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Labor unions are associations of workers formed to protect workers’ rights and advance their interests. Unions negotiate with employers through a process known as collective bargaining. The resulting union contract specifies workers’ pay, hours, benefits, and job health-and-safety policies.
Thanks to the efforts of labor unions, workers have achieved higher wages, more reasonable hours, safer working conditions, health benefits, and aid for workers who have retired or been injured. Labor unions were also instrumental in ending the practice of child labor. They have exerted a broad influence on American life, including the political, economic, and cultural fabric of the country.
- A labor union is an association of workers formed to negotiate collectively with an employer to protect and further workers’ rights and interests.
- Sustained trade union organizing among American workers began in 1794 with the establishment of the first trade union.
- Discrimination in unions was common until after WWII and kept Blacks, women, and immigrants out of higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs. Today, labor union members are very diverse, including more female and Black workers than ever before.
- National organized labor groups have influenced federal legislation, such as the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor and civil rights legislation.
- Union power and membership reached a high point in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the biggest gains in union membership are among people under 34 years of age.
The Rise of Labor Unions in the U.S.
Labor unions have existed in the United States since the birth of the country, tracing their origins back to the 18th-century Industrial Revolution in Europe.
The first recorded instance of a worker strike in America occurred in 1768 when journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. In 1794, Philadelphia shoemakers formed a union called the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers; its establishment marked the beginning of sustained trade union organization in the U.S.
From this point forward, local craft and trade unions proliferated in major American cities. Industrialization resulted in the aggregation of workers in large factories, creating fertile ground for union growth. Large factories also put multiple trades under one roof, eventually leading to alliances among unions. Achieving a shorter workday was one of the unions’ major accomplishments.
Excluding Women, Blacks, and Immigrants
After the Civil War and the end of slavery, the need for both skilled and unskilled labor increased. Union members in the skilled trades remained overwhelmingly native-born White Protestant males throughout the 19th century. These higher-paid workers had the funds to pay union dues and contribute to strike funds. They were reluctant to organize unskilled Irish and Italian immigrants, and also excluded women and Black people. Black workers were often paid lower wages, which made White workers fear they would be replaced by cheaper
Excluded groups organized their own unions. Black caulkers in the shipbuilding industry held a strike at the Washington Navy Yard in 1835. Women tailors, shoe binders, mill workers, and Black laundresses formed their own unions. In 1867, the National Union for Cigar Makers was the first union to accept women and Blacks. And in 1912, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which had been organizing in the telephone industry, accepted telephone operators that were primarily women.
Protecting Workers’ Rights
Winning gains for all workers and citizens—such as a shorter workday and a minimum wage—has been a key part of union activity. In 1866, the National Labor Union was created with the goal of limiting the workday for federal employees to eight hours. However, the private sector was much harder for unions to penetrate.
With a continual flood of immigrants coming into the country, the price of labor declined. One group was often pitted against another to keep wages down. When Irish workers won raises in pay from the railroads, for example, Chinese workers were brought in to replace them.
In 1867, more than 2,000 Chinese workers, who were grading and digging tunnels for the transcontinental railroad, simultaneously threw down their picks and shovels, protesting their lower pay compared with White workers. Their strike failed after the railroad owner cut off all food and supplies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Filipino and Japanese sugar plantation workers went on strike in Hawaii, as did Chinese garment workers in San Francisco and New York City.
The Knights of Labor emerged as a major force in the late 1880s, but it collapsed because of poor organization, lack of effective leadership, disagreement over goals, and strong opposition from employers and government forces.
The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 and led by Samuel Gompers until his death in 1924, proved much more durable. It arose as a loose coalition of various local unions. It helped coordinate and support strikes and eventually became a major player in national politics, usually on the side of the Democrats.
Poor pay and working conditions led to work stoppages by the Pullman Railroad Workers and the United Mine Workers, but both strikes were broken up by the government. Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union in the 1894 strike against the Pullman Company, was unable to convince members of his union to accept Black railroad workers. Blacks in turn served as strikebreakers for the Pullman Company and for the owners of Chicago meatpacking companies whose stockyard workers struck in sympathy.
In 1925, A. Philip Randolph began his successful 12-year fight to gain recognition for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by the Pullman Car Company, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the U.S. government. Randolph ultimately succeeded in his quest in 1937.
Labor Reform Legislation
Unions worked not only for improvements in pay and working conditions but also for labor reforms.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was formed in 1881, and the AFL was founded five years later. Their combined organizing force led to the act of Congress that created the Department of Labor (DOL) in 1913. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 allowed employees to strike and boycott their employers; it was followed by the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (PCA) of 1936 and the Fair Labor Standards Acts of 1938, which mandated a minimum wage, extra pay for overtime work, and basic child labor laws.
Pro-business conservatives gained control of Congress in 1946, and in 1947 passed the Taft-Hartley Act, drafted by Senator Robert A. Taft. President Truman vetoed it but the Conservative coalition overrode the veto. The veto override had considerable Democratic support, including 106 out of 177 Democrats in the House, and 20 out of 42 Democrats in the Senate. The law, which is still in effect, banned union contributions to political candidates, restricted the power of unions to call strikes that “threatened national security,” and forced the expulsion of Communist union leaders (the Supreme Court found the anti-communist provision to be unconstitutional, and it is no longer in force). The unions campaigned vigorously for years to repeal the law but failed. During the late 1950s, the Landrum Griffin Act of 1959 passed in the wake of Congressional investigations of corruption and undemocratic internal politics in the Teamsters and other unions.
In 1955, the two largest labor organizations, the AFL and CIO, merged, ending a division of over 20 years. AFL President George Meany became President of the new AFL-CIO, and AFL Secretary-Treasurer William Schnitzler became AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer. The draft constitution was primarily written by AFL Vice President Matthew Woll and CIO General Counsel Arthur Goldberg, while the joint policy statements were written by Woll, CIO Secretary-Treasurer James Carey, CIO vice presidents David McDonald and Joseph Curran, Brotherhood of Railway Clerks President George Harrison, and Illinois AFL-CIO President Reuben Soderstrom. Later on, the AFL-CIO played a crucial role in helping to pass civil rights legislation in 1964-1965.
The Impact of Depression and War
From the Civil War through World War I, labor unions grew in power and number. During the 1920s, they lost some influence, but the Great Depression quickly reversed this trend, with workers turning to their local trade unions to find employment and protection.
American labor unions benefited greatly from the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Wagner Act, in particular, legally protected the right of unions to organize. Unions from this point developed increasingly closer ties to the Democratic Party, and are considered a backbone element of the New Deal Coalition.
Union membership grew exponentially as the Depression wore on. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), established in the 1930s, organized large numbers of Black workers into labor unions for the first time. There were more than 200,000 African Americans in the CIO in 1940, many of them officers of union locals.
During World War II, the influence of labor unions was somewhat curtailed. Some unions, such as those in the defense industry, were forbidden by the government to strike because of the impediment it would present to wartime production.
But the end of the war saw a wave of strikes in many industries; union power and membership (as a percent of employment) reached a high point during this period, from the 1940s to the 1950s. The AFL merged with the CIO–becoming the AFL-CIO in 1955–in order to influence policies that would impact the American labor force.
Some of the founding trade unionists were socialists, communists, or anarchists interested in leveraging union organization into broader revolutionary change. Others focused solely on bread-and-butter issues. Federal legislation known as the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 over President Truman’s veto, required all union officials to file an affidavit and take an oath that they were not communists. This and many other provisions of the act (such as the ban of sympathy strikes or boycotts) led to a weakening of the union movement.
Organizing Lower-Paid Workers
The next decades brought unionization to some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation’s hospitals, nursing homes, and farms. Hospital workers in New York City were organized by 1199, a mostly White and Jewish union of pharmacists led by Leon Davis.
