Do “We” Need Unions? Wrong Question

With last week’s supposed defeat of labor in Wisconsin*, there have been all sorts of discussions about the future of unions. The Atlantic went so far as to fire up themselves some troll bait, with a ‘discussion’ titled “Are Unions Necessary?” One of the interesting things in reading many of the comments and posts on the subject is that there’s a reference to “we”–mostly from people who aren’t in unions and aren’t eligible to join a union.

Matt DeCarlo, in the context of teachers unions, explains why this is the wrong way to think about the question (boldface mine):

I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions.” These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…,” followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid.” In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary….

The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions,” though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

It’s not up to “us.” The choice belongs to teachers.

Laws pertaining to unions and collective bargaining are of course highly complex, and light years outside the realm of my personal expertise, but the right of workers to organize is grounded in the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Americans have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to get together, pool resources, and advocate for what they believe – whether in the form of a labor organization, a small protest, or a celebrity fan club.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about whether collective bargaining should be limited to certain areas, or taken away entirely – it’s a free country – but the freedom to form a union is fundamental and, at least in theory, is protected by law. In the case of teachers, unions exist because teachers want a voice in their workplace. That is why, even in states where collective bargaining is prohibited or restricted, and membership (and dues) is purely voluntary, teachers’ unions can still be influential.

So, I say we should be careful about discussing any unions – for teachers or any workers – in terms of whether or not the rest of us need or want them. Not only does it sort of imply that “we” know what’s best for these workers, but, if you’ll permit me a slight overstatement, asking if we need unions is just a step or two away from asking whether we need freedom.

Teachers have learned the hard way that to defend the things they care about, they need unions–as many charter school teachers are starting to discover. And it’s perfectly reasonable for one of those things to be their salaries. Because, like most of us, “we” care about making the rent, even if we’re not in it to maximize profits.

*Even if Walker had lost, labor is still on the ropes. And since he was going to screw them anyway, what choice did they have? Besides, anyone who wants to destroy collective bargaining rights is going to do so if he or she has the power to do it. This isn’t a ‘moderate’ position; it’s an attempt to dominate workers.

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4 Responses to Do “We” Need Unions? Wrong Question

  1. joemac53 says:

    I always frame the question about the need for unions with the reply “to protect workers from unscrupulous greedy assholes”. Your right to be such a person (or organization) continues until I decide I’ve had enough of your crap and my response is to organize or start some ultraviolence. Nice people (teachers?) are not supposed to express themselves this way, but I’m a big ugly guy who makes Charlie Manson look innocent.

  2. Min says:

    Something that is perhaps counterintuitive about why we need unions is that unions benefit not only their own members, but non-union workers. It is not the case that if a union is busted and its workers receive lower pay, then there is no money for other workers. In fact, there will be pressure to lower wages for non-union workers, as well. The main threat a non-union worker has is to switch jobs. The better the alternatives, because of unions, the more powerful that threat is. Worker-worker envy is counterproductive.

    There are other reasons, of course, such as the fact that better paid workers will spend more, which will benefit the economy as a whole. But right now worker-worker envy is being politically exploited.

  3. joemac53 says:

    I am also very tired of business plans that depend on the exploitation of workers who have to be subsidized by government programs. If a full-time worker gets a paycheck and food stamps and qualifies for subsidized healthcare, something is out of balance.
    When I was a young teacher with 7 years under my belt and two kids I was one kid away from food-stamp eligibility (I knew because I helped the kids in my homeroom with their forms at the beginning of the year). I thought this was a little wacky.
    Thanks, Min for pointing out that union benefits put the pressure on the non-union segment to match ’em.

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