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Are Unions Good or Bad?

Our awesome Patreon donors have spoken! This week, they would like for us to answer this question…

What’s the deal with unions? Because I’ve heard they’re amazing, corrupt, empowering, exploitative, equalizing, and expensive. What’s the truth?

Let me answer this question the way I answer most things: by starting with a tangent on a totally unrelated topic, until it suddenly isn’t! (It’s kinda My Thing.)

It’s toasted

Do you know when cigarette smoking among Americans peaked? It was in 1963.

How about when we first got pretty solid evidence that smoking caused lung cancer? It was thirteen years earlier, in 1950.

Thirteen years is a long dang time! If people knew it was a health risk, why did so many not only continue to smoke, but begin smoking who hadn’t before?

The main culprit is the tobacco industry’s social engineering. Which is to say: their deliberate, coordinated campaign of disinformation.

They knew that if the cancer-smoking link became common knowledge, their product was (and I’m going to use a technical term here) straight fucked. When this information came out in 1951, smoking rates steeply declined for a few years. Facing this crisis, the tobacco companies didn’t abandon or retool their products. Oh no! They spent millions of dollars to reach millions of people and convince them that scientists were lying, doctors were confused, smoking was actually quite healthy, and you could safely ignore any baseless rumors you heard.

IT’S TOASTED, Y’ALL!

The first coordinated denial was a joint press release in 1954, called “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.” It reached an astounding 43 million people—roughly 38% of American adults. Before this statement, the number of smokers was sharply falling. But after, it shot back up.

And up. And up. It took thirty years for the smoking rate to drop back to its pre-1951 level.

Disinformation works

So what’s the point of this history lesson? It’s this: disinformation works.

When a powerful industry with deep pockets wants to play the long game, they have a chilling array of options. One of the most historically successful strategies is to knock the weapon they most fear (public opinion) out of the hands of the person they most fear holding it (the public). The right gambit will convince an entire generation to act against their own interests.

Which brings me squarely back to our original question. You’re not sure what the deal is with unions, because you’ve heard a lot of contradicting things, right? 

I’m sure you’re not alone. And your confusion, my friends, is purposeful, intentional, and incredibly dangerous.

This interaction…

“I’ve heard that unions are pretty great.”

“What?! No! They’re rife with corruption, all they do is harm workers!”

“Uh, are you sure?”

“YES, THEY REWARD POOR PERFORMANCE, OKAY?!”

… is really no different than this one:

“I’ve heard that cigarettes cause cancer.”

“What?! No! Their smooth taste offers the throat protection you crave!”

“Uh, are you sure?”

“THEY’RE TOASTED! TOASTED, I SAID!!”

What IS a union?

A labor union, or trade union, is an organized group of regular working folks. They come together and agree on what conditions they require to continue working within their industry.

Examples of contemporary unions include teachers’ unions, police unions, firefighter unions, and teamsters.

Those conditions can be pretty much anything! Minimum acceptable salaries, maximum acceptable work hours, safer working conditions, availability of supporting resources, and so on.

Let’s take safer working conditions as an example. Did you learn about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in school? God, I hope so!

146 garment workers—almost all of them poor women and girls—died screaming. Their deaths were totally unnecessary, as the building had fire exits. But the owners of the sweatshop had locked them to stop the girls from taking breaks. The girls trampled each other, burned alive, and leapt to their deaths to escape the flames.

Fun note: those owners actually made money on the fire. Their insurance paid them $400 per life lost, and they only gave $75 of it to the victims’ families. With their earnings, they bought a new building—and locked its fire escapes too.

They were fined $20 for this offense. It was the minimum amount possible by law at the time.

It was the efforts of unions that attacked the root cause of this unspeakable tragedy to help prevent it from happening again. Because as the historical record clearly shows, the factory owners certainly weren’t interested in doing so.

