A Philosopher's Blog

Should Unions be Exterminated?

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2011
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While public unions have been making headlines because of the attacks being launched against them, most pundits seem to agree that unions (public and private) have been in decline for quite some time.

One of the main arguments against unions is that they are harmful to the economy. In the case of public sector unions, it has been argued that they enable public employees to grow fat on the taxpayers’ money as protected parasites. In the case of private sector unions, it is often alleged that they force companies to spend far too much on wages and benefits and this helps destroy American competitiveness. The American auto industry provides a perfect case study of this problem.  The solution that is often suggested is curbing or even getting rid of unions.

While casting unions as villains has a certain appeal and unions have clearly contributed to many problems, unions do seem to have a legitimate and important role that they should play. This role is, of course, to provide workers with protection from mistreatment and exploitation.

While it is tempting to say that the public sector employees need no protection from the public, this would be a mistake and would be on par with claiming that people in power should be free to do as they will with state employees. However, there clearly need to be checks on the power of those in power and unions do help to provide one such check. Or, at the very least, it provides employees with a more effective means of resisting the agendas of politicians and other vagaries of politics.

In the case of private sector unions, it could be argued that they are not needed. After all, there are plenty of laws to protect workers and unions actually are burden (via dues) and an impediment. As such, unions should be eliminated for the good of all.

This does have some appeal and there are aspects of unions that certainly do need reform. However, exterminating unions is actually a bad idea-at least from the standpoint of workers.

While unions are weaker than corporations, they do provide some degree of protection to employees. After all, being part of an organized group provides more safety than merely going it alone. In fact, many of the arguments used to justify and defend corporations can also be used to justify and defend unions. If it is good for the corporate people to organize into a corporation, then it would seem good for the employees to organize as well. In the same vein, many of the arguments against unions can also be directed against corporations. After all, if it is bad for people to organize for economic purposes, then this would seem to apply to corporations as well.

Of course, this might be countered by saying that while the corporate folks need to organize into corporations, employees do not need to do so. After all, it could be argued, they are protected by the government and they do not need the extra protection that a union is supposed to provide.

While there are laws protecting employees, these laws can be changed by the lawmakers. And, of course, many of these lawmakers are heavily influenced by the corporations that donate to their campaigns and lobby them. Without the modest counter offered by unions, corporations would be able to influence politicians without much (or any) organized opposition on the part of employees.

It might be claimed that this would not be a problem. After all, corporations would not use such nearly unchecked influence to do anything really unfair or harmful to employees. Or would they?

Since I am not a senseless hater of corporations, I accept that some corporate folks are principled and willingly treat employees well. However, since I am also familiar with history and what people are capable of, I am well aware that some corporations would attempt to act in ways that would be unfair, exploitive and even harmful.

Those who doubt this can take a look back of the history of business in the United States. Some highlights include slave labor, child labor, horribly dangerous working conditions, using the US military to break strikes, and so on. For more recent examples, the behavior of some American corporations in other countries shows just what these people are in fact capable of. Even in the United States, corporations still engage in questionable practices. As such, the idea that corporations can be trusted to act well without an organized body of employees to provide some counter is absurd.

This is not to say that unions are without fault. They also have their problems. For example, American unions have often been linked to organized crime. As another example, teachers’ unions often protect incompetent teachers from being fired.  As a third example, American auto workers were able to secure so many benefits that they actually impaired the ability of their companies to compete. As such, unions do need to work on improvements. However, this is quite a different matter from getting rid of them.

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9 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 22, 2011 at 7:18 am

    The thing that bothers me most about unions are the work rules. I once had a grievance filed against me for moving a computer from one office to another. What I was supposed to do is to request a “mover,” wait one week for him to show up, and then get charged a half-day for a 10 minute job.

  2. frk said, on April 22, 2011 at 10:38 am

    T J: I wonder how such a rule came into existence. From the scant details you provide it certainly seems silly.

    Here’s one way it might happen.The company’s bargaining representatives and the union’s representatives sit at the bargaining table, and each presents an initial contract proposal. Let’s assume that the company is offering a $25 dollar a year raise in an area where just down the road similar companies have already negotiated 3 year contracts of $500-$600-and $700 with some additional workplace benefits.

