Labor Unions--Good or Bad?

I’m currently embroiled in a debate with a friend’s girlfriend about labor unions. I am inclined toward the opinion that they are a deadweight drain on the economy and adversely affect all non-members–this applies only to the United States today, not developing economies or the US pre-labor laws. I am not arguing that unions are always or have always been worthless, just that they have become obsolete and harmful. She is so pro-union she has claimed that standard of living has risen not because of technology, but solely because of the labor movement. So you see that even with valid arguments she is wont to exaggerate.

Nevertheless, there is hope. In a poker game I won the right to make her read a reasonably-sized anti-labor argument. I also need to reconsider my own opinion to make sure that it is on a solid economic footing, so I’m looking for any good cites that argue for or (especially) against labor unions in today’s society.


Management – good or bad? Make sure you apply the same standard to management as you apply to unions. :slight_smile:

It’s not a black and white issue, and the issue will change depending upon the specific union, its national parent and the industry. Perhaps both of you should study up on the history of labor unions in America – good and bad – before continuing the debate.

One suggestion is to look into the various benefits unions have provided throughout our history which are now commonplace and enshrined in law for everyone. You might be surprised.

False Dilemmas - good or bad?

I just moved out of union membership and into management. Even when I was union, I did not particularly care to be so. I considered my advancement stifled with no option for pay raise or other incentives. Also, daily I witnessed my peers sleeping at their desks and just generally relying on their union affiliation to keep them from getting fired for their laziness & incompitence. My only option was to move into management, which is what I did.

Virtually all techs here, regardless of skill level earn what I earn (made), even though I considered myself one of the work horses of the company. Understandably this can lead to tension among the ranks. Many times I had wished that the barely capable (and this is the phone company - you just know we’ve got loads of barely capable people here) were paid according to their abilities. This would allow the company to pay the super techs what they are really worth.

Result: Our fast packet maintenance center lost a (if I may say so myself) damn fine technician, and gained another paper pusher.

So I tend to have the same feelings as the OP. Mega labor unions do a little good, but a lot of bad. Companies should be able to chop off dead wood and reward/punish their employees according to their individual merits.

Unions, like government, are best when kept small, local, opennly democratic, and operating in broad daylight… Concentration and centralization of power is generally a bad thing in both cases.

So your mind is already made up and you just want to convince someone else that you’re right?

Labor unions are a tool like any other: lethal in the wrong hands. When companies do a lot for their employees, labor unions feel the need to ask for more anyway in order to, apparently, remain viable. This is a drain. Take labor unions away, though, and you’ll see why we have them in the first place.

There is no way labor unions single-handedly drove the standard of living up. They provided a mechanism for ostensible employer/employee discussion and bartering without the need for sabotage or illegal activity. There is no question that this hastened the spread of wealth, or at least there shouldn’t be. But without technology used to multiply human activity production-wise, there would be no wealth to spread, at least not to the extent that we have today.

If anything, one might even argue that because of the “spread the wealth” result that the mechanism of unions offered, technological advances become even more important to get a leg up on competitors.

IMO, unions and management are both necessary to keep each other from screwing over everyone else.

This goes back to what I call the Fundamental Principle of Human Organizations.

The first and primary goal of nearly all human organizations is to perpetuate their own existence. Everything else is secondary, minor, and insignificant in comparison. The stated or official goals of a given organization matter less than this first and primary goal. It overrides all other considerations.

There are organizations that do not adhere to this principle. They are formed to perform a task and then voluntarily disband at the completion of that task. They are not the norm.

Previous related thread: Cause of Improved Working Conditions - Moral Change or Increased Productivity?

There are a lot of abuses in unions, as anyone in management can tell you. A lot of people out of management as well. But OTOH, from my perspective as an employee benefits consultant I can also tell you that management is a lot quicker to cut the benefits of non-union workers than they are to cut those of union workers, because of the clout of the unions. (OTOH, I’ve also heard of cases in which unions have refused to allow management to unilaterally enhance benefits for their members, because of their insistence that any enhancements come about only as part of the collective bargaining process. But these are comparatively rare - overall, union workers are much better protected).

Hard to judge, overall.

My employer has successfully fought unionization at two of our three facilities, each time winning a resounding “no union” vote, except for the first time when we nearly lost. That was a wake up call, and management has fixed a lot of things (fired a bad manager, implemented benefits package, standardized discipline procedures, etc.) because of it, which is what gives us the mojo to trounce the union each time they come back.

So, without the union, the employees wouldn’t have the circumstances they have now. On the other hand, they got it without actually unionizing.

I’ll say that the idea of unionization is almost always good, or at least useful. The fact of it depends too much on the particular circumstances to say one way or the other.

There is no doubt that the concept of labor unions is a good one. Workers have much more leverage as a group than they do individually. It’s the implimentation that worries some people. And the fact that once you’re in the union, you pretty much need to accept the union demands as your own. If the union is pushing for better health coverage, but you’re happy with the coverage you have and would prefer to just be paid more in cash, well, you’re not really being helped.

And to the extent that unions are national in scope, you’re even more of a statistical nonentity.

