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.)
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.
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.
“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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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 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!