Do We Still Need Unions?!

Those of us who grew up during the Cold War experienced more than our fair share of capitalist propaganda. Communists were the enemy, and capitalism—more than democracy—was positioned as its antithesis. Reaganomics and Thatcherism promoted the idea that the only thing better than Capitalism was capitalism unfettered by unions and government regulations. With the advent of offshoring, this was done one better by dispensing with niceties like human rights, by moving jobs to countries where democracy didn’t spoil the fun!

As a child of the 80’s I bought into this propaganda, and didn’t notice the prejudice that I, and those around me, had developed against unions, and the people who belonged to them. When I entered the working world, it was common to hear people say proudly that they did not—and would never—belong to a union. The word ‘union’ had transformed from noun to derisive adjective.

First-in-last-out, pay based on tenure, constant labour strife shutting down productive capacity, and strikes timed with good weather, all seemed to undermine the idea that unions still had a place in a Darwinian capitalist system. The best that supporters of the labour movement could do was point out that they were to thank for the 40-hour work week, and weekends.

Sure, but what have you done for me lately?! 
It turns out, not much.
So why don’t we just get rid of them? We can, as long as we can answer ‘no’ to all of the following questions:

Do jobs exist where people trade their productive capacity for money? Does worker safety come at some cost? 
Is anything other than profit a desired outcome?

For people who have knowledge-based jobs, they are inevitably paid to continue learning. Every job becomes an opportunity to add to the résumé, and increase their value to the market. But there are still many jobs—and notably, jobs that can’t be offshored—where there is a straight trade of money for time, with the worker becoming less valuable with each passing day. Does a delivery person become more or less valuable as the years advance? How about someone working in a mine? Chances are, their market value is dropping as they work, which exposes them to being exchanged for younger, perhaps more energetic, and lower paid replacements. Also, when unemployment rates rise, these types of jobs are prone to salary erosion dictated by market forces; if there is always someone willing to do it cheaper, it’s a race to the bottom.

The profit motive is the basis of capitalism. Profit and the interests of the worker are often at odds, as is usually the case when it comes to worker safety. We’re not sending foreign workers into railway tunnels with unstable explosives anymore (I think), but there continues to be lots of skilled and unskilled work in environments where cutting corners to save a buck will cost lives, or the quality of them. Without a mechanism to counteract the profit motive, it will win out over safety every time.

For some jobs, it is pretty easy to calculate a worker’s value. How many quality widgets did he produce? How much did she sell? How many billable hours did they contribute? Many others are more qualitative than quantitative. Has a balance been stuck between patient health, and the cost of health care? Are students being adequately prepared for the world? Are the interests of the public being prioritized over political expediency? In these cases, it is a great advantage for a worker to have protection, when pressures such as cost, profit, and perception could lead to bad outcomes.

Until someone comes up with something better, unions still have a role to play when workers trade their value for money, worker safety comes at a cost, and we desire more than just profit.


One Response

  1. Thanks for posting this reflection on the importance of unions – which is not just for their members but for society more generally. They represent a vital social principle: that of fairness. (This is vital not just for the economy, but also for democracy.) Unions entail economic benefits for not only their workers: they raise wage and benefit expectations in proximate and comparable workplaces; and they mean more revenue for local businesses, since union workers have more disposable income to spend.

    Simply put, unions are the staple of middle-class standards of living: no unions, no middle class.

    The social and economic benefits of unions are cleverly summarized in this Australian labour awareness PSA:

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