In defense of unions


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American workers can be an interesting bunch.

For decades, most have seen their wages stagnate and the power of transnational corporations grow. Organizing workers and building implacable solidarity, it seems, is the only antidote. But even as embattled workers are bludgeoned by the recession, unions have, paradoxically, become less popular.

The percentage of people who said they approve of unions dropped from 59 percent about two years ago to 52 percent in an August Gallup poll. (In 2009, that number dropped below 50 percent for the first time since Gallup began asking the question.) And in the same survey, 67 percent of respondents said they’d like unions to have the same or less influence than they have today.

The antipathy toward public-sector employees — who, with roughly 36 percent, were the highest unionized cohort in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — is especially pronounced.

Already an anti-union “right to work” state, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is now pushing wage and benefit cuts for public-employee union members. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become famous for his anti-union diatribes. And some have even suggested outlawing public-employee unions completely.

While enfeebled labor unions retain some electoral power, their dwindling membership (approximately 12 percent of wage and salary workers were union members in 2010) has substantially reduced their economic clout.

Still, the material benefits of unionization remain: Union members’ 2010 median weekly earnings of $917, dwarfed nonunion workers’ $717. For many, that’s reason enough to join.

But unions can provide more than pecuniary pay-offs.

They help foster solidarity and an ethos of shared sacrifice. They amplify the voice of workers in often impervious workplaces. And they democratize power relations, putting workers on a more equal footing with management.

That’s why unions are essential in a truly democratic society. Many citizens would balk at attempts to revoke their political rights; yet, most complicity accept that authoritarianism, officious bosses, and a lack of due process are just a part of American employment.

Even management magnanimity isn’t a good reason for a union-less workplace.

To accept this situation would be a little like a patriarchal husband providing his subordinated wife with ample material benefits, then expecting her to slavishly obey his every command. Sure, the wife isn’t living in abject squalor, but her husband’s (ostensibly) benevolent authoritarianism is an affront to her dignity. The sating of one’s material needs doesn’t negate the exigency of agency.

Similarly, nonunionized employees who receive generous compensation but work in a rigidly hierarchical environment remain profoundly powerless. Much like the circumscribed wife, these workers have been shorn of their dignity, denied a say in decisions of direct importance.

The vicissitudes of a company’s profitability can also affect workers’ benefits. Corporations might be willing to shower employees with benefits when business is booming, but when times are tough, workers need someone to have their back. That’s the job of organized labor.

Some criticism of union is warranted. Too many union leaders have been corrupt and autocratic. (Sociologist C. Wright Mills, for his part, lambasted union bosses in a 1948 book, labeling them the The New Men of Power.)

Scholars have long noted the public’s skepticism about union power. In his 1987 book The Confidence Gap: Business, Labor, and Government, political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that labor unions are viewed as “necessary but unpopular” in the public’s mind. While they regard organized labor as a necessary countervailing force to giant corporations, they also see unions — that it is, the institution itself, rather than rank-and-file members — as having too much power.

But you need to augment union power before you can address some of its shortcomings. Reforming an imperfect, yet salutary, institution will do little good if it’s already thoroughly emasculated.

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