Assume organized labor is always good

We’ve talked before about the link between labor shortages and better living conditions. To summarize: you know why America was thought of as the Land of Opportunity for hundreds of years? It’s because there were so few workers and so much work to be done that any immigrant dirt farmer could come here with nothing and end up with land, a home, and other stable inheritances to pass down to their children. (Notable exceptions include enslaved and indentured people, whose labor was exploited and living conditions monstrously inhumane.)

Assume that organized labor is always good. And yes, in general, it’s good to be skeptical of “always/never” statements!

Yet I could rattle off five hundred examples of times when the wealthy have exploited the poor without even opening Wikipedia. But I’m hard pressed to think of any time it worked the other way around. Maybe the Salem witch trials? Sorta? That’s a niche interpretation.

The point is that individuals, families, industry tycoons, and other small elite groups often misuse the power they have over big groups of poorer, less connected, more desperate people. And unionizing is the most popular way for workers to organize to protect themselves against such abuses of power. Which means you can assume that unions are always good.

It’s a strong statement, and I’m sure some edge-lord finance bros will skip straight to the comments to tell me why I’m wrong (hi, I don’t care). It’s possible that there is some dystopian potential future where workers have become so powerful that I will feel the need to soften that statement. But I have a feeling it won’t be in my lifetime.

What have unions done for us?

Not convinced? Here’s a list of some of the things that organized labor and trade unions have accomplished for American workers.

Eight-hour days/forty-hour weeks

After the Industrial Revolution, sixteen-hour work days were normal and expected.

Workers fought for twelve-hour workdays. Then ten. Then eight.

And when I say “fought,” I mean fought. Whether it was in full-out peasant revolutions, or rioting in the streets, or more furtive, isolated incidents of violence, intimidation, humiliation, and incarceration, union organizers of every generation have bled for this.

Thanks for the eight-hour work day, organized labor!

Weekends

Sunday used to be the only designated day of rest. Because God wanted us to take a chill pill. Which, I mean, amen, my brothers and sisters!

In isolated cases, some factory owners allowed half-day Saturdays, or gave Saturdays off if many of their workers were Jewish. But they often had to make up for it with longer hours elsewhere. For the most part, the two-day weekend only became standard with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938—which was championed by organized labor.

Thanks for the weekend, organized labor!

Vacations and holidays off

Sadly, our fine country was founded by a bunch of undersexed, self-oppressing, Puritan buttheads who thought work cessation for any reason other than religious observance was very <gasp>.

This has translated into a culture that forfeits a lot of its paid time off. We don’t take as many vacations as our international peers. Nevertheless, we have the vacation time!

Thanks for the vacations and holidays off, organized labor!

Overtime

So you can’t work on holidays, or weekends, or more than forty hours a week. But what happens if you have to anyway?

You get paid extra money. Usually “time and a half,” or your normal hourly pay x 1.5. Sometimes it’s double. Hot diggity damn!

Thanks for the overtime pay, organized labor!

Breaks

It’s kind of hard to imagine how much the robber baron demographic hated breaks. I swear to god, breaks were their Hitler.

Remember what I said earlier about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? And how all those people died? Evidently the factory owners were tossing and turning at night, unable to sleep with the thought of their workers sneaking out for five minutes to smoke a cigarette and take a piss. But once they chained the fire escapes shut—ah! The untroubled sleep of angels.

Thanks for mandatory breaks for workers, organized labor!

Sick time

Not every capitulation is a loss for the company!

When workers are sick—especially contagiously sick—it’s a win-win-win to encourage them to stay home. Safer for customers, safer for employees, and safer for businesses and their insurers.

Thanks for sick time, organized labor!

Safer working conditions

Construction workers used to dangle precariously off the structures they were building. They didn’t wear hardhats, safety harnesses, or respirators. They handled dangerous and carcinogenic substances that poisoned them or rotted their bodies from within. And that’s just a few examples from one industry!

If I trip and fall at work, I may smack my head on the floor—but at least I won’t fall through a notable lack of guard rails and get sucked into a set of crushing gears.

Thanks for safe workplaces, organized labor!

Workers’ compensation

I’m slipping in one more historical tidbit about women in labor. Because it’s an amazing story.