In the late 1950s, during the first flush of the civil rights movement, 1199 mobilized the largely Black and Latina workforce. An unprecedented 46-day strike at seven of the city’s most prestigious hospitals ended with the workers winning union recognition and better pay and working conditions. In the 1990s, 1199 organized thousands of nursing home and home care workers, and later merged with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to become 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
After 1960 public sector unions grew rapidly and secured good wages and high pensions for their members. While manufacturing and farming steadily declined, state- and local-government employment quadrupled from 4 million workers in 1950 to 12 million in 1976 and 16.6 million in 2009. Adding in the 3.7 million federal civilian employees, in 2010 8.4 million government workers were represented by unions, including 31% of federal workers, 35% of state workers and 46% of local workers.
From 1965 to 1970, Filipino and Mexican American farmworkers, led by Philip Vera Cruz, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta, organized a grape boycott that succeeded in rallying national support. After five years, it brought grape growers to the table to sign a first union contract granting better pay, benefits, and protections. However, agricultural workers today still have a very low rate (under 2%) of union membership.
By the 1970s, a rapidly increasing flow of imports (such as automobiles, steel and electronics from Germany and Japan, and clothing and shoes from Asia) undercut American producers. By the 1980s there was a large-scale shift in employment with fewer workers in high-wage sectors and more in the low-wage sectors. Many companies closed or moved factories to Southern states (where unions were weak), countered the threat of a strike by threatening to close or move a plant, or moved their factories offshore to low-wage countries. The number of major strikes and lockouts fell by 97% from 381 in 1970 to 187 in 1980 to only 11 in 2010. On the political front, the shrinking unions lost influence in the Democratic Party, and pro-Union liberal Republicans faded away. Union membership among workers in private industry shrank dramatically, though after 1970 there was growth in employees unions of federal, state and local governments. The intellectual mood in the 1970s and 1980s favored deregulation and free competition. Numerous industries were deregulated, including airlines, trucking, railroads and telephones, over the objections of the unions involved. The climax came when President Ronald Reagan—a former union president—broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981, dealing a major blow to unions.
Republicans began to push through legislative blueprints to curb the power of public employee unions as well as eliminate business regulations.
In 1979, the number of union members reached a peak of 21 million. As additional laws were passed outlawing child labor and mandating equal pay for equal work regardless of race or gender, workers were able to rely on federal laws to protect them. Despite the erosion in labor unions’ member numbers, power, and influence since that time, they continued to prove their importance, particularly in the political sphere.
In 2008, unions were instrumental in getting President Barack Obama elected (and reelected in 2012). Union leaders were hopeful that Obama would be able to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation intended to streamline and shorten the process of bringing new members into unions. But Democrats were unable to garner enough support to pass the law. Union membership decreased during the Obama administration, which may have led some union members to switch their support to Republican Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.
Today, the highest rates of union membership are in the public sector; in local government, for example, which employs police officers, firefighters, and teachers. Private-sector industries with high unionization rates include utilities, transportation, warehousing, and telecommunications. In 2020, nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 84% of earnings for workers who were union members ($958 versus $1,144).
Organized labor is now more diverse than ever before. Of the 132 million people employed in the U.S. in 2020, 14.3 million of which belonged to unions, 12.3% were Black union members and 10.5% were women union members. Black union members earn 40% more than non-union Black workers.
Approval for labor unions is at a 50-year high, according to an August 2019 Gallup Poll. In recent years, the biggest gains in union membership have been among younger workers, ages 34 and under. Young people are unionizing in new sectors, such as art museums, cannabis shops, digital-media brands, political campaigns, and tech companies.
COVID-19 safety concerns have resulted in worker actions in 2020 by staff at McDonald’s, Amazon, childcare centers, hotels, and other workplaces. Labor unions, including National Nurses United, American Federation of Teachers, and United Farm Workers, have spoken out on the topic of safety for their members and all workers. These gains and activities notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether unions will grow their membership in the next decade.
Once the union won the support of a majority of the bargaining unit and is certified in a workplace, it has the sole authority to negotiate the conditions of employment. Under the NLRA, employees can also, if there is no majority support, form a minority union which represents the rights of only those members who choose to join. Businesses, however, do not have to recognize the minority union as a collective bargaining agent for its members, and therefore the minority union’s power is limited. This minority model was once widely used, but was discarded when unions began to consistently win majority support. Unions are beginning to revisit the members-only model of unionism, because of new changes to labor law, which unions view as curbing workers’ ability to organize.
The employer and the union write the terms and conditions of employment in a legally binding contract. When disputes arise over the contract, most contracts call for the parties to resolve their differences through a grievance process to see if the dispute can be mutually resolved. If the union and the employer still cannot settle the matter, either party can choose to send the dispute to arbitration, where the case is argued before a neutral third party.Worker slogan used during the 2011 Wisconsin protests
Members of labor unions enjoy “Weingarten Rights.” If management questions the union member on a matter that may lead to discipline or other changes in working conditions, union members can request representation by a union representative. Weingarten Rights are named for the first Supreme Court decision to recognize those rights.
The NLRA goes farther in protecting the right of workers to organize unions. It protects the right of workers to engage in any “concerted activity” for mutual aid or protection. Thus, no union connection is needed. Concerted activity “in its inception involves only a speaker and a listener, for such activity is an indispensable preliminary step to employee self-organization.”
Unions are currently advocating new federal legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), that would allow workers to elect union representation by simply signing a support card (card check). The current process established by federal law requires at least 30% of employees to sign cards for the union, then wait 45 to 90 days for a federal official to conduct a secret ballot election in which a simple majority of the employees must vote for the union in order to obligate the employer to bargain.
Unions report that, under the present system, many employers use the 45- to 90-day period to conduct anti-union campaigns. Some opponents of this legislation fear that removing secret balloting from the process will lead to the intimidation and coercion of workers on behalf of the unions. During the 2008 elections, the Employee Free Choice Act had widespread support of many legislators in the House and Senate, and of the President. Since then, support for the “card check” provisions of the EFCA subsided substantially.
Union membership had been declining in the US since 1954, and since 1967, as union membership rates decreased, middle class incomes shrank correspondingly. In 2007, the labor department reported the first increase in union memberships in 25 years and the largest increase since 1979. Most of the recent gains in union membership have been in the service sector while the number of unionized employees in the manufacturing sector has declined. Most of the gains in the service sector have come in West Coast states like California where union membership is now at 16.7% compared with a national average of about 12.1%. Historically, the rapid growth of public employee unions since the 1960s has served to mask an even more dramatic decline in private-sector union membership.
At the apex of union density in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation. In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent survey indicates that union membership in the US has risen to 12.4% of all workers, from 12.1% in 2007. For a short period, private sector union membership rebounded, increasing from 7.5% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2008. However, that trend has since reversed. In 2013 there were 14.5 million members in the U.S., compared with 17.7 million in 1983. In 2013, the percentage of workers belonging to a union was 11.3%, compared to 20.1% in 1983. The rate for the private sector was 6.4%, and for the public sector 35.3%.
In the ten years 2005 through 2014, the National Labor Relations Board recorded 18,577 labor union representation elections; in 11,086 of these elections (60 percent), the majority of workers voted for union representation. Most of the elections (15,517) were triggered by employee petitions for representation, of which unions won 9,933. Less common were elections caused by employee petitions for decertification (2792, of which unions won 1070), and employer-filed petitions for either representation or decertification (268, of which unions won 85).
Unions: Do They Help or Hurt Workers?
Employers and workers seem to approach employment from vastly different perspectives. So how can the two sides reach an agreement? The answer lies in unions. Unions have played a role in the worker-employer dialogue for centuries, but in the last few decades, many aspects of the business environment have changed. With this in mind, it’s important to understand how unions fit into the current business environment and what role unions play in the modern economy.
How Do Unions Affect the Labor Environment?
The power of labor unions rests in their two main tools of influence: restricting labor supply and increasing labor demand. Some economists compare them to cartels. Through collective bargaining, unions negotiate the wages that employers will pay. Unions ask for a higher wage than the equilibrium wage (found at the intersection of the labor supply and labor demand curves), but this can lower the hours demanded by employers.
