Should unions still exist?
Striking is a time-honored tradition to protest for better working conditions and unions have been central to this tradition but with today’s possibilities for mobilization, do we still need unions?
Rise of the Issue
The U.S. has a long and rich history of worker movements, most of which bare their origins with the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Unions have been central and used as a tool to agitate for a number of things – better working conditions, hours, pay. Yet, in the era of social media when it is increasingly easy to mobilize a large group of people or start a movement through a hashtag, do we still need unions to get the job done?
In 2022, a poll was conducted and 71 percent of Americans seem to think we do. Approval ratings for unions are at its highest since 1965. The current wave of unionism is most likely due to wage stagnation, reduced worker rights, income inequality, and a rise in the cost of living. Most credit unions for their collective bargaining power, though others argue unions are somewhat redundant and a tool of the past, particularly with the prospect of social media enabling the mobilization of thousands as seen in the Arab Spring, or as some dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”. Furthermore, some also argue that unions leave very little room for flexibility or individualism, often seeing members have to follow the lead of union reps rather than pursue goals of their own.
Commonwealth v. Hunt
Prior to this the legality of labor unions in America was uncertain. Unions were from this point onwards ruled to be legal provided the unions were organized in a legal manner and used legal methods to achieve their objectives.
First Nationwide Strike Stops Trains Across US
The Great Railroad strike of 1877 saw federal troops called in, alongside private militias hired by the railroad companies, to break the strike of around 100,000 railroad workers. These workers were not a part of a union but worked collectively to protest the third year of wage cuts.
The Pullman Strike
Some 250,000 factory workers at Pullman Palace Car Company walked off the production line. Striking against 12-hour workdays, reduced wages, during a depressed economy. The main union involved was the American RailWay Union and the Labor Day national holiday is a direct result of the Pullman strike.
This major strike caused half of America's steel production to shut down. A total of 350,000 steelworkers in Pittsburgh, who were represented by the union American Federation of Labor, protested corporate harassment, low wages, and poor working conditions.
Textile Workers Strike
This major strike saw some 400,000 workers across the Eastern Seaboard protest long hours and low wages. Their aims were not met and many were in fact punished for their participation in the strike.
Union Powers are Limited by Law
The Taft-Hartley Labor Act limits the powers that unions have and puts limitations on the circumstances under which they are allowed to strike.
Civil Rights and Labor Movements
This period saw the establishment unions which represent certain racial and ethic groups within the U.S. For instance, the Latino American community in the 1960s made up a large portion of agricultural workers and a union, the United Farm Workers of America, was formed to protect and represent them in 1962.
With the 2008 financial crisis, economic fallout from COVID-19, increasing costs of living, wage stagnation, and a reduction of workers rights, unionism is on the rise with a majority of Americans now believing a decline of unions to be bad for American workers.
Protections from Dismissal
Supporters say unions provide an important safeguard to prevent workers from being let go without reasonable grounds, while opponents argue unions make it too difficult to fire an employee that is underperforming.
The Individual vs the Collectivity
Opponents argue that unions leave little room for individuals to reach their own agreements to best suit their needs while supporters say collective bargaining is precisely what ensures better working conditions for all.
The two sides differ as to whether unions and collective bargaining efforts lead to workers performing better due to better working conditions or worse because of the focus on seniority as opposed to performance.
Unions protect workers from being unjustly fired.
Nonunion workers can be let go for virtually any reason - aside from discrimination - but employers looking to lay off union workers need to present just cause.
Unions provide better wages for workers.
Collective bargaining means unions have more leverage to demand increased wages for its workers.
Union workers have better benefits.
Unions can ask for better benefits for their workers through collective bargaining.
Unions represent working America in the political system.
Their leverage extends to the political field, where they are able to represent and lobby for the interests of America’s working class.
Trends set by unions also benefit nonunion workers.
Legal minimum wage requirements and limitations on how many hours someone can work apply across the board, to both union and nonunion workers.
Union workers are bound by what their union negotiates.
Even if they do not agree with the decisions made by their union, they cannot deviate from them without losing other protections.
Unions make it harder to promote workers that do well.
Because unions have a large focus on seniority over quality of work, workers who do exceptionally well are prevented from being promoted.
Unions make it harder to demote or fire people who are not performing well.
Because of the protections afforded to workers that belong to a union, it is harder for employers to demote or lay off those that are not living up to the standards.
Unions can drive up costs for employers.
Hiring non-unionized workers is cheaper for employers than hiring those that belong to a union.
Unions can cost money for workers.
Some employers require their workers to be unionized once they are hired for the job, and require them to pay a fee.