[This essay was the runner-up in the 2011 Gandhian Forum Student Peace and Justice Writing Contest.]
The Right of Workers to Unionize
First of all what is a union? We hear about a number of states around the country including Ohio and Wisconsin, eliminating workers' collective bargaining rights, but what in fact is a union? A union is, "an organization of employees formed to bargain with the employer on matters concerning wages, working conditions of employees, and other common goals." At first glance the purpose of unions seems a righteous one; to make sure that employees are not taken advantage of by intimidating and abusive employers. Unions have had some large victories such as designated vacation time, forty-hour workweeks, and child labor laws. I contend that employee unions are necessary and collective bargaining is an effective tool for maintaining justice in the workplace.
The peaceful demonstrations we see exhibited in modern day America were not always common. During colonial times, unions were viewed as secret societies that used intimidation and violence in order to gain compliance from uncooperative workers. As Henry George said in 1891, "Those who tell you of trade-unions bent on raising wages by moral suasion alone are like people who tell you of tigers that live on oranges." Among unions in early day America concepts such as freedom of contract and competition were valued, while cartels and government-granted monopolies were looked down upon. Having said all this it is evident that the court systems, employers, consumers, and even workers themselves were not very fond of unions. The "new world" being a frontier society with scarce labor didn't have as strong of a need for unions as civilizations in Europe. In fact workers in America were said to have made double what those paid in England made. Observing the high wages paid to workers in colonial America it is no wonder union membership stagnated below one percent.
Today unions in our society exist for long periods of time. It takes a substantial effort to destroy a union. However, in the colonial period unions were so fragile that if a union were to lose a strike it would lead to its demise. With rural areas being farm-dominated (as many are still today) unions were more prominent in big cities holding skilled traders, and in the emerging railroad industry. The symbolic signing of the Declaration of Independence in the Philadelphia Guild Hall of Carpenters proved whom our founding fathers expected life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be granted to: the workers. Unions such as the "United Steelworkers" were born out of the industrial revolution with the intent of making sure that wealth and power was equally distributed and not forfeited over to a few powerful industrialists, while leaving the rest in poverty. Although the birth of the unions was in the private sector it slowly transcended into the public sector, eventually disappearing from the private sector entirely. Let us analyze both sides of the argument; the supporters of unions and the opposition.
Supporters of unions will ask, what about the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution? Are we as Americans not protected by Freedom of Association -- the right to join with others and exercise the right to assemble, and voice our opinions to attain a common goal protected under Free Speech? This is indeed the argument for those who support unions. If unions are outlawed who is to say that businesses and large corporations won't coerce people into performing dangerous tasks on the job. What if all businesses in a certain sector got together and decided that they were going to lower the starting wage of their workers, below that of which is necessary to survive; with no regulation, no unions to defend the workers, who would stop them? Sixteen-hour workdays may once again become an epidemic and children may be more likely found in factories than in schools. Those who say that modern day corporations are now more civilized and would never revert back to the days of early industrialization, are the same ones who want to give large businesses tax breaks in hopes of job creation (a.k.a trickle down economics). When leaving job creation in the hands of large corporations we saw one or both of two outcomes: a) CEO's putting the money they would have spent on taxes in their pockets or b) Corporations moving their factories to less expensive and un-regulated countries outsourcing American jobs. Can we really trust the same big businesses to maintain the worker rights that have been established, the same businesses that so vehemently fought to abolish worker rights?
Professor Harley Shaiken, of the University of California-Berkeley, has executed studies showing that unions actually improve productivity and lead to a better trained workforce. One instance displayed a higher recovery rate from heart attacks in hospitals where nurses were in fact unionized (Professor Michael Ash and Jean Ann Seago). Better communication between management and employees has proved to lead to less worker turnover (workers leaving that need to be replaced). With less worker turnover management is more likely to reserve funds for training, since they are confident that their workers will remain with them for the long-term. Worker stress is something that employers should always be sensitive to as well. Unions give workers a way to voice their concerns regarding job hazards, relieving stress levels and making them more comfortable on the job. All of the above concerns of worker stress, worker turnover, employee-management communication, etc. are starting to become labeled as "unimportant" and "unnecessary spending." More and more businesses treat their employees like equipment rather than American citizens with liberties. Ever since the decline of unionized labor in the private sector, we have seen corporations more concerned about the short-term gains as opposed to the long-term gains requiring employee investment. This is without a doubt correlated with the decline in our nation's economy.