The Radium Girls were a group of women who worked painting glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watch faces. With live radium. They were instructed to wet the paintbrushes with their lips. Spoiler alert: their bones adopted the consistency of sponge cake.

It started with Mollie Maggia. She got a toothache. Then her tooth fell out. All her teeth fell out. Then her entire jaw crumbled away. Her ruined mouth wept blood and puss daily and she died in agony.

Her employer was very powerful. They were successful during the Great Depression, offering desperately needed jobs to the community. They denied the radium was responsible. In fact, they deliberately spread rumors that she died of syphilis instead. These women had to fight to be heard through humiliation, skepticism, and intimidation.

Catherine Wolfe Donohue, a radium painter and the mother of two young children, was too sick to leave her bed. She was discouraged from challenging the company. But she’d watched her friends die one by one. And she had a spine of steel.

She dragged her emaciated body to court to speak her truth: her body had been destroyed doing exactly what she’d been instructed to do by her employers. When she collapsed in court, her doctors brought her home to die, and against their wishes, she continued her testimony from her deathbed. She died a hero, weeks before the trial concluded in the Radium Girls’ favor.

Today, it’s unthinkable that a company would try to deflect blame for such an obvious and egregious harm. Real people had to live, die, and fight like hell to change that.

Thanks for workers’ comp, organized labor!

Minimum wage

We had a maximum wage once. It was after the Black Death killed so many people that the price of labor soared. We weren’t joking about that whole labor shortage thing!

Outside of cataclysmic global pandemics, minimum wages are a necessary protection for workers. As the enthusiastically pro-union President Roosevelt said:

“No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough so after his day’s work is done he will have the time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load.”

The minimum wage today is too low. But we have it! And the people who are fighting for a $15 minimum wage are the same people advocating for stronger unions.

Thanks for the minimum wage, organized labor!

Child labor laws

There are two reasons unions opposed child labor. One is cynical: lil’ Dickensian orphans worked for cheap and undercut adult workers who had families to support, which made poorer adults, more orphans, and a whole lot of bad novels I hate.

The other reason is altruistic, and uhhhhh so obvious that I’m not going to even address it?

“Little kids shouldn’t work in coal mines or sweat shops.”

Bitches Get Riches, dialing their radical socialist agenda up to eleven

Thanks for child labor laws, organized labor!

Collective bargaining

Collective bargaining is the backbone of what makes unions powerful and worthwhile.

Remember that scene where Oliver Twist asks for more food? That’s about the same power balance as an individual asking a huge company for something they feel they deserve that’s outside the current norm.

Winston Churchill put this really well… well, once I’m done abbreviating it, anyway…

“It is a serious national evil that any class of his Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions. It was formerly supposed that the working of the laws of supply and demand would naturally regulate or eliminate that evil [and] ultimately produce a fair price. Where you have a powerful organisation on both sides, there you have a healthy bargaining. But where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst… where those conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration.”

Thanks for the collective bargaining, organized labor!

And so, so much more…

I had to cut a lot of stuff. If I kept going, y’all would be skeletons covered in cobwebs before I was finished!

  • Automatic cost-of-living raises
  • Consistent job evaluation criteria
  • Military leave
  • Anti-discrimination laws
  • Sexual harassment laws
  • Wrongful termination laws
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act
  • The Equal Pay Act
  • Social Security

… but also not enough

There are so many just and fair protections we don’t yet have. If you want a higher minimum wage, or paid parental leave, better protections for “gig” workers, transparent pay structures, or any of the other cool things that feel imminent, you have to be willing to fight for them.

The least you can do is give your support to the unions who are fighting the good fight for you.

So are there any downsides to unions?

We plan to write more on this subject in the future. But generally, the criticisms of unions are aimed at individual bad actors within unions. Or unions that are so weak they can be successfully manipulated by the industry they exist to bargain with.

Let’s put it this way…

Some people commit sexual assaults. Do we conclude from this fact that sex itself is inherently bad, and we should stop having it? No, we do not!

