The labor movement has given the American worker benefits that today are often taken for granted, such as overtime laws, child labor laws, and minimum wages. The right to bargain collectively gives employees the power to demand reasonable treatment without the threat of being replaced by somebody less noisy. However, unions are far from perfect.
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History of Unions
The labor movement in the United States had its humble beginnings in 1768, when journeymen tailors in New York City struck to protest a wage reduction. Since then, the fight for fair wages and decent working conditions has resulted in significant successes, while being fraught with terrible suffering and loss. The Homestead Strike by steelworkers in the summer of 1892 lasted one week and resulted in a private police force killing not only the striking men, but their wives and children.
With the painful history of the labor movement and the incredible gains it has earned for the American worker, it may feel like a betrayal to discuss problems with unions. However, such problems do exist.
Problems With Unions
Arguments against unions sometimes stem from the employer’s perceived inability to offer higher wages for products at a low enough price that they can successfully compete with rival companies.
Some argue that unions devalue a worker’s merit. The idea is that, at a union company, no matter how skilled a worker is, he may only progress at the same rate as all union members progress; in other words, rate of progression is scripted by the union. You may deserve a raise or promotion, but you won’t get one until “it’s time.”
Merit also ceases to matter when unions guarantee members their jobs. It’s one thing to demand that workers not be fired for forming a union, for demanding that employers obey labor laws, or for negotiating for better pay and benefits. It is another, however, to prevent employers for firing employees who are simply not very good at their jobs.
Unions and the Middle Class
Arguably, the labor movement and unions post-World War II made life better for both union members and non-union members alike. Unions made the life of the middle class better.
Writers at Mother Jones argue that in the 1970s, liberal politicians lost interest in preserving the rights of unions and focused more on bases that made money, including corporations and the very rich. Over time, the strength of unions has eroded in favor of monied interests. With this shift, we also have a weakened middle class, less union membership, and an economy that is struggling to bounce back as the middle class continues to struggle for comfort and security.
Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we need a middle ground. An all-powerful ruling class and powerless workforce is no better than powerful unions exploiting employers.
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