In a recent piece concerning labor unions, Dr. Bill Bissett contended that unions do not serve in the interests of society. I disagree with his position, and I submit that the root cause of any labor union can be found in unchecked corporate power.
In all forms of work and industry, people generally care about their output. What we do matters in our lives and in the lives of others. Yet, it is not a sin to actively seek better salaries and benefits, particularly when wages struggle to match inflation. When adjusted for inflation, the average family income over the last half-century has hardly moved. This change also reflects more families who operate with two incomes, rather than one. Unions will unabashedly work to improve real wages.
Opponents of labor unions want you to believe our group activity does not benefit society, but this is untrue. Employees who work in safe conditions for wages which parallel the needed education and skills ultimately perform better than they would otherwise. Their level of stress decreases and productivity increases. Studies frequently demonstrate that happier workers are more productive workers.
Union members pay dues to the organization for a variety of purposes, including political activity. I cannot imagine any union member who agrees with the group in all circumstances. However, this is true of any organized group activity, including employees of corporations, who freely provide their labor to an organization that attempts to influence policies that they most likely will not agree with in all cases. At least in the situation of labor unions, we have the opportunity to change what our organization does when we disagree with the decisions.
The growth of organized labor led to significant changes in legislation in the United States. It is a fair question to ask how long this nation would have waited to implement laws mandating a standard eight hour work day, minimum wage, prevention of child labor abuse, addressing workplace safety, and allowing for collective bargaining if not for the actions of those who effectively organized labor unions?
Though unions succeeded in making positive changes for society, the power wielded by corporate interests dwarfs all other types of interest groups. Corporations and their officers have access to finances beyond the scope of most unions. They donate money to campaigns, political action committees, and spend millions of dollars on lobbying state and federal government.
Additionally, Bissett’s article also hinted that union members have less incentive to work hard and care about their craft. This is conjecture, at best. At worst, the notion is an unfair stereotype that union members want to hide their laziness behind group activity and they do not care about their work. What would members of the Chamber of Commerce say if union members speculated that business executives and owners only cared about themselves and their own profits? Would we not be just as guilty of delineating unfair stereotypes that may not have any basis in reality?
The very existence of labor unions is inextricably linked to the poor treatment employees received in the past. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the nature of what he called the theory of countervailing power. In the United States, the amount of power and influence corporations hold comes at the expense of the workers. As a result, labor unions organized as a counterweight to check corporate power. At some point, the burden upon laborers became too great and the creation of unions was a natural outgrowth from terrible working conditions and low salary.
What did business executives think would happen when they mistreated and neglected their employees? If labor unions cause distress or discomfort to businesses, they only have themselves to blame. They made us, and now they must contend with us. We aren’t going anywhere.