Some unions are corrupt. Should we conclude that unions themselves are inherently bad, and we shouldn’t have them? Nyet, komrade!

It is in the nature of the disinformation game for large, powerful industries to publicize the extreme edge cases of bad actors in bad unions. For every dysfunctional union you hear about, you’re probably missing out on the stories of thousands of quiet, normal union members whose lives have been stabilized and enhanced by the affiliation.

Good unions self-police, embrace change, weigh internal and external pressures, while staying true to their purpose: to improve the lives of their members. And now is a good time for good unions.

Ten years ago, support for unions was at an all-time low. But as the gap between rich and poor grows, that trend is starting to reverse. We will definitely write more about unions in the future, as it’s a critical issue with much deliberate disinformation and propaganda to confuse the issue.

I hope this has shed some light on the topic of unions for you guys! If you have more questions, please ask them in the comments below! Thanks for another great pick, my darling Patreon donors! Join us if you want to vote on future topics!

17 thoughts to “Are Unions Good or Bad?”

  1. Former union employee here! My own two cents, based solely on my experiences and my workplace, was that as a whole, our union was an incredibly powerful force for good. Our delegates were passionate and fought for our rights and our non-union managers were also highly supportive of our organizing efforts, even when the higher level admins pushed back during contract negotiation time.

    However, I will say that a union position there was not right for everyone. The promotion process was highly regulated based on seniority and rank, and it was incredibly difficult for a lower level member to get promoted, even if you had been there for years- even if the hiring manager wanted to choose you, they were required to pick someone of a higher rank if they fit the qualifications. Your wages were fixed (no room for negotiating) and all positions above 50K per year were non-union, so you would lose the union security and benefits if you went higher up the salary ladder. It was also incredibly hard to pick up new skills or initiate projects, particularly those that could lead to managerial level positions, because the union/HR would get angry if you went outside your JD tasks. I know many people got frustrated by these facts and found it very difficult to advance. However, it was an excellent fit for people who were willing to stay put for a while, enjoy the fantastic benefits, and the bonuses of increased seniority over time. Even for those of us who were only in it for a little while before moving on reaped the benefits- at 23, I was the only one of my friends in an entry level job with insurance, fixed work hours, and no expectation of working on my off-time.

  2. I love almost everything about being a union member – IATSE Local 800. My wages are based on being a dude with a family to support (not that women don’t support families but you know what I mean). I never, never, never would have negotiated this rate for myself. I would not have even thought that I could ask for this much – it’s about $3,500/week now. Plus marvelous health care and a pension and all the other “fringes”. Unions are a major player in moving the needle on the gender pay gap.

  3. I freely admit: I had never even heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire until I was taking a course on the Jewish immigrant experience — in university.

    That one should send chills down every spine, if only because it was far from the last disaster of that type. Personally, I recommend David von Drehle’s book for anyone who doesn’t know the time period well but wants to put the whole catastrophe in perspective, and Leon Stein’s for anyone who wants to stare history in the face and sob.

    Another thing worth talking about regarding unions: there’s a class factor. Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, and dozens of other white-collar, professional people get their certification from some form of professional association that self-polices the profession, sets standard rates, lobbies government on behalf of their industry and tries to control the public image of the profession. But when you ask someone to picture a unionized worker…

  4. Long time member of Bricklayers Local 4 here. Union membership has only been a positive for me. Paid job training, stable wages, health insurance, pension. There is power in a large group banding together, and of course where there is power there is the possibility of corruption. I think that’s related more to the individuals and not the structure though.

  5. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking read. My opinion on unions in the past usually equated to “unions have done good work in the past, but the people who have unions now are not the people who need unions.” I see low-income workers (retail, “Amazon” warehouse, hotel staff, Uber drivers, etc.) really in the need of that consolidated voice to make their lives better.