Since a higher wage rate equates to less work per dollar, unions often face problems when negotiating higher wages and instead will often focus on increasing the demand for labor. Unions can use several different techniques to increase the demand for labor, and thus, wages. Unions can, and do, use the following techniques:
- Push for minimum wage increases. Minimum wage increases the labor costs for employers using low-skilled workers. This decreases the gap between the wage rate of low-skilled and high-skilled workers; high-skilled workers are more likely to be represented by a union.
- Increase the marginal productivity of its workers. This is often done through training.
- Support restrictions on imported goods through quotas and tariffs. This increases the demand for domestic production and, therefore, domestic labor.
- Lobbying for stricter immigration rules. This limits growth in the labor supply, especially of low-skilled workers from abroad. Similar to the effect of increases in the minimum wage, a limitation in the supply of low-skilled workers pushes up their wages. This makes high-skilled laborers more attractive.
Unions have a unique legal position, and in some sense, they operate like a monopoly as they are immune to antitrust laws. Because unions control or can exert a good deal of influence on the labor supply for a particular company or industry, unions can restrict non-union workers from depressing the wage rate. They can do this because legal guidelines provide a certain level of protection to union activities.
What Can Unions Do During Negotiations?
When unions want to increase union member wages or request other concessions from employers, they can do so through collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a process in which workers (through a union) and employers meet to discuss the employment environment. Unions will present their argument for a particular issue, and employers must decide whether to concede to the workers’ demands or to present counterarguments. The term “bargaining” may be misleading, as it brings to mind two people haggling at a flea market. In reality, the goal of the union in collective bargaining is to improve the status of the worker while still keeping the employer in business. The bargaining relationship is continuous, rather than just a one-time affair.
If unions are unable to negotiate or are not satisfied with the outcomes of collective bargaining, they may initiate a work stoppage or strike. Threatening a strike can be as advantageous as actually striking, provided that the possibility of a strike is deemed feasible by employers. The effectiveness of an actual strike depends on whether the work stoppage can force employers to concede to demands. This is not always the case, as seen in 1984 when the National Union of Mineworkers, a trade union based in the United Kingdom, ordered a strike that, after a year, failed to result in concessions and was called off.
Do Unions Work?
Whether unions positively or negatively affect the labor market depends on whom you ask. Unions say that they help increase the wage rate, improve working conditions, and create incentives for employees to learn continued job training. Union wages are generally higher than non-union wages globally. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,095 in 2019, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $892.”
Critics counter the unions’ claims by pointing to changes in productivity and a competitive labor market as some of the primary reasons behind wage adjustments.
If the labor supply increases faster than labor demand, there will be a glut of available employees, which can depress wages (according to the law of supply and demand). Unions may be able to prevent employers from eliminating jobs through the threat of a walkout or strike, which will shut down production, but this technique does not necessarily work.
Labor, like any other factor of production, is a cost that employers factor in when producing goods and services. If employers pay higher wages than their competitors, they will wind up with higher-priced products, which are less likely to be purchased by consumers.
Increases in union wages can come at the expense of non-unionized workers, who lack the same level of representation with management. Once a union is ratified by the government, it is considered a representative of the workers, regardless of whether all workers are actually part of the union. Additionally, as a condition of employment, unions can deduct union dues from employee paychecks without prior consent.
Whether unions were a primary cause of a decline in labor demand by “old economy” industries is up for debate. While unions did force wage rates upward compared to non-union members, this did not necessarily force those industries to employ fewer workers. In the United States, “old economy” industries have declined for a number of years as the economy shifts away from heavy industries.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Unions for Employers
Labor unions and employers have always been sparring partners with both mutual and opposing interests. The unions want to negotiate the best wages and benefits for their members, and employers want to have productive employees and make a profit. These objectives are not always at odds with each other. While an employer may feel that a union is always a damper on his business, unions do bring certain advantages to a company, as well as disadvantages.
Advantage: Stable Workforce
Employers with unionized workers have the assurance of a stable and well-trained workforce. Unions often have their own programs to train employees in their trades, relieving employers from the cost of training inexperienced workers. Well-trained employees create better and safer work conditions. In return, employers have fewer days lost because of work-related injuries or illnesses.
Advantage: Predictable Costs
Labor contracts give the employer the ability to more accurately predict future operation costs for a fixed time period. This makes it much easier for the employer to control costs, develop product pricing strategies, plan for expansion and invest in new product development. Employers will have less employee turnover and will have union assurance that more workers will be available if needed. Negotiating a contract with one party, the union, is much easier than having to negotiate a wage and job description with each individual employee.
Disadvantage: Employee Initiative is Stifled
Union rules base raises and promotions on seniority, not performance. This kind of environment discourages employee creativity and individuality. Therefore, the employer is deprived of improvements in productivity because the employee has no incentive to do a better job. He gets nothing for doing better. Employers cannot always know about adverse conditions in the workplace and must depend on their employees to report these problems to management and make suggestions for improvement. Without feedback from employees, management is often not even aware of problems in the workplace and is, therefore, unable to find solutions.
Disadvantage: Rewarding Employees is Difficult
Since union contracts specify exact wages and raises for each position, the employer has no way to reward exceptional employee performance. Many employers without a unionized workforce have incentive plans for employees who perform above normal expectations. These plans encourage employees to do a better job and reap the benefits. Union contracts take away these incentives. On the other hand, union contracts also make it difficult for an employer to discipline or terminate an employee. Even in such cases as employee theft, the only choice for an employer may be to move the guilty employee to another position.
Disadvantage: Businesses Become Less Competitive
Contracts with labor unions can result in substantially higher wages and benefits. Unless workers become more productive, employers could be forced to charge higher prices for their products, making them less competitive. In the worst case, an employer could experience a decline in profitability, forcing him to lay off employees or even jeopardizing the survivability of the company. In those situations where unions and employers cannot agree on contracts, labor unions could interrupt work flow by calling for strikes. Automakers, especially foreign manufacturers, have dealt with high-cost union contracts in the U.S. by building new plants in states where unions are either not strong or do not exist.
The Advantages of Labor Unions
Labor unions are the subject of much controversy in the United States. To some extent, this is due to a lack of information about the benefits that a union provides to employers and employees. A labor union is an organization of workers whose purpose is to negotiate with employers for better wages, safer working conditions, and fair treatment. Unions exist to make life better for employees, but they also provide benefits to employers.
One major advantage that union employees enjoy over their non-union counterparts is compensation. In a non-union place of business, wages and other compensation are settled privately. There is no guarantee that two people doing the same job–with the same qualifications–receive the same salary and benefits. A labor union, however, ensures that all wages and compensation are written into the union’s contract.
Everyone is treated equally in a union workplace. Favoritism does not play a part in who gets promoted or what salary increases are rewarded. The union contract specifies when raises occur, and what amount of time with the company qualifies the worker for a promotion. Everyone is subject to the same guidelines and job responsibilities.
Another major benefit of union membership for workers is that seniority is honored. In a business that does not have union representation, the qualifications for a promotion are often subjective. In a union, the qualifications for promotion are usually based on seniority. The level of seniority that is required is spelled out in the union contract. Thus loyalty is rewarded over a person’s subjective opinion of the qualifications of candidates applying for a promotion.
Policies in union businesses are consistent. A business without union representation can often change its expectations of workers without notice. In a union workplace, these responsibilities are specifically determined in advance. This benefits both employers and employees. Employees enjoy more consistency because they know what is expected of them. Employers benefit from a more content work force and less time spent on training to enforce constant changes.
Union workers do not have to negotiate on their own behalf. Instead, union representatives negotiate on behalf of the entire group. This ensures fair treatment of the employee and guards against discrimination in the workplace. A worker can gain a better position in negotiations when he is joined by a majority of the work force. Alone, he has little leverage to negotiate for higher pay or better working conditions.
The Effect of Labor Unions
The introduction and rise of labor unions has had dramatic effects on organizations’ relationships with employees. While some say labor unions have many positive effects on work-life and employment, others maintain there are also distinctly negative effects caused by union activities.
One of the most fundamental effects of labor unions is the effect on higher wages, shorter hours and more extensive fringe benefits, according to Microsoft’s Encarta online encyclopedia in 2009.