    The union’s original proposal is a three-year contract asking $750/year (hoping that negotiation would encourage the company to return with a reasonable offer more in line with local contracts). The union also proposes new workplace language and perhaps new retirement policies. Some of that workplace language may relate to how and by whom certain activities in the workplace are completed—who moves what where, etc.

    The company is unwilling to offer a salary anywhere near equal to the union’s original proposal. They come back with 6 year $325/ year, a few workplace language changes, and an attractive retirement package. The company essentially wants to lock the union into a 6 year wage freeze. And their new retirement package is designed to a) encourage older workers to retire earlier and b) kick their financial commitments further down the road. ( remember GM–sign on to retirement offers that you know you’ll never be able to fulfill , betting that more than the usual number of workers will die before retirement, etc)

    The union counters with a $425/year 5 year proposal, that accepts all the language changes and retirement adjustments that the union proposed the employer has approved.

    Wham!Bam! Thank you ma’am! The employer agrees. the union takes the contract proposal back to its membership, who are reluctant to accept the offer until their union rep informs them that they’d likely get little if any more money, that the language changes would disappear and the retirement offer which is quite generous would return to pre-negotiation levels if the contract is not accepted as offered.

    So. That’s just one way the computer-moving language might have entered your contract. The contract didn’t write itself. The union didn’t write the contract. The company didn’t write the contract. Everything in the contract has been negotiated.

    Personally, I’d rather have minor inconveniences like you describe than be without the workplace advances that unions have provided over the years, Wait a sec. I’ve got to dust one of my crystal balls***. OK. Done Once the unions are gone, rest assured that the changes described in the article below will slowly disappear,

    http://thinkprogress.org/2011/03/05/top-five-things-unions/

    *** I purchased three at a yard sale. I seldom use them, but when I do, I make sure I clean them thoroughly so I receive a crystal-clear vision of what is to come . I recommend using lemon-scented Pledge. It gives a fresh citrus scent to my readings and leaves my balls smelling lemony-fresh.

  3. FRE said, on April 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    As many of us realize, it would be a mistake to paint all unions (and all employers) with the same brush. Some unions have imposed silly and expensive work rules, but some unions have been reasonable and worked constructively with employers while still supporting the rights of employees.

    Unions have been blamed for the declining of the American auto industry. Perhaps they are partly to blame, but as I shall show, the auto industry itself has been negligent.

    Industrial robots were an American invention, yet the U.S. auto industry did not implement them until years after the Japanese did.

    Electronic multi-point fuel injection was an American invention and was briefly offered on an American Motors vehicle about the late 1950s. By about 1969, a German Bosch electronic multi-point fuel injection system was available on the Volvo and other cars; it provided a number of advantages over carburetors. It was not available on American cars until some time in the 1980s.

    The automatic transmission and micro processor were American inventions and a computer controlled automatic transmission was available on the Toyota Camry by the late 1980s. It wasn’t until years later that U.S. manufacturers produced computer controlled automatic transmissions.

    When laws began to require emission controls beginning about 1968, as the restrictions increased, American cars ran very badly. They would hesitate, sometimes stall, be hard starting, and sometimes even backfire through the carburetor. U.S. manufacturers responded by trying to get the emissions restrictions relaxed, claiming that cars could not be made to run will with tight emissions restrictions. Meanwhile, the Japanese and Germans made cars which ran beautifully even with the emissions controls.

    In the 1950s, American hardboard and plywood manufacturers were importing hot plate presses from two German manufacturers because they were not available in the U.S.

    No doubt others could provide additional examples of failure of American manufacturers to innovate and keep up with foreign manufacturers. So, much of the blame for the decline of American industry is the fault of American industry. Too often, American industry is overly concerned about short-term profits and executive salaries at the expense of long-term benefits. Unions cannot be blamed for that.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

      Good points. The American automobile industry really dropped the ball on technology and design. While it might be tempting to try to stick the blame on the unions for this, it seems to have been a failure on the part of the corporate leaders. The unions did, however, have a significant role in increasing the cost of American cars.

  4. magus71 said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    “Imagine a league where players who make it through three seasons could never be cut from the roster.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204226204576601232986845102.html

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      If you have Gears 3, we’re doing Co-op on Saturdays, starting around noon.

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      Excellent. Fran Tarkenton was my favorite player when I was 10. He still has it.


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