    Previously, I had always worked in the private sector and most jobs were non-union. Now, as a government worker, I had to become an union member as part of my onboarding. Coming into this job and for the last few years, I didn’t “see” the need for my union now. Part of it is I don’t “see” all the work that has been done and HAD TO BE DONE in the past to get where we are right now – which you called me out on and rightly so. My view was of a union constantly in negotiation to basically justify it’s existence and for pay increases that I don’t really need since I have a high (for me) paying job.

    A lot of this stems from the stories I heard as a kid about the person that worked with my parents/friend’s parents/adult in my life who a) didn’t work/did the minimum, b) hid behind the union for everything, and c) couldn’t be fired. I’ve internalized them and never asked how they influenced my thinking. However, you’re right, I need to rethink all of this or at least really THINK about what these opinions are based on and are they really valid. Love you guys a lot, and this article (along with all your other articles) makes me proud to be a (small) Patreon donor

    1. It’s a curious thing that when an employee is poorly supervised (allowed to not work to the expected level, breaks rules, etc.) that the fault is placed on the union and not on the person actually paid to supervise them.

      Full disclosure, I’m a union representative. I am paid to represent workers in dispute with their employers (among other things) and the one thing I never get tired of reminding the employers I work with is that I did not hire their employees/my members. I didn’t train or supervise them. My job is to protect their rights in the work place; to make sure their discipline, up to and including termination, is just and corrective. Supervising them is the employer’s job and that includes correcting problematic behaviour.

      Don’t blame me if I do my job better than they do their job. By the time the union is called in to represent a problem worker, the damage is normally done.

  6. I knew lots of individual pieces of the information you have here, but I’ve never seen it all put together so concisely and clearly. Thank you! I’ve never had the opportunity to join a union and see the effects first hand, but I know that I benefit from their work every day.

  7. I find this quite intriguing but I remain skeptical in the era of globalization and need to play devils advocate. Sure unions have given us a lot when we had a closed society. This put all employers at an even playing field and improved the quality of life for all Americans as an improvement in working conditions/pay/etc at one company became a driving factor for demands at another or risk loosing workers to them. However with globalization and the change of the US from being a tariff driven taxation government to where we are now in a global low tariff society production goes to the lowest cost of production. This is why we continue to shed manufacturing jobs to countries with lower labor costs and environmental regulations. Yes I’d love to see these countries adopt the same rules as the US for labor and regulations but that’s a pipe dream that needs to be retired. It will be even riskier in the future with automation and AI expected to replace 50 % of jobs…..and you can bet the more costly the labor the higher risk of automation. While I agree with the ideals of labor unions in a vacuum, they aren’t as effective, and can actually be counter productive, in a globalized world where not everyone plays by the same rules.

    I would like to also hear your thoughts on labor unions in purpose build monopolies, IE government and utility companies. When there is no competition companies/governments are forced to pay what is demanded of them by labor raising costs for everyone as there is no market approach. D.C has the greatest average income despite having no industry, just government, and utilities have the most consistent income and dividends given the users lack of choice.

    Love the topic and interested to hear the retorts as this is article is very one sided and only speaks to history decades in the past and not the current globalized world we live in.

    1. So to summarize your first point: unions fight for humane working conditions and wages, and employers choose to instead hire people overseas who are not protected by unions and thus work in inhumane conditions for inhumane wages. These employers sound like dicks. Their willingness to hire exploited workers to save a buck actually makes me think unions are all the more important globally.

      And again, I’m pretty ok with employers in DC and elsewhere being “forced to pay what is demanded of them by labor,” since it appears their natural instinct is to pay the bare minimum otherwise.

      1. I never said Unions were bad, they do provide for better working conditions and pay for average workers in a controlled market. But we don’t live in a Controlled Market, if you could prove that your specific job only was for a company that did work and hired employees in the US and the company only competed against companies that did business and hired employees in the US, then yes this is a perfect example of where Unions are a great idea. That was true up until the mid 20th century for most companies, and then globalization hit.

        It is a companies job to earn a profit, that does not make them dicks for not overpaying their employees to the point of not earning a profit, that makes them charities. With two equal products for sale and one being 50% more, almost all consumers would choose the cheaper one, and no that doesn’t make them dicks either.

