Do labor unions have a right to exist?

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.
==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I get into arguments with people I know about whether labor unions ought to exist.

Some have had bad experiences with labor unions – with unions that were too weak to do anything for their members, or unions that abused their power.  Some say there once was a need for labor unions, but the need no longer exists because laws and government regulations will protect workers.

I agree that unions and union members have done bad things, from the hard-hat construction union members who beat up anti-war demonstrators in the 1970s to the prison guards union which worked against legalization of medical marijuana in last year’s California referendum.

But banks, the police and other institutions in society have abused their power, too, and no reasonable person proposes that they be abolished – only that they perform their proper duties.

We take for granted that people who get income from investing their wealth have a right to unite into corporations and act as if they were a single person.  But we don’t take for granted that people who get income from the labor of the hands and brains have a right to form unions and act in unity.

And as for workers trusting government to protect their rights – laws are not self-enacting; neither are they self-enforcing.  I have a legal right not to be forced to work overtime without pay.  But as a lone individual, I lack the power to force a big business to respect that right, unless I have money to hire lawyers and time to wait – maybe years – for a decision.  I recall an age discrimination lawsuit against Xerox Corp. which dragged on for years, and some of the plaintiffs died in the meantime.

How the laws are written, and how much the regulators enforce them, depends upon the attitude of the party in power, and the attitude of the party in power depends on what social and economic institutions have the most influence.

It is true that today’s labor unions are politically weak, but that his not an argument for making them weaker still.  During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, I was a member of an extremely weak union, the Newspaper Guild.  Each contract negotiation was about what we would give up, not what we would gain.  But still – we had a contract.  The company might impose its policy, but it was contractually obligated to follow that policy.  There was something standing between the individual and absolute power.  We weren’t subject to being fired because somebody took a personal dislike to any of us.

I reported on business and the economy for the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester for 20 years.  As things started to go bad in the local economy in the 1980s and worsened in the 1990s, I found a pervasive atmosphere of fear.  Most people were afraid to say anything on the record that would be contrary to their employers – or potential employers.  The only people who were unafraid to speak as free Americans were retirees, the self-employed (sometimes), tenured college professors and labor union members.

Richard B. Freeman, a labor economist who teaches at Harvard and the London School of Economics, and who 25 years ago wrote the classic work, What Do Unions Do?, with James Medoff, described labor unions’ contribution to society as follows:

The first thing unions do is to raise wages for working people, and that obviously benefits the working people.  They also increase the kind of benefits that workers want.  So, if workers want pensions, the unions negotiate for that.  If workers want maternity leave, that’s what they bargain for.  If workers want to have better insurance and are willing to give up some wages to get it, unions help them.  Unions change the pattern of compensation towards greater benefits.

Because unions make working life better for workers, they lower turnover in unionized workplaces.  Employers with unions traditionally have workers who stay longer and contribute to raising the productivity of the enterprise. Employers also get more credible information about what workers really want in the workplace, because the union representatives are democratically elected and they really speak for the workers.  So a good, functioning union is a real positive.  Of course, not all unions function well. But our evidence, and the evidence people generated twenty years later, demonstrated that, on net, unions are a positive force in the economy.

via The Browser.

One of W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points was “Drive out fear.”  Deming was the father of Total Quality Management system for improving the effectiveness of organizations.  His point was that an organization cannot improve unless people in the organization are free to discuss problems without fear of retaliation.  Related to that, workers are not going to cooperate in improving efficiency if they fear the result will be layoffs.  There has to be some form of a contract between management and labor, and a labor union is a continuing organization, like the corporation, with which a contract can be made.

But I don’t really argue for labor unions on the grounds that they promote economic efficiency.  I favor labor unions because I believe that people who do the work of our society deserve respect, and deserve to share the fruits of their work.

Steven Greenhouse in The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, described the many ways that employees can be abused without the protection of strong labor unions.

Click on Tough times: wage theft and other crimes for my review of Greenhouse’s description of some of them.

Click on Richard B. Freeman on Labor Unions for his complete interview with The Browser.

Click on The Price of Labor’s Decline for comment by David Broder of the Washington Post on how the nation was suffered because of the lack of strong labor unions.

The news media treat organized labor as if it did not exist.  The Pew Research Center looked at sources that reporters quoted in articles about the economy.  Labor union representatives were sources of information in only 2 percent of economy stories studied, as compared with government in 61 percent and business spokespeople in 40 percent.

Click on Who Drove the Economic News (and Who Didn’t) for the complete Pew report.

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