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Do Unions still serve a purpose in American industry?

Right to Union (Or right to work) laws that give individuals the right to opt out of unionization in certain state have been been shown to increase the economic well-being of a state or municipality. Extremely union friendly areas (Such as Detroit and Chicago) have been exponentially harmed in terms of both industry and the public good due to heavy unionization.

Due to the highly regulated nature and subsequently safer environments of modern American industry, do we still need unions? If so/not, why?

  • Nov 5 2013: Unions need to understand that they are, themselves businesses. They are a type of "talent agency". That is, the job of a union is to represent their clients to prospective employers and get the best darn deal they can hammer out--this would include safety. However, unions are not innately moral nor should they be innately political, any more than any other talent agency would be. The "harm" done by "heavy unionization" is not due to unions. It was due to a twisted menage-a-trois of union, management, and government, made even worse when management and government were one and the same.

    The problem is not unions. The problem is when government got or gets involved in a labor dispute in either a pro- or anti-union fashion.
    • Nov 10 2013: I agree with your analogy that unions "represent" I believe unions helped to create or were part of the nurturing foundation for hiring "representatives" at all societal levels and are what have made our politicians more accountable to everyday man/woman. I believe unions have made businesses run better and give a business and employment structure to manage large groups of people. We are natural complainers about unions but they would have gone by the wayside if they were as problematic as a majority of complainers want everyone to believe. It would help if union representatives would have better educations and conflict resolution skills.
  • Nov 11 2013: The purpose of unions is to create a kind of economic friction. This forces inefficiency while slowing management excess (in theory). As unions became weaker (in the US) management pay and abuses became stronger. In other cases where unions became stronger (Europe) this friction ground down the enterprise to an economic standstill or worse. The problem is that both labor and management forgot that they have a duty to create value for all stakeholders.
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      Nov 11 2013: Agreed. From my experiences, the biggest issue is that both labor (unions) and management (corporations) have placed more of an emphasis on appeasing the investor class (private shareholders) over their actual services/products, or their internal and external customers.

      In fact, most corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to this investor class, which far outweighs the value that they place on their internal and external customers, or even their actual services/products.
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    Oct 30 2013: definitely. unions are a great tool of eliminating competition and outlawing change. everyone hates competition and change.

    disclaimer: the above is true for unions supported by special laws. free associations of workers would be a very different matter.
  • Oct 30 2013: I'm not sure how you define the economic well being of a state or municipality, but workers have suffered in "right to work" states, where wages, retirement benefits, workplace conditions, and other benefits achieved through unionization have decreased; while we see a larger and larger gap between the economic well-being of the working poor and middle class and the wealthy at the same time we see a reduction in union membership and corporate unionization. As long as workers need a collective voice in order to counter the economic and political power of corporations and their management, then unions will