Those in opposition of unions acknowledge that the accomplishments of child labor laws, improved working conditions, forty-hour work weeks, and overtime are essential to America. Their modern day view however is that unions are no longer needed, and are actually strangling businesses while using peer-pressure and other forms of coercion to add to their numbers. An example of infringement on employee's freedoms is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) according to anti-unionists. The EFCA is a bill that allows union officials to gain enough signatures from the majority of workers, in order to be recognized as the official union responsible for bargaining with an employer. At first glance there is nothing wrong with the EFCA if one ignores the unions' efforts of putting through a 'card check'. If a 'card check' is passed then unions would have the ability to hold a public vote in which employees may feel intimidated or scared of voting a certain way. Essentially union bosses are jeopardizing workers rights to cast their votes in private.
Although there was a time when unions were portrayed as fighting for the "little guy" that is no longer the reality (or at least that's what those supporting big business will tell you). As unions steadily gained power they became more corrupt and negligent towards working conditions and became more occupied with the amount of cash revenue flowing into their pockets. Non-union supporters will tell you that companies like GM and Chrysler needed a bail out due to the 'lavish' pensions they agreed to pay their workers. The "humongous" and "greedy" pensions awarded to employees resulted in the poor companies and businesses like GM and Chrysler having to cut funding for new innovative cars. Public education is another example of union greed; teacher's unions beg for more school funding and then when they get it they still cease to show improvements. Instead of constantly asking for more money, why won't teachers hold themselves accountable for their student's poor performance and confront their inadequate teaching methods?
Another popular argument against unions is that we as citizens and workers elect representatives to fight for our rights. So why do we need unions if we already have politicians? The answer is obvious reply anti-unionists; Democrats attempt to hand over as much money as possible through benefits (child care, Medicare, FERS) to government workers, in order to secure their re-election all at the expense of the taxpayer! Let's not even talk about all those benefits which workers are "FORCED" to pay for when they are hired at certain jobs. Is this not a democratic society? So how can we force employees to pay for benefits such as FERS and Medicare by taking a portion directly out of their paychecks, talk about unfair! Well wait a minute, then why not start questioning state taxes as well, I mean if I want a road to be built near my house I can just pay a private contractor to do it for me!
Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, has recently succeeded in taking away 'Collective Bargaining' established by the Wagner Act of 1935 in a matter of three hours. The main reason for Governor Walkers attack on Collective Bargaining was to get public employees to put more money towards their pensions and health care premiums. Public employees eventually agreed to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions and 12.6 percent toward their health care premiums, but Governor Walker continued to hold strong in his plan to eradicate Collective Bargaining. What was Governor Walker's and the GOP's true intentions; if it were really to curtail the future deficit, would he not have been satisfied at the renegotiation public employees were willing to make that would ultimately lead them to pay more towards their benefits? A common theory in the United States amongst progressives is that after the 2010 elections, Republicans had to face the harsh reality that public sector unions were the only group with enough money and voters capable of countering corporate spending in the Republican Party. If there is any truth in this theory then does this make Republicans pro-monopoly in politics and anti-competition? It seems as though the grand scheme of Republicans is to cut off the sources of funding toward the only other political party strong enough to stand up to them, the Democratic party. Once this is accomplished then the Grand Old Party will dominate the United States for centuries to come! To think that the Wisconsin quarter says "Forward" when realistically they are going backward.