        I do agree that unions would make more sense globally, however currently there are too many unknowns. In order to balance out everything globally there would be massive government oversight needed, increased tariffs to compensate US based companies who operate under the rules we mandate for labor standards, etc, that all it would do is wreck the global economy. We have already seen the havoc tariffs have caused on the economy with the current trade war with China which don’t even go close to what would be needed to be put in place to even things out. So this is a moonshot idea if there ever was one, but i be interested if someone has a better idea that allow unions to operate without putting the US at a globally competitive disadvantage.

        And the reason I brought up government unions is they have no competition, they are a monopoly by every definition and consumers can not choose to use a different government that serves them better and uses their tax dollars wiser. Recent information put out by the Bureau of Economic Analysis(government agency) puts the average federal employee cost at $119,934 to the tax payer, a roughly 50% increase in pay and benefits to equivalent private sector jobs. Yet at the same time are 10-12% less productive than their private sector counterparts. In an equal world, the government would be forced to pay for attracting labor away from the private sector by providing better benefits or pay. But they already have the best pay and benefits, so who does it help to Strike for higher pay when they are already the highest paid? Not John E. TaxPayer.

        Either way my only point is What got us here will not get us there.

        1. Federal workers cannot strike or negotiate wages or benefits. Ever heard of PATCO? So no, not a monopoly. The fed gov by its nature has very highly educated workforce (lawyers, analysts, etc.). The highest earners are concentrated in DC because Congress mandates that agency HQs be located in DC., so all the highest managers and political appointees are there. Besides you can’t compare a highly educated workforce to the average at large. CBO (also gov agency) had a 2017 study that the highly educated folks receive 24% less than private sector and uneducated folks 34% more. All the studies differ because it depends on how you evaluate the value of benefits, which is not great if you’re a healthy, new employee not intending on staying with the gov for 30 years. It’s also not competitive with major corporations with large # of employees like the gov. Personally, I don’t care if the housekeeper who earns less than $15/hr has an above salary when including benefits.

          1. Of course I know of the PATCO union, and am glad that they were offered a grace period to return to work despite breaking the law by striking. Regardless of the fact it being illegal for federal workers to strike, the same is not true of state and local which number 5 times that of federal government employees and still have the same monopoly I spoke of. Additionally your comments on DC are quite off, only a sixth of all federal workers work in DC and your comment on mandating headquarters in DC is very false. It is however advantageous to stay close to the money(lawmakers) when it comes to bidding on contracts and is required for certain contractors to work there as they may be needed to work at government offices.
            And for that CBO study, it does prove my point about uneducated workers earning more. And for the reasons a highly educated individual may want to work for the government are numerous. Many PH’D’s can’t get jobs on the open market due to lack of demand for their skills, the value of a pension is worth many times what someone might expect to achieve with their 401k, and with strict requirements around firing someone you can’t put a price on job security.

            Yes I get that federal employees aren’t allowed to strike, but that is a niche example compared to the total number of government employees and government mandated monopolies. But you never actually addressed the point I made, should government employees, and any monopoly industry, be allowed to strike?

  8. I think that unions are great, and I’ve worked for companies that have done some major scare mongering about unions, but what I haven’t been able to figure out is how to actually join one, or in the case where there isn’t one in the area for that specific job type, how to start one or if there’s a more overarching union that can be joined. Any advice for that?

    1. The Industrial Workers of the World [IWW] is “is a member-run union for all workers, a union dedicated to organizing on the job, in our industries and in our communities”. You can search for your nearest branch (by country and region/state) at http://www.iww.org/branches. IWW can also help with organizer training and what you should do to prepare for starting a union [www.iww.org/organize].

      There are six departments [www.iww.org/unions]: Department 100 – Agriculture and Fisheries, Department 200 – Mining and Minerals, Department 300 – General Construction, Department 400 – Manufacture and General Production, Department 500 – Transportation and Communication, Department 600 – Public Service (freelance and temporary workers have a union, and sex industry workers have a union in this dept).

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