Unions, with their legal right to strike and enter into collective-bargaining agreements, can ensure that businesses maintain safe and equitable working conditions for their employees. Union agreements, along with government-imposed regulations, set standards for the way employees are treated by their employers across all industries.
A 2008 report by the Center for American Progress, which identifies itself as “progressive” politically, says union workers may exhibit a greater level of productivity than their non-union peers.
According to the Heritage Foundation, which identifies itself as conservative politically, unions’ power to increase employee wages has the side-effect of increasing costs for employers. This can have a direct effect on consumer prices, which can cause the firm to lose employees.
A ripple caused by the effects on employers’ costs is the reluctance of union employers to undergo significant investment opportunities. Since a portion of the return from investments must be shared with union employees, investment and R&D incentives drop for employers.
The Pros and Cons of Unions
Unions are controversial in the U.S. – more controversial, in fact, than they are in other countries. Here in the States, some people tout unions as essential to a strong working class, while others criticize unions for putting too many restrictions on workers and employees. To help you get a handle on this debate, we put together a guide to some of the pros and cons of unions.
Pro 1: Unions increase pay and benefits for workers.
Through the process of collective bargaining, unionized workers are able to secure higher wages and better benefits, like pensions. But it’s not just unionized workers who benefit. Employers hiring for non-union jobs have to increase their wages, too, in order to compete for employees. In fact, a recent study covered in The Atlantic found that, “if organized labor were as strong today as it was in the late 1970s, nonunion men without a high-school diploma would be earning 9% more.”
Pros 2: Unions set up formal processes for disputes and complaints.
When unions work well, they make it easier for workers to handle disputes and complaints, with other workers and with management. There are formal processes in place, which makes it easier for any worker – regardless of their individual status – to raise grievances. Many unions will also subsidize legal fees for unionized employees who want to sue their employers (such as for discrimination or wrongful termination).
Pro 3: Unions make political organizing easier.
By channeling workers’ energies into national organizations – and collecting money at the same time – unions make it easier to advance political causes that working people support. In effect, unions amplify the political voices of their members. Of course, not every union member agrees with the candidates and causes his or her union supports but, in general, unions help keep candidates focused on issues like the loss of manufacturing jobs, which might otherwise not have a politically powerful constituency behind them.
Pro 4: Unions set norms that extend to the rest of the economy.
You may have seen bumper stickers that say something like, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” Before the labor movement, things we all take for granted in the workplace now – weekends, safety provisions – were not the norm. So, even though the U.S. workforce has never been completely unionized, unionization spread certain norms throughout the economy to the benefit of even non-unionized workers. The minimum wage, OSHA guidelines and overtime rules are all part of the legacy of the labor movement.
Con 1: Unions can make it harder to promote great workers and get rid of not-so-great workers.
Unions tend to put a lot of influence on seniority. That can be a good thing for creating a steady career path, but it can also make it hard for superstars to advance up the hierarchy. It can also make it hard to demote or dismiss workers who are consistently under-performing. And because unions have their own internal leadership structures, favoritism and cronyism can impede progress toward a meritocracy.
Con 2: Unions can require dues and fees that some workers might not want to pay.
Some workplaces are closed shops, which means you must be a union member to apply to work there. Others are union shops, where you can apply as a non-member but you must join the union if you’re hired. Still others are agency shops, where you can work there as a non-union-member but you have to pay agency fees to contribute to the work the union does on your behalf (contract negotiations, etc.)
Critics say that all three of the above scenarios are unfair to people who might have practical or ideological objections to the union and don’t want to comply with requirements to pay dues or fees. That’s why some critics of unions prefer open shops, where employees can’t be required to pay dues or fees. Other critics of unions work to pass right-to-work laws that limit the power of unions to collect dues and engage in collective bargaining.
Con 3: Unions can lead to a closed culture that makes it hard to diversify the workforce and weed out bad actors.
Unions aren’t just systems for organizing workers. They also have distinct cultures, which can vary by union and by “local.” Teamsters and teachers might both be unionized, but their union meetings probably look and sound different. Some unions can be tough to break into. This is particularly true of some of the older, more homogeneous unions. The closed cultures of some unions can make it hard for outsiders (e.g. women and people of color who want to be union welders) to feel comfortable in union shops, advance in their fields and take on union leadership roles. The closed culture and strong sense of solidarity can also lead union members to protect each other from scrutiny or cover up member misconduct.
Con 4: Unions can drive up costs and lead to an adversarial relationship between labor and management.
The flip side of unions providing higher wages for workers is that labor costs are higher. Using only union labor, which the government sometimes requires, can make big projects (think: building a new NYC subway line) much more expensive than they would otherwise be. And because unions “unite” workers to tackle negotiations with management they can sometimes lead to hostilities between labor and management. If you think the relationship between workers and management is inherently adversarial you might not see a problem, but if you want to work in a place where lines between labor and management are blurred and relations are friendly you might not feel comfortable in a union.
The Bottom Line
Unions have undoubtedly left their mark on the economy and continue to be significant forces that shape the business and political environments. They exist in a wide variety of industries, from heavy manufacturing to the government, and assist workers in obtaining better wages and working conditions.
Why unions are good
In much of industrial America, workers long toiled under very unsafe conditions, earning extremely low pay and enjoying little to no legal protections. Unions brought about many major improvements for union workers that are now widespread among union and non-union jobs alike, such as paid vacations, weekends, sick leave, minimum wage, the eight-hour day, child labor laws, overtime pay, pensions, worker’s compensation, health insurance, holiday pay, parental leave, workplace safety regulations, lunch breaks, and much more. Unions have served workers well by improving working conditions and helping workers avoid being exploited by employers.
Even today, unions have a strong impact. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members in 2013 had median weekly earnings of $950 (that’s $49,400 per year), while non-union workers had median weekly earnings of only $750 ($39,000). That’s a 27% higher income for union workers. And unions have helped push through legislation in recent years, too — for example, they supported the Affordable Care Act.
Why unions are problematic
As much as I’d rather not accept it, while unions have done a lot of good and have helped workers avoid exploitation, they can also help workers exploit employers sometimes. Perhaps it has been a gradual shift over time as unions slowly accumulated more and more power — though the percentage of American union workers dropped from a high of 35% in 1954 to a 97-year low of 11% in 2013.
Unions can have the power to impede a company’s ability to compete and thrive. A firm might be in desperate trouble, yet its unions may be unwilling to bend or compromise in order to help the company survive. Many employers find themselves left very inflexible when they have union contracts to abide by. Meanwhile, if a union negotiates high wages for workers at a company, it may lead the company to charge higher prices for its offerings, which can make it less competitive with rivals.
Some argue that unions have led to a decline in the value of merit. In many union settings, workers can’t advance much or at all on their merits, but rather they must generally progress within the limits defined by union contracts (where advances might be based on seniority, for example). Employers may have trouble weeding out ineffective employees if they belong to unions. In theory, at least, unionized workers might become so comfortable and protected that they lose the incentive to work hard for their employer. And outstanding employees might lose their get-up-and-go if there’s no incentive to excel — or worse, if they’re pressured by the union not to go the extra mile.
Still, it’s worth pointing out some of the many, many successful American companies that have unions, such as Southwest Airlines, United Parcel Service, Caterpillar, Walt Disney, Verizon, Harley-Davidson, Ford Motor Company, and Boeing.
Is there a problem?
So there’s both good and bad associated with unions. I suspect that most businesses — and even many or most investors in said businesses — would prefer that the businesses be union-free. But that’s easier said than done. Many workers, meanwhile, are intent on keeping their unions, and they occasionally organize to form new ones. Just this year, football players at Northwestern University have been petitioning to form one. Meanwhile, domestic workers long denied by law the right to unionize have formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance and have been endorsed by existing unions. Workers at Wal-Mart, too, have been pursuing a union and have even conducted strikes.
With income inequality becoming a bigger problem in America and a more widely recognized one, there a case to be made that the American worker has more need than ever for a voice and for political and economic power.