Politicians bring our attention to the many past faults of Unions when they excluded minority workers, gave in to corruption, and disregarded the demands of females in the workforce. However, haven't politicians carried out the same discrimination against minorities, taken bribes, and neglected the rights of women? To say it only matters when the unions were involved in such prejudices is to create a double-standard. All the lies regarding how Democrats are trying to pour more money into the pockets of government workers just so they can get re-elected, is just an attempt to divert attention from that same thing that Republicans are doing on the other end. Wait a second; the wealthy are outnumbered by the middle-class, so how could the Republicans in fact be trying to secure their positions? Well it's quite simple, here in the United States there is a strong correlation between the total sum of money spent on a campaign and the chances of being elected. So if trying to secure your seat in the White House why not pass laws and bills that benefit the wealthy, this way you can get a lofty 'donation' or campaign contribution from those same wealthy people in order to secure your victory in an election. There is Power in a Union tries to explain in the simplest way possible why organized capital resists organized labor so strongly in the United States -- "…powerful American corporations developed before the emergence of strong centralized government." Scholar Nelson Lichtenstein said that, "By the time unions came to strength and legislatures took an interest in industry's affairs, the most critical decisions about the direction of American economic development were in private hands." The more power and control over our nation that we fork over to the businesses the larger they become, until it is no longer evident if the government regulates the businesses, or if the businesses regulate the government.
Political activist Michael Moore made a guest appearance on the Stephen Colbert show to discuss the current situation of Collective Bargaining in Wisconsin, and in general, the unequal distribution of power to the top two-percent wealthiest in America. Stephen Colbert defended governors like Scott Walker by saying, "the states are broke, the money is gone"; Mr. Moore on the other hand replied with, "the money is there, the wealthy are sitting on two-trillion dollars that they've sucked out of the economy." Surely, "the tractor," as Stephen Colbert frames it, does not belong to all of us, but the schools, the libraries, roads, etc. do. Mr. Moore explains how the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, is awarding corporations tax deductions while increasing taxes on the public workers, the poor, and the elderly to compensate for the decreased flow of revenue. Michael Moore admits that he and Stephen Colbert are in fact "blessed" with wealth. What makes Michael Moore different from the majority of those in the top-two percent is how he seeks to right the political wrongs and bring light upon corporate greed. Comparing the tax rate of Stephen Colbert (7.4%) and an employee of McDonalds in New Jersey (10.7%) we see a three-percent inequality. Why is it, that Stephen Colbert who is wealthy and has his own television show is expected to pay a lesser percentage in taxes, than someone who may be struggling and living paycheck to paycheck? The answer reveals an ugly truth; the four-hundred people in this country who hold more wealth than half of all Americans combined want to gain a bigger piece of the pie, to the point of where they hold more wealth than three-quarters of all Americans and so on (Michael Moore). At the end of the interview Michael Moore presents Stephen with a memo, and that memo is that Stephen will not be apart of the top four-hundred wealthiest and is temporarily being used as, "a tool for Viacom."
We need to look at the larger picture, what needs and has to be done, what is at stake, and who our opponents are. Everyone is worried about 'class warfare' yet, the people on the upper part of the ladder are not. This small portion of people on the upper part of the ladder have proved to be unrelenting in attaining whatever power, wealth, or upper hand advantage that they can get. So why can't we as the middle class, the heart of America, acknowledge that the first shot has been fired? Warfare of the classes is going on and if we do not soon wake up it will be too late to fix it; by that point the wealthiest two-percent will have the entire pie while the rest of America will be lucky to get the bread crumbs. It is all about first and second class citizens, why is it that investment bankers were given a seven-hundred eighty-seven billion bailout yet those who were impoverished weren't given anything? These same investment bankers walked away with bonuses and raises while others in their companies were victims of mass layoffs. After all it only takes eighty-billion to eliminate poverty in the United States (Cornell West), imagine giving the poor…seven-hundred eighty-seven billion dollars! Our founding fathers could not have possibly conceived an exhaustive constitution. Nonetheless, they left us with the tools capable of attaining all the freedoms and justices necessary for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and unless we use those tools they too will be stripped away from us along with the common good!
- Madland, David. & Walter Karla. "Unions Are Good for the American Economy." (February 18, 2009.)
- Shaiken, Harley. "The Higher Road to a Competitive Economy." (June 25, 2004.)
- Longley, Robert. "Government Employee Benefits."
- United Steel Workers. "A Brief History of Unions."
- Reynolds, Morgan. "A History of Labor Unions from Colonial Times to 2009." (July 17, 2009.)
- Davidoff, Judith. "Walker's Plan to end bargaining has deep roots in GOP." (February 23, 2011.)
- Dray, Philip., There is Power in a Union. New York: Doubleday, 2010.