I believe unions are ok, but should be subject to antitrust regulation like any other orginization, which in large part they are not today. I believe applying the antitrust laws to unions would, in large part, do away with the problems associated with them, some of which have been mentioned above.

Most of the union workers I know are not happy with unions. However, they admit they’d be terribly unhappy without them. And this issue you raise and I quoted is of particular importance to me: it even further seperates the worker from his ability to control his own circumstances. One man stuck between two monoliths. Yuck.

All great comments so far, thank you. To reiterate, I think that the historical accomplishments of the American labor movement are probably beyond reproach, but wondered about their efficacy today.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind, but it seems to me that my intitial suspicions about organized labor probably had a good foundation. In ATTrayant’s case he suffered, the phone company suffered, the phone company customers suffered, and only the union technicians who happened to be less valuable than the mean worker and the union bosses and lawyers benefitted. That’s just depressing!

I think his story is probably indicative of the detrimental effects of labor behemoths that won’t go away even after the fair labor laws that made them necessary have been in place for years. The anti-trust point is probably what leads to the most abuse by unions. I wish I knew more, but it certainly sounds like unions are only able to extort firms, consumers, and workers because of their position as a labor monopsony, and I fail to see how that could be good for a society.

As several people have mentioned it’s tough to generalize and hard to argue against the right of a workforce to organize based on historical precedent, both valid points. Still, once you have laws that eliminate wage slavery/sweatshops/child labor any competitive firm that tries to short its workers will see competing firms steal all its best talent. In ATTrayant’s case, a competing phone company (ignoring the natural monopoly of phone companies and deregulation issues) should have been able to offer him a fair rate if his own did not. This is no doubt what would have happened had he worked in a deregulated, union-free industry.

In any case, unions do seem to be in drastic decline in America except in professions where a natural monopoly, government entity, or historically powerful union maintain them (transit workers, teachers, et al.). I can’t help but feel that this decline is a good thing.

Heh. It’s not AT&T, so there.


I’ve had jobs where I was in a union and glad of it. I’ve had jobs where I was not in a union and wished I was. And I’ve had jobs where I was not in a union and glad of that as well. Some employers seem driven to treat their employees like utter crap, relying on the fact that the labour market is usually a buyers market to retain and replace employees. In such cases, a union can be very helpful.

On the other hand, if you’ve got an employer who treats you fairly and offers competitive wages, why on earth would you want to pay union dues and have to deal with some of the real problems (slackers protected from being fired, inability to advance on merit rather than seniority, etc) to boot?

All that said, I think anyone who thinks that unions have no place whatsoever anymore should take a job at Walmart for a while.

The full timers at one of the community colleges where I teach had their own union for quite some time, while we part timers had none. We formed our own a few years ago. It was the only way to get collective bargaining/negotiating for a contract–and without this contract, we would have had little or no raise, no chance to apply for state-funded medical premiums partial reimbursement, no paid office hours, no working conditions committee, no grievance procedure, no improvement of evaluations, no improvement of handling of personnel files, etc.
This particular administration didn’t want anything to change. Ever. So we had to force the changes. It’s still a struggle, and we still have absolutely no seniority or rehire rights, but I’d say it was worth it overall.

I think it’s good in theory, but bad in practice. Something similar to communism, with the same outcome. My wife is in a job where she is more qualified than her manager. Because she started later and has less seniority, she’s not the boss even though she is better trained (not that she wants to be, as she’s in school). I was a non-union employer, and I could always tell when a union guy was applying for a job. So it may have it’s purpose, but so did communism.

I used to work in manufacturing, there was no union. We had benefits and the wages were competitive with the other factories in the area. After NAFTA, a the corporation made a plant, just like ours, that made the same product in a foriegn country. Most of the production was then moved to that plant. About 25% of the lower end type product remained at home so the factory here is still open but a fraction of the people work there. I don’t know that a union would have made a difference.

In Georgetown, SC, the steelmill had filed Chapter 11. Management asked the union to accept a 10% pay cut to keep the plant open. The union refused the cut, which I understand, and everyone was given pink-slips Tuesday, the plant will close. Did the union do good? This is purely speculation, but I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that someone believes it is cheaper to make steel in a country where there is no union.

When unions become corrupt, they can be terrible. When the mafia took over the building trades unions in NYC, the workers got screwed! the Mafia was stealing the union dues, and actually cutting crooked deals with the builders, who then went out and hired NON-UNION workers…if you bitched about it, you would be told to shut up…or else something "bad; might happen to you! Or take a local union in the Boston Area (the teamsters)-the president of the local was a crook who accepted bribes from friends to get them free health insurance…and cheated his constituents in the process. If you protested, you might have your legs broken, or worse.

Good/Bad tries too make things too simple.

In a power struggle each side will try to take advantage of the other. Both sides are BAD.

Why isn’t accounting mandatory for everyone in highschool. If every uninon member knew accounting and was economically well off that would make the union stronger. Consumers might not buy garbage from the corporation. We are all players in the economic game. We should all be better players.

Dal Timgar