Is ownership an answer?
One strategy for companies to prevent unions from taking too much control might be to ensure that their workers are as satisfied as possible. That sounds simple, but employee satisfaction can become mighty difficult to maintain as a company grows large. Another option is to convert employees into owners — via stock ownership or profit-sharing, for example. If workers have a real stake in a firm’s bottom line, they may be more sympathetic to management’s point of view and more eager to work extra hard to help the firm succeed.
Meanwhile, some are trying to think outside the box and imagine alternative labor union models, such as the “Labor 3.0” project.
This brief foray into union considerations has left me with plenty of questions. For example:
- If unions are no longer so critical, should they disappear? And if so, how?
- If unions are indeed still vital, how worried should we be that less than 12% of our workforce belongs to unions, and that this figure has been dropping?
- If a company wants to avoid unionization, what is its best strategy?
- How might unions and employers/managements better coexist without one side exploiting the other?
- How should investors view companies that have unionized workers?
Unions: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
By Michele Masterfano
I firmly believe that unions can be a good thing, a strong counterbalance to the forces that drive companies to wring every last dollar out of every single transaction, whether with their customer or their employee. But that’s not the whole story, so let’s run through it.
The Good: Without unions, we would still be working 12 hour days, seven days a week, with no paid holidays, no paid vacations, no pay raises. The youngest of children would be toiling away in unsafe factories alongside their parents. The power of unions changed all of these. And in that, unions — along with a reasonable system of regulations — can be that brake we need on unfettered capitalism.
While union power has waned considerably in the last decades, particularly with the rush to offshore manufacturing, this “check” is still needed to ensure that workers are treated fairly, that the benefits of their labor do not simply go to the few, that they are shared in the form of decent pay, decent benefits, and so on.
The Bad: Union leaders negotiate hard, and they should. They are the representatives of all their members, and sometimes also of non-members who work in the organization, so they should bargain for all they can get for their workers. But union leaders also need to understand business more — the financials, the trends, how to evaluate the viability of a business or state/city/municipality they work for.
Too often, unions continue to ask for things that really are impossible. In Philadelphia right now, the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has expired. The union has stopped asking for pay raises, agreeing that a pay freeze might be reasonable, but are not budging on some work rules, including adding all of 56 minutes to the work day, as well as on paying into their health insurance plan (Philadelphia teachers currently pay nothing towards it). I agree that it is awful to ask teachers to take a pay cut, as the superintendent has demanded, but the union has to wake up to the fact that there is a serious budget deficit that is not going to be filled by the city or the state, no matter how much they protest. It’s a fact of life they have to deal with. They need to stop being obstinate and finally face reality, and then figure out a way to help close that budget deficit. I’m not picking on the teachers in Philadelphia; they do yeoman’s work in unbelievably poor conditions. But all unions have to realize there are bargaining tactics and then there is the hard truth. If there simply is no money to be had, well, then there is no money to be had.
But I also want to point out that far too many companies demand all sorts of concessions from their workers while giving their executives raises. That also has to stop. Especially if you are asking for wage give-backs; these should start at the highest levels and only reach the lowest levels if it is absolutely necessary to keep the organization operating. After all, if the company shuts down, no one will be making anything.
The Ugly: Not all unions turn ugly, but the various building trades unions have been fairly notorious for decades, at least here in the Philadelphia area. There was a very famous 1972 incident in which a lot of property was destroyed at a building site, and the owner of the business was physically attacked. Much more recently, the Philadelphia area Building Trades Council was up to their old tricks of physical intimidation. This sort of reaction to the use of non-union labor has to stop.
The bottom line is that unions really are needed; they are a necessary counter to unconstrained capitalism. We should not be trying to eliminate unions. Let’s face the fact that workers have a right to organize, and management has a right to negotiate with them. As business managers, whether in the private or public sector, we also have to stand up to the fact that we agreed to their contracts, so we can’t then complain about them, or rail against those “greedy unions.” But union members and their leadership also have to come to the table with reasonable requests, particularly in trying economic times. Negotiating to a win-win is much more reasonable than assuming it is a zero sum game that must be won at all costs. And physical intimidation and assaults are never a rational negotiating tactic or response to something you don’t agree with.
5 Reasons Unions Are Bad For America
At one time in this country, there were few workplace safety laws, few restraints on employers, and incredibly exploitive working conditions that ranged from slavery, to share cropping, to putting children in dangerous working conditions. Unions, to their everlasting credit, helped play an important role in leveling the playing field for workers. However, as the laws changed, there was less and less need for unions. Because of that, union membership shrank. In response, the unions became more explicitly involved in politics. Over time, they managed to co-opt the Democratic Party, pull their strings, and rewrite our labor laws in their favor.
As Lord Acton noted, “Power tends to corrupt,” and that has certainly been true for the unions. Unions have become selfish, extremely greedy, and even thuggish in their never-ending quest to take in as much as they can for themselves, at the expense of everyone else who crosses their path.
That’s why today, unions have changed from organizations that “look out for the little guy” into the largest, most rapacious special interest group in the entire country. Where unions go, disaster usually follows. Just to name a few examples:
1) Unions are severely damaging whole industries: How is it that GM and Chrysler got into such lousy shape that they had to be bailed out? There’s a simple answer: The unions. The massive pensions the car companies paid out raised their costs so much that they were limited to building more expensive cars to try to get their money back. They couldn’t even do a great job of building those cars because utterly ridiculous union rules prevented them from using their labor efficiently. America created the automobile industry, but American unions are strangling it to death. Unions also wrecked the steel and textile industries and have helped drive manufacturing jobs overseas. They’re crippling the airline industry and, of course, we can’t forget that…
2) Unions are ruining public education: Every few years, it’s the same old story. The teachers’ unions claim that public education in this country is dramatically underfunded and if they just had more money, they could turn it around. Taxpayer money then pours into our schools like a waterfall and….there’s no improvement. A few years later, when people have forgotten the last spending spree on education, the process is repeated.
However, the real problem with our education system in this country is the teachers’ unions. They do everything possible to prevent schools not only from firing lousy teachers, but also from rewarding talented teachers. Merit pay? The unions hate it. Private schools? Even though everyone knows they deliver a better education than our public schools, unions fight to keep as many kids as possible locked in failing public schools. In Wisconsin, we’ve had whole schools shutting down so that lazy teachers can waste their time protesting on the taxpayers’ dime. Want to improve education in this country? Then you’ve got to take on the teachers’ unions.
3) Unions are costing you billions of tax dollars: Let’s put it plain and simple: Government workers shouldn’t be allowed to unionize. Period.
Because you elect representatives to look out for your interests.
It’s obviously in your interest to pay as little as possible to government workers, to keep their benefits as low as possible, and to hire as few of them as possible to do the job. However, because the Democratic Party and the unions are in bed with each other, this entire process has been turned on its ear. Instead of looking out for your interests, Democrats try to hire as many government workers as possible, pay them as much as possible, and give them benefits that are as generous as possible, all so that union workers will do more to get them re-elected.
In other words, the Democratic Party and the unions are engaged in an open conspiracy to defraud the American taxpayer. There’s no way that the American people should allow that to continue.
4) Unions are fundamentally anti-democratic : How in the world did we get to the point where people can be forced to join a union just to get a job at certain places? Then, after they’re dragooned into the union, they have no choice other than to pay dues that are used for political activities which the unwilling dues-paying member may oppose.
Add to that the fact that the Democrats and the government unions collaborate to subvert democracy at the expense of the taxpayer and it’s not a pretty picture. Worse yet, unions have gotten so voracious that they even want to do away with the secret ballot, via card check, so they can openly bully people into joining unions. The way unions behave in this country is undemocratic, un-American, and it should trouble anyone who cares about freedom and individual rights.
5) Government unions are bankrupting cities and states: Government unions have bled billions from taxpayers nationally, but the damage they’re doing on the local level is even worse. We have cities and states all across the country that are so behind on their bills that there have been genuine discussions about bankruptcy. There are a lot of irresponsible financial policies that have helped contribute to that sorry state-of-affairs, but unquestionably, the biggest backbreakers can be directly traced back to the unions.
