have net positive benefits to the economy, while Sam will be arguing that though unions are important, regulatory practices are necessary in order to preserve fair business practices and productivity.
Andrew KimJunior Editor

FOR

Unions serve an important role in our economy. They undoubtedly provide necessary protections for workers, without which employers would have undue power over their employees. Unions guarantee that workers will have a strong representative bargaining on their behalf and they assure the existence of a unified block that can take collective action to further the ends of workers who might otherwise be at a disadvantage. Moreover, these groups have been instrumental in establishing the rights of workers, not only in the United States but around the world. The 1835 general strike in Philadelphia, for example, led to the adoption of 10-hour work days across the United States, the first regulation of its kind [1].

However, the unrestricted existence of such groups is not conducive to a productive society or to the preservation of fair business practices. For instance, unions have been known to turn to violence and coercion when their demands are not met. For precisely these reasons, there exist restrictions and federal regulations on the activities of unions. Violence and coercion might seem like problems of the past; a practice that unions resorted to only when companies were overly oppressive. However, this is not the case. Just in May of 2015, the Pennsylvania Convention Center filed a lawsuit against members of the carpenters union over alleged violence and racketeering tactics that the union used to deal with the convention center [2]. This is only one of many such cases in recent years, including a 2011 dispute between EGT, an exporting company based in Longview, Washington, and its workers [3].

"unions turn to violence and coercion when their demands are not met"

To prevent this and other abuses, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, more commonly known as the NLRA or the Wagner Act. The NLRA is a federal regulation that permits workers to form unions and to bargain collectively while defining the scope of actions that unions can take in order to achieve their goals. It sets out the process by which a union can be formed, the obligations of the union once it is established, and the tactics it can use to advance its agenda. Moreover, it prohibits certain tactics that fail to promote a stable economic system or that are considered unfair business practices. The act is implemented by the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency tasked with arbitrating disputes, enforcing the NLRA, and overseeing union elections, among other responsibilities.

These regulations on unions are fairly common sense and they promote the general well being of all parties involved. For example, there are strict laws against the use of violence, coercion, and intimidation. There is also a legal obligation for unions to negotiate in good faith on behalf of the workers it represents. Only in this way and with these regulations is it possible to reach agreements that are acceptable to both parties without inciting animosity.

Sam Vilenski Staff Writer

AGAINST

The ability of workers to organize has long been regarded as an important freedom. In practice, it is unions we have to thank for 40 hour work weeks, paid vacations, anti-discrimination laws, and many other safety standards we have in place today. Unfortunately, these rights are not guaranteed. In the US and elsewhere, right-wing politicians have sought to curb the power of unions through imposing harsh restrictions on the ability of workers to strike and hold votes.

Some may say that federal restrictions on unions are necessary. The image of the “lazy” union worker coasting on severance pay dominates anti-union sentiments. While such people likely exist, it is important not to dwell on overgeneralizations and forgo the important reality that human lives at stake. Disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire illustrated the many dangers of disregarding worker safety. Employers at the factory locked the doors to prevent theft, a deadly mistake that cost the lives of 146 people [4]. This tragedy was the catalyst for robust labor law reforms; however, it likely could have been prevented altogether if the workers were unionized. Industry sectors that did have unionized workers at the time also tended to have better safety conditions and higher wages [5].

Unfortunately, the prospect of a few workers who die on the job is often not enough of an incentive for profit-driven businesses to implement preventative safety measures. This can be illustrated in fascinating ways. For example, in the 1970s, there was a phenomenon of rampant plane hijacking [6]. According to CNN, “boarding an airliner with a firearm could be as easy as putting a pistol in your pocket and taking your seat.” Despite this, airlines consistently balked at the prospect of installing security equipment that could detect weapons. Why? They cared first and foremost that customers would be dissuaded from flying if they were “treated like criminals” by airport screening systems [7]. When it comes to worker safety, companies are even less culpable. They may be responsible for hiring and training new workers, but without unions, they owe nothing to grieving families or injured employees.  

"Unions not only strongly correlate to worker safety, but also help to alleviate income inequality."

Unions not only strongly correlate to worker safety but also help to alleviate income inequality. The findings of renowned economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez demonstrate how the top 1%’s average income more than doubled between 1970 and 2010, while the average income for the bottom 90% fell from $31,839 to $28,840 [8].This difference is even more dramatic when taking into account the top .01%, whose share of the market more than quadrupled from 1% to 4.63%. While unions alone cannot solve income inequality, there is evidence that they play a role in lessening the gap. It has been found that a correlation exists between times when union membership was the highest and income inequality was at its lowest [9]. Detractors may argue that correlation does not equal causation, and while this is true, it is equally ill-advised to fully discount the obvious connection between the two factors. True, union membership has declined since the mid-1900s (a point I will get to later), but their role in securing minimum wages and safety standards for workers is undeniable.

Finally, regardless of their benefits, unions are slowly being pushed out of the public and private sectors through the workings of the free market. Sectors in which unions thrive, such as public utility and manufacturing industries, are quickly being replaced by private corporations. Since there are more companies in the same market than there have been in the past, it has become harder for union members to organize and make demands of their employees. In markets which are saturated with unions, outsourcing has become increasingly common. All of these factors combine to weed unions out of the marketplace through simple economic natural selection. In this way, resources directed towards restricting them could be better used elsewhere.Yet amidst all of the charges against unions for being “bad for the economy,” this reality is scarcely mentioned. Moreover, attempts to regulate unions run the risk of falling prey to “regulatory capture,” a common phenomenon in which regulatory agents end up advancing the interests of the group they are regulating.

Given these facts, hopefully, both pro-and anti-union people can agree that the federal restriction of unions is mistaken. For those who believe in the right to safety and health and equality, the argument for unrestricted unions is clear. Unions help decrease income equality and play an important role in securing safety standards for otherwise disempowered employees. Even those who aren’t convinced by the importance of unions should at least realize that restricting them is unnecessary. As unions are quickly losing prominence in the marketplace, it makes no sense to further regulate them, rather than let nature take its course.

Sources and Notes

Featured Image Source: "Tidyness is the minimal condition for a modern enterprise to carry out normal work" by Chineseposters.net— Designer unknown. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://flic.kr/p/rbpp14

[1] http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/general-trades-union-strike-1835/
[2] https://www.phillymag.com/news/2015/05/08/carpenters-union-sued-for-racketeering/
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/09/business/union-dispute-near-seattle-turns-violent-and-idles-ports.html
[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-the-triangle-shirtwaist-fire-means-for-workers-now/2011/03/15/ABVAFIs_story.html?utm_term=.938a72c197df
[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-the-triangle-shirtwaist-fire-means-for-workers-now/2011/03/15/ABVAFIs_story.html?utm_term=.938a72c197df
[6] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/29/hijackings-rare-after-911-security-improvements/82375474/
[7] https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/02/us/us-airline-hijackings-1970s-declassified/index.html
[8] https://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/the-fight-over-inequality/?hp
[9] http://www.epi.org/publication/unions-decline-and-the-rise-of-the-top-10-percents-share-of-income/

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