While public unions have been making headlines because of the attacks being launched against them, most pundits seem to agree that unions (public and private) have been in decline for quite some time.
One of the main arguments against unions is that they are harmful to the economy. In the case of public sector unions, it has been argued that they enable public employees to grow fat on the taxpayers’ money as protected parasites. In the case of private sector unions, it is often alleged that they force companies to spend far too much on wages and benefits and this helps destroy American competitiveness. The American auto industry provides a perfect case study of this problem. The solution that is often suggested is curbing or even getting rid of unions.
While casting unions as villains has a certain appeal and unions have clearly contributed to many problems, unions do seem to have a legitimate and important role that they should play. This role is, of course, to provide workers with protection from mistreatment and exploitation.
While it is tempting to say that the public sector employees need no protection from the public, this would be a mistake and would be on par with claiming that people in power should be free to do as they will with state employees. However, there clearly need to be checks on the power of those in power and unions do help to provide one such check. Or, at the very least, it provides employees with a more effective means of resisting the agendas of politicians and other vagaries of politics.
In the case of private sector unions, it could be argued that they are not needed. After all, there are plenty of laws to protect workers and unions actually are burden (via dues) and an impediment. As such, unions should be eliminated for the good of all.
This does have some appeal and there are aspects of unions that certainly do need reform. However, exterminating unions is actually a bad idea-at least from the standpoint of workers.
While unions are weaker than corporations, they do provide some degree of protection to employees. After all, being part of an organized group provides more safety than merely going it alone. In fact, many of the arguments used to justify and defend corporations can also be used to justify and defend unions. If it is good for the corporate people to organize into a corporation, then it would seem good for the employees to organize as well. In the same vein, many of the arguments against unions can also be directed against corporations. After all, if it is bad for people to organize for economic purposes, then this would seem to apply to corporations as well.
Of course, this might be countered by saying that while the corporate folks need to organize into corporations, employees do not need to do so. After all, it could be argued, they are protected by the government and they do not need the extra protection that a union is supposed to provide.
While there are laws protecting employees, these laws can be changed by the lawmakers. And, of course, many of these lawmakers are heavily influenced by the corporations that donate to their campaigns and lobby them. Without the modest counter offered by unions, corporations would be able to influence politicians without much (or any) organized opposition on the part of employees.
It might be claimed that this would not be a problem. After all, corporations would not use such nearly unchecked influence to do anything really unfair or harmful to employees. Or would they?
Since I am not a senseless hater of corporations, I accept that some corporate folks are principled and willingly treat employees well. However, since I am also familiar with history and what people are capable of, I am well aware that some corporations would attempt to act in ways that would be unfair, exploitive and even harmful.
Those who doubt this can take a look back of the history of business in the United States. Some highlights include slave labor, child labor, horribly dangerous working conditions, using the US military to break strikes, and so on. For more recent examples, the behavior of some American corporations in other countries shows just what these people are in fact capable of. Even in the United States, corporations still engage in questionable practices. As such, the idea that corporations can be trusted to act well without an organized body of employees to provide some counter is absurd.
This is not to say that unions are without fault. They also have their problems. For example, American unions have often been linked to organized crime. As another example, teachers’ unions often protect incompetent teachers from being fired. As a third example, American auto workers were able to secure so many benefits that they actually impaired the ability of their companies to compete. As such, unions do need to work on improvements. However, this is quite a different matter from getting rid of them.