As the Washington Times has noted, union pensions are crushing budgets all across the country.
Yet it comes as little surprise that the same profligacy that pervades the corridors of federal power infects this country’s 87,000 state, county and municipal governments and school districts. By 2013, the amount of retirement money promised to employees of these public entities will exceed cash on hand by more than a trillion dollars.
So, what happens when these pensions can’t be paid? They will come to the taxpayers with their hands out. When they stroll forward with their beggar’s bowl in hand, the American people should keep their wallets in their pockets. That may not seem fair, but the public sector union members have gotten a great deal at everyone else’s expense for a long time and if somebody has to take a haircut, and they do, it should be the union members instead of the taxpayers they’ve been bilking for so long.
I have included an in depth discussion on the teachers unions and the police unions. Thanks to the Coronavirus and George Floyd, many issues have come to light with these unions. While police Unions do protect the police, they also make it more difficult to discipline crooked cops. While the teacher’s union is now standing in the way of kids going back to school, they are also trying to eliminate all competition in education, so they will have a stronger bargaining position. There can be no dispute that Unions have helped improve the conditions of workers in the country and their salaries. The problem arises when unions become too strong. The old saying is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This definitely holds true with Unions.
en.wikipedia.org, “Labor unions in the United States,” By Wikipedia Editors; investopedia.com, “The History of Unions in the United States: Milestones in the struggle to protect workers’ rights,” By Ronni Sandroff; investopedia.com, “Unions: Do They Help or Hurt Workers?” By Brent Radcliffe; fool.com, “Unions: Good or Bad?” By Selena Maranjian; huffpost.com, ” Unions: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly,” By Michele Masterfano; Califroniapolicycenter.org,” Why Teachers Unions are the Worst of the Worst,” By Edward Ring; reason.com, “Teachers Unions Want Wealth Taxes, Charter School Bans, and Medicare for All Before Schools Can Reopen: What does this have to do with safely educating kids in the midst of a pandemic? Not much.” By Eric Boehm; rightwingnews.com, “5 Reasons Unions Are Bad For America;” smartasset.com, ” The Pros and Cons of Unions,” By Amelta Josephson; bizfluent.com, ” Advantages & Disadvantages of Unions for Employers,” By Jim Woodruff; bizfluent.com, “The Advantages of Labor Unions,” By Jesse Lanclos; bizfluent.com, “The Effect of Labor Unions,” By David Ingram; newsmax.com, ” Pros and Cons of Police Unions,” By Erica Baum; teenvogue.com “Police Unions: What to Know and Why They Don’t Belong in the Labor Movement,” By Timothy A. Clary; reason.com, “Police Unions and the Problem of Police Misconduct (Updated),” By Jonathan Adler;
When considering the influence of unions on American society, there are vast differences depending on what type of union one considers.
Private sector unions, for all the criticisms they may deserve, have nonetheless played a vital role in securing rights for the American worker. Subject to appropriate regulations, private sector unions have the opportunity to continue to play a vital role in American society. If they would bother to embrace the aspirations of their members, instead of the multinational corporations their leaders now apparently collude with, they might even support immigration reform. That would elevate the wages and benefits of all American workers, especially those doing low paying jobs.
Public sector unions, on the other hand, should be illegal. They negotiate with elected officials who they help elect. They negotiate for a share of coerced tax revenue, rather than for a share of profits, meaning there are no competitive checks on how much they can demand. The agenda of public sector unions is inherently in conflict with the public interest. But given the reality of public sector unions, it is important to recognize that some public sector unions are worse than others.
Public safety unions, for example, have successfully lobbied for pension benefits that are not sustainable. This calls for a difficult but necessary economic discussion that can only end two ways – either these pension benefits are going to be reduced, or cities and counties across California and elsewhere will go bankrupt in the next major recession. But public safety unions have not undermined their profession the way the teachers unions have.
The teachers unions are guilty of all the problems common to all public sector unions. They, too, have negotiated unsustainable rates of pay and benefits. They, too, elect their own bosses, negotiate inefficient work rules, have an insatiable need for more public funds, and protect incompetent members. But the teachers union is worse than all other public sector unions for one reason that eclipses all others: Their agenda is negatively affecting how we socialize and educate our children, the next generation of Americans.
Work Rules Harm Public Schools
One of the most compelling examples of just how much harm the teachers union has done to California’s schools was the 2014 case Vergara vs. the State of California. In this case, attorneys representing public school students argued that union negotiated work rules harmed their ability to receive a quality education. In particular, they questioned rules governing tenure (too soon), dismissals (too hard), and layoffs (based on seniority instead of merit). In the closing arguments, the plaintiff’s lead attorney referenced testimony from the defendant’s expert witnesses to show that these and other rules had a negative disproportionate impact on students in disadvantaged communities.
Despite winning in the lower courts, the Vergara case was eventually dismissed by the California Supreme Court. Teachers still get tenure after less than two years of classroom observation. Incompetent teachers are still nearly impossible to fire. And whenever it is necessary to reduce teacher headcount in a district, the senior teachers stay and the new teachers go, regardless of how well or poorly these teachers were doing their jobs. The consequences of these self-serving work rules are more than academic.
The evidence that California’s public schools are failing is everywhere. Los Angeles, a city whose residents are – perhaps more than anywhere else – representative of America’s future, is home to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with 640,000 K-12 students. And as reported earlier this year in the LA School Report, according to the new “California School Dashboard,” a ratings system that replaced the Academic Performance Index, LAUSD is failing to educate hundreds of thousands of students. In the most recent year of results, 52 percent of LAUSD’s schools earned a D or F in English language arts, and 50 percent earned a D or F in math. Fifty percent of LAUSD’s schools are failing or nearly failing to teach their students English or math.
Attack Innovative Charter Schools
In the face of failure, you would think LAUSD and other failing school districts would embrace bipartisan, obvious reforms such as those highlighted in the Vergara case. But instead, these unions are relentlessly trying to unionize charter schools, which would force those schools to adhere to the same union work rules. In Los Angeles, the Alliance Network of charter schools has delivered demonstrably better educational outcomes for less money, while serving nearly identical student populations.
How does it help to impose union work rules on charter schools that are succeeding academically? How does that help the children who are America’s future?
A Left-Wing Political Agenda
The other way the teachers union is unique among public sector unions is their hyper-partisanship. Despite and often in defiance of their memberships, nearly all unions are left-wing partisan organizations. Nearly all of them support left-wing causes and Democratic political candidates. But the teachers unions do so with a zeal that dwarfs their counterparts. Larry Sand, a former LAUSD teacher and prolific observer of teachers union antics, has spent years documenting their left wing agenda.
For example, reporting on the annual conventions of the two largest national teachers unions, Sand writes: “The National Education Association convention at the beginning of the month gave us a clue which theory would become reality when the union passed quite a few über liberal New Business Items, maintained its lopsided leftward political spending, and gave rogue quarterback Colin Kaepernick a human rights award. And here in the Golden State, the California Teachers Association continues its one-way spending on progressive initiatives and endorsed 35 state legislators in the June primary – all Democrats.
A week after the NEA convention, the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers held its yearly wingding and left absolutely no doubt as to its future political direction. The resolutions passed by the union at the convention would make any socialist proud. Universal health care – whether single-payer or MediCare for All, full public funding for, and free tuition at all public colleges and universities, and universal, full-day, and cost-free child care are what AFT wants for the country. Additionally, the union resolved to double per-pupil expenditures for low-income K-12 districts and to ‘tax the rich’ to fully fund ‘IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), Title I and state allocations to public colleges and universities.’”
Left-Wing Student Indoctrination
This left-wing political agenda finds its way into the classroom, of course. At the same time as California’s K-12 public school students are not being effectively taught English or math skills, they are being exposed to agenda-driven political and cultural indoctrination.
