Why workers still need unions

Deming Headlight

Posted:   10/22/2014 01:18:34 PM MDT



Last week, Desert Sage marked the anniversary of the Empire Zinc strike, also known as the "Salt of the Earth" strike, which took place in Grant County 64 years ago.

In September, the one union still representing miners here was decertified, in an era where organized labor has declined sharply nationwide and many commentators eagerly announce that the need for labor unions is past. We will not opine here on the arguments or tactics of this particular campaign, in which members voted to decertify their union.

While reporting the election results, many news stories stated that the company, Freeport-McMoran, had "won" the election. That statement is likely more blunt than was intended.

To begin with, let us admit that employers have power over their employees. Some employers are more sympathetic than others. Even so, an employee with no union is a vulnerable individual. The company owns the workplace, the tools, and whatever is produced; the employee owns nothing except their own ability to work. If the employee demands better pay, or a safer work environment, or other accommodations, they can easily be replaced — especially when unemployment is high. As an individual, an employee has little power.

A group of organized employees, on the other hand, wields collective power. Going back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution — when courts treated labor unions as criminal conspiracies — working people have resisted the deskilling of labor, child labor, excessive work hours and "speed ups" in production, wage theft, and poverty wages; and they engaged in bargaining, politics, and direct action including strikes (withholding their own labor) in order to confront oppression and win improvements for themselves.

The reason for employers to resist unions is perfectly straightforward. Unions lead to better wages and benefits, and change the balance of power between employers and workers. When unions were stronger, there was a "spillover" effect whereby employers paid their non-union workers more so as to discourage them from forming their own unions.

Employers and employees, however friendly as individuals, have conflicting interests. For large employers, labor is a cost that must be minimized through lowering wages and benefits, increasing productivity, and deskilling labor so employees can easily be replaced. To address this conflict, workers need a place at the table.

Corporations and investors, along with allied politicians, have used their own collective power to break unions in most sectors, roll back the gains they have made, and compromise or disable the National Labor Relations Board. Most media organizations agreeably emphasize or exaggerate negative aspects of unions so as to render the positives invisible.

It is true that some unions have been corrupt, undemocratic, and have colluded with management against their members' interests. It is nonetheless also true that labor unions have won crucial improvements for working people with respect to salaries, pensions, hours and safety in the workplace, and broader issues that affect the lives of the working class. They also provide members with valuable experience in political organizing, building coalitions, and using direct action as an instrument of power.

A society with good, strong unions is more democratic than one without them.

Organized employees also use their collective power to educate the public about affairs within their expertise that concern all of us. When Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital lost control of their first Ebola case this fall, it was the nurses' union that publicized management errors and gaps in many hospitals' preparedness. Meanwhile, teachers' unions are giving educators an important voice in protesting the destruction of public education.

These unions are representing not only their members, but the rest of us as well.

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