Center for Ethics and Leadership

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Importance of Unions

Thursday's (September 2) New York Times (which my undergraduates are supposed to be reading) carried an editorial that reported research done by UCLA on low-wage American workers. The survey found abuses in overtime worked but not paid for, wages below the legal minimum wage, illegal deductions to pay for tools or other expenses, and so on. The Times called the report "an acute picture of powerlessness."

There is more. I have written before about "mobbing" in the workplace, which is when bosses and co-workers pick on an employee until the employee suffers greatly, and the risks of whistle blowing are well known. The Times writes, "Workers who complained to bosses or government agencies or tried to form unions suffered illegal retaliation: firing, suspension, pay cuts or threats to call immigration authorities."

The Times calls for more rigorous government investigation of complaints, especially where immigrant workers are concerned, but the answer is more basic still.

We need a return to the power of the union.

Unions have been blamed for much. Many would blame them for the decline of the auto industry. They are said to interfere with global competitiveness. But that competitiveness is made possible only by exploited foreign workers, often women and children. And Detroit knew long ago about the changing automobile market and workplace and did nothing.

Unions have been under assault since Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in the early 80s. At approximately 20 percent membership then, they are now only at 12 percent of the American workforce. They never were stronger than about one-third of the workforce.

One hundred and eighteen years ago, Pope Leo XIII argued for the moral legitimacy and economic necessity of unions. Those reasons, primary among them fairness in the distribution of wealth generated by modern economies, remain valid today. Most of us, including the well educated knowledge workers among us, would benefit from strong unions today.


  • It is interesting how the demise of the auto industry is credited to unions and health care benefits rather than mismanagement and the bloated ranks of marketing-inept executives. Unions were thrived to offset the power imbalance in the market place of the large corporations that arose starting at the turn of the century.

    Wal*Mart, for example, is a firm that goes to great lengths to keep workers non-union. There is a reason for that. Low wage workers, to corporations, are disposable - jobs to low wage earners are critical - hence the power imbalance. Difficult to see how government oversight would help, it seems that some of these employees complained to government agencies - to no avail. Anyone recall the recent public debate about legalizing procedures that would have made it easier for workers to unionize?

    This Times article brings up one issue of many that begs one to ask the questions... who exactly is our government working for?

    By Blogger kobe2, At September 6, 2009 3:34 PM  

  • This is a topic that falls close to home for me. I am currently a Teamster working at Penn State. I love being in a union. If I have any questions about anything I am able to privately talk to my union representative who works with me. If a supervisor needs to speak with me the rep. needs to be there to ensure my rights as a worker.

    My last job was at Target and they were not union. It was a great job but did not pay anywhere near where it should. This was the reason I left. Shortly after I left a couple workers tried to form a union and as a result their hours were cut to a point they had to leave the job.

    I think unions are a great way to help the economy. They help insure jobs and enable people to work full time, recieve proper benifits, and get paid as they should.

    By Blogger anthony.bednarz, At September 8, 2009 7:51 AM  

  • I believe it is interesting how so many top-name companies find the power of the union so fearful. In modernized America, where the big CEOs and presidents of companies are getting paid by the minute, many low-end workers are being pushed to work harder and getting paid less without receiving any benefits. Presenting a union to these people would make the CEOs have to give more benefits, and therefore allow a higher wage and better working conditions. But, seeing as how much greed most of these corporate giants must have, they will see the union as a threat. Therefore, unions must take a stand - people need to collaborate and make sure they are being treated fairly, or else higher management will just keep taking advantage.

    By Blogger Brian Pyle, At September 10, 2009 7:11 AM  

  • Unions are at the of a great importance at this time. They are an important counterbalance to the big coorporations. At this exact time the NFL unions are attempting to reach an agreement with the owners of teams to avoid in the 2010 season there being a lockout.

    By Anonymous Justin Oister, At September 15, 2009 4:42 PM  

  • It is interesting because as I am reading this post I can't help but imagine how different my job would be if we had unions. Of course when I mentioned this to the HR department their response was that we do not have unions because we are a non-profit organization. I just wish I had a support system when it comes to the workplace. 3 out of 4 of my supervisors are related and this causes a lot of conflict as well unfair treatment. Of course when this is mentioned to the HR department the treatment gets worse. It's like the whole family excommunicates you and makes your job more stressful than it has to be.... ugh

    By Anonymous Christina Ibanez, At November 4, 2009 6:19 PM  

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