Again, as documented by Larry Sand: “Nor are textbooks safe. Communist and notorious America-hater Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is assigned in many high school history classes. Zinn felt that the teaching of history “should serve society in some way” and that “objectivity is impossible and it is also undesirable.” As a Marxist, he’d prefer a society that resembles Stalin’s Russia. Additionally, Pacific Research Institute’s Lance Izumi notes that pages and pages of the latest California History, Social Science Framework ‘are devoted to identity politics, and the environmentalist, sexual, and anti-Vietnam War movements, with detailed and extensive bibliographical references. In contrast, the contemporaneous conservative movement, which succeeded in electing Californian Ronald Reagan as president, with its complex mixture of social, economic and national security sub-movements, is given cursory and passing mention, with no references provided.’”
Public sector unions are going to be with us for a long time. But in the wake of the Janus ruling, members who don’t agree with the political agenda of these unions can quit, depriving them of the dues that – to the tune of nearly a billion per year just in California – make them so powerful.
Teachers, in particular, should carefully consider this option. America’s future depends on it.
As school districts across the country grapple with the question of how to safely and effectively educate students amid a pandemic, teachers unions are making increasingly ridiculous demands, some of which have nothing to do with the health or safety of students, teachers, or administrators.
Take the group United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). That union represents more than 35,000 teachers in the nation’s second-largest school district. Earlier this month, UTLA published a paper calling for schools to remain closed until the district could ensure adequate supplies of protective gear for teachers and students. UTLA also demanded the reconfiguring of classrooms to allow for social distancing.
But that wasn’t it. UTLA also stated that the pandemic requires an immediate moratorium on new charter schools in Los Angeles. How does that protect student or teacher safety? It doesn’t, of course. If anything, the pandemic has revealed the necessity of additional educational options for parents and students.
UTLA didn’t stop there. It is also demanding things that the officials in charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) don’t have the power to grant, such as the passage of Medicare for All, new state-level wealth taxes in California, and a federal bailout of the LAUSD—which is struggling to meet pension obligations for retired teachers and staff.*
Without passing judgment on the merits of any of these policies, it is obvious that reopening schools should not be conditioned on Congress totally overhauling the American health care system.
Sadly, these nonsense demands are also popping up outside of California. More than 10 teachers unions—including those in Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul—have joined up with the Democratic Socialists of America to say that “schools cannot continue in this crisis without the resources our students need and deserve.”
What sort of demands are being made? For starters, those unions want a national ban on evictions, a moratorium on charter schools, an end to voucher programs, and the abolition of standardized testing. They also want a “massive infusion of federal money”—though it is unclear how much that actually is—paid for by, of course, “taxing billionaires and Wall Street.”
To be fair, the coalition is also pushing some good ideas, like getting police officers out of schools. But what does any of this have to do with safely educating children during a pandemic?
The decision to reopen schools or keep them closed is one that should be made at the local level—and it should of course take the health of teachers into consideration, also while balancing the interests of students, parents, and taxpayers. But all of that can only happen if the teachers unions are willing to bargain in good faith.
“If Walmart employees strike, you can take your money elsewhere,” says Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice for the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit which publishes this website. “If teachers strike, you should be able to take your child’s education dollars elsewhere.”
It might come to that. On Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers announced that it would support local unions that decide to go on strike over school reopening plans. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, told Politico that those “safety strikes” should be a “last resort” for members.
That’s probably small comfort for parents and families who don’t know if their kids will be able to go back to school this year. If the teachers unions are determined to keep schools closed until they can be completely safe—or until Congress passes Medicare for All—then we’re all going to be waiting a while.
The Effect of Labor Unions
With tension between police and minority populations escalating during recent years, police unions are under increased scrutiny.
“It is important for unions to become honestly self-critical about police conduct and to not blindly defend each and every egregious incident by officers,” Samuel Walker, University of Nebraska criminal justice professor told The New York Times in April 2015.
Amid increasing police-minority tensions, many critics think that police unions aim only to protect those who have abused their authority. Even so, labor unions are prevalent in a multitude of U.S. industries to protect workers’ rights, so to some it would seem incomprehensible that law enforcement should be any different.
Among the pros and cons of police unions, the organizations are criticized for protecting bad cops and worsening race relations, while being supported for the benefits they provide.
Police Unions Protect Bad Cops
Police union rules and policies make firing cops difficult. For example, after Edward Krawetz, Lincoln Police Department Officer, kicked a seated, handcuffed woman whom he had arrested in 2009, he initially received a 10-year sentence and was convicted of battery. Not only was his sentence dismissed, but he was allowed to keep his job as an officer because of union protection and resulting special due process protections, reported Reason magazine. Similar stories where unions have protected reckless cops have surfaced in cities throughout the United States, causing widespread concern for police unions.
Unions Worsen Police Race Relations
After the racially charged death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore earlier in 2015, a Baltimore police union initiated a fundraiser on crowdfunding website GoFundMe.com to raise money to assist the convicted officers with legal fees. The union’s creation of this fundraiser resulted in further controversy that led to Gene Ryan, the union’s president, admitting he was “appalled” by the charges, reported The Baltimore Sun. The union’s actions fueled the race riots that erupted soon after.
The International Union of Police Associations outlines several member benefits on its website. The page lists insurance, retirement, education, health, auto and other benefits unionized officers receive.
Voice for Police Officers
“We generally confine our legislative program to issues impacting wages, hours, and working conditions of first responders,” the International Union of Police Associations said on its website. The union has a similar mission to labor unions in other fields: to protect its workers.
Police Unions: What to Know and Why They Don’t Belong in the Labor Movement
Massive protests against police brutality, and in pursuit of justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black lives that have been lost to police violence, have flooded cities and towns in all 50 states, and calls to defund the police — or abolish the police altogether — have become a rallying cry. As members of the police brutalize protesters on-camera and their leaders defend their actions, police unions have also come under closer scrutiny from labor activists, rank-and-file union members, and others concerned about the power that these peculiar institutions maintain. These associations play a major part in upholding the evils of police brutality, racism, and white supremacy, yet they are often tucked into the background. It’s high time to shine a spotlight on cop unions.
Police unions have always been outliers among organized labor, and there are many reasons why the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union has long refused to allow cops (and prison guards) into its organization. For one thing, no other union members hold the legal ability to straight-up kill another human being while on the job. If an ironworker bashed someone’s head onto the concrete, or a retail worker shot someone in the back as they were running away, or a graduate student worker ground their knee into someone’s neck until they stopped breathing, there would be consequences. Actually, police unions themselves used to be illegal, because local governments worried about the consequences of allowing armed state agents to organize. And historically speaking, the police have been no friend to workers, whether officers were shooting at the families of coal miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain, crushing the ribs of immigrant garment workers during the Uprising of the 20,000, or teargassing working-class protesters in Minneapolis after police killed George Floyd.
As author Kristian Williams explains in Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, police unions developed in relative isolation from the rest of the labor movement, and their reliance on institutional solidarity is vastly different from the class consciousness that powers the organizing of other workers. “The police are clearly part of the managerial machinery of capitalism,” Williams writes. “Their status as ‘workers’ is therefore problematic. Second, the agendas of police unions mostly reflect the interests of the institution (the police department) rather than those of the working class.”
Williams argues that the shared workplace identity that makes up the “thin blue line” mentality for cops transcends other identity markers, and shows how they view themselves as police first, and everything else second. As such, police unions tend to keep their distance from the rest of the labor movement (unless they’re cracking its members’ skulls). Even the basic terminology is different. These organizations are usually broken down into “lodges” instead of “locals,” and are more often known as “associations” rather than unions. Some people balk at the thought of referring to police associations as “unions” at all, and it’s understandable why, though for the sake of this piece, we’ll hold our noses and use the more common term. Labor unions exist to protect people; police exist to protect property. They may carry their version of union cards and enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining agreements, but that’s about where the similarities between cops and unionized workers end.
Collective bargaining agreements like the ones that protect many unionized workers aren’t necessarily the problem; police are state employees, and the contracts they work under are not always entirely dissimilar from those that protect public sector workers. The agreements that are different, though, are part of the reason it can be so hard to fire officers who have committed even the most horrific abuses or murder, and they allow police officers privileges that go above and beyond what a normal worker might expect. Contracts that include so-called “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights” language are even worse, giving cops extra protections when they face investigations over use of force; in Baltimore, for example, these protections have been blamed for getting in the way of properly investigating the 2014 death of Freddie Gray.
Campaign Zero’s Check the Police initiative analyzed police union contracts in 81 major U.S. cities, and found a number of dangerous commonalities in how these contracts sabotage accountability. Many of these contracts protect police through measures designed to shroud investigations in secrecy and discourage city governments from taking action, including preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident, and, most egregiously, limiting disciplinary consequences. It should be obvious by now why this is a problem — Derek Chauvin, the cop who killed George Floyd, had 18 prior misconduct complaints, and his record is hardly unique.
Contracts aside, the biggest problem with police unions is the institutional power they wield, and the ways they choose to wield it. They’ve amassed enormous political capital through lobbying and cultivating relationships with politicians, including President Trump. And all too often, these apparent labor organizations advise cops on how to avoid being reprimanded for misconduct, act as a shield to prevent killer cops from facing consequences, and try to force the reinstatement of those who actually do get fired or charged. As I wrote in the New Republic, when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was finally fired for his role in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, the city’s police union immediately appealed for his reinstatement and threatened a work slowdown — a classic union tactic that the cops used here to try and strong-arm a killer back onto the force.
Politically, police associations tend to skew much more conservative (or full-on right wing) than most labor unions, which are usually more progressive, or at least in line with mainstream Democratic policies. Virulent racism and white supremacy are also known to be a deadly problem within the ranks of law enforcement. After a flurry of Democratic candidates courted the favor of police unions during the primaries, a number of major unions have thrown their support behind Joe Biden’s presidential bid, but, in 2019, the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) had already voiced its full-throated support for Trump’s reelection, becoming the first — and still only — union to do so. (In 2016, the country’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and the National Border Patrol Council endorsed Trump, making up his only union endorsements.) The IUPA is the only law enforcement union in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the country’s largest and more influential labor federation, and the IUPA has had a particularly acrimonious relationship with its ostensible allies and a terrible record on social justice. In 2014, during the Ferguson uprising, the IUPA clashed with the AFL-CIO over police brutality; more recently, it reposted a May 27 article downplaying George Floyd’s death, even as many other unions and the AFL-CIO itself released statements condemning police violence and affirming their solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
On top of that, a parade of police union officials have recently been caught spewing racist invective and inflammatory, misinformed rhetoric about Black Lives Matter protesters. In May, as massive Black Lives Matter protests roiled Philadelphia, the city’s police inspector Joseph Bologna was caught on video beating multiple protesters, and was subsequently charged with aggravated assault. The politically formidable president of Philadelphia’s FOP Lodge, John McNesby, told reporters that he was “disgusted” by the fact that Bologna had been charged at all. The union is currently selling “Bologna Strong” merchandise on its website; meanwhile, one of the people he attacked required staples and sutures. McNesby — who notoriously referred to BLM protesters as “a pack of rabid animals” during a 2017 press conference — is now spending his time railing against a planned independent evaluation of the police department’s use of force during the protests, during which cops were caught on video attacking protesters and teargassing a crowd of people trapped on a blocked-off highway. Circumstances like these explain why so few people trust that police unions are capable of meaningful reform, or of cleaning out all those “bad apples” that have already spoiled the bunch. It’s also a major reason why so many labor activists and rank-and-file members have called on union leadership to kick out the cop unions once and for all.
And yet, the thin hope of reform seems to be the party line even for nominally progressive labor leaders. It is true that there are cops scattered throughout the membership rolls of multiple major unions, and that excising them would be a complex process. Critics argue that weakening or cutting ties with police unions could have a negative impact on public sector unions as a whole, and the AFL-CIO has been publicly resistant to the idea. When the Writers Guild of America, East (for which I am a member and councilperson), became the first AFL-CIO affiliated union to explicitly call on the federation to expel the IUPA, many of its members — several of whom had been arrested while trying to cover protests — cheered on the move. “As long as police unions continue to wield their collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and accountability, no one is safe,” the resolution read. The AFL-CIO’s response was tepid, at best. In a statement that also called for the resignation of Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, the AFL-CIO instead called for reform, insisting that the answer was to “engage [police] unions rather than isolate them.”
Meanwhile, smaller locals and member unions have been making their own stances clear, and keeping up the pressure. Rank-and-file members of various unions are brainstorming ways to push their leadership into action. And, to be clear, disaffiliating from the IUPA is one small step toward a much bigger goal, and is more a moral choice than a political one. Even if the AFL-CIO expelled every single cop in every single one of its affiliate unions tomorrow, the cops themselves would be fine; they’d be welcomed with open arms into other independent police associations. But the cognitive dissonance that comes with knowing that members of my union are being beaten bloody and viciously arrested by members of another union that falls under that same AFL-CIO umbrella is sickening, as is the knowledge that we will have to fight our own leadership to force a change. But I know that there are a great many of us who are up for the challenge, and this battle is far from over.
As famed abolitionist and labor leader Frederick Douglass wrote so cogently in 1857, “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle.… If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Police Unions and the Problem of Police Misconduct
The available evidence suggests that police unions are a major obstacle to holding rogue police officers accountable.
The Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd had a history of misconduct. According to news reports, he had previously been placed on leave after using lethal force and was the subject of at least 17 complaints. Details of the complaints are sparse in the reports. This is not surprising as police disciplinary records are often not maintained in publicly accessible form, if they are maintained at all. Minneapolis also seems to have a history of not disciplining police.
The New York Times editorialized this week that the killing of George Floyd is yet another reason to reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity. Under this doctrine, as currently applied by the Supreme Court, police officers are often immune from civil suit for violent misconduct. I blogged about a recent Reuters report on this problem, and the Cato Institute has created this resource on the problems with qualified immunity.
Limiting (if not eliminating) qualified immunity would certainly help (though there’s a reasonable debate whether this is more properly done through legislative reform than through the courts). On the other hand, the effects of eliminating qualified immunity may be limited if police departments indemnify their officers. Should qualified immunity be limited, you can be sure such protection will immediately rise to the top of the agenda for every police union in the country.
If one wants to tackle the structural obstacles to holding rogue police officers accountable, it seems to me one has to address the power of police unions. As a Reuters report from a few years back documented, police union contracts in major cities routinely include provisions that erase disciplinary records and obstruct meaningful discipline (let alone prosecution) of police officers who abuse their authority.
Recent academic research further demonstrates that police disciplinary procedures established through union contracts obstruct accountability and (as I noted in this post) collective bargaining for police officers appears to increase police misconduct. This is not surprising. Through collective bargaining, police unions demand protections from disciplinary procedures that would not otherwise be approved, oppose consent decrees and other measures to increase police accountability, and (given the power of police unions in state and local politics) they receive relatively little pushback.
Most police officers may discharge their duties faithfully and effectively. Police deserve our appreciation and respect for the hard work they do. At the same time, when police officers engage in misconduct, discipline and accountability are essential. Obstructing the discipline of the minority of police officers who engage in misconduct undermines the relationship between police forces and the communities they are charged to serve and protect. It also prevents justice when police officers use deadly force without cause.
If we want there to be fewer events like the killing of George Floyd, it’s to tackle police unions.
UPDATE: Additional preliminary research by Rob Gillezeau finds some additional effects of police unionization. Specifically, his work appears to find that the introduction of collective bargaining produces “a modest decline in policy employment and increase in compensation with no meaningful impacts on total crime, violent crime, property crime or officers killed in the line of duty.” More sobering is his finding of a “substantial increase in police killings of civilians over the medium to long run (likely after unions are established) with an additional 0.026 to 0.029 civilians killed in a county each year of whom the overwhelming majority are non-white.” Tweets Gillezeau: “with the caveat that this is very early work, it looks like collective bargaining rights are being used to protect the ability of officers to discriminate in the disproportionate use of force against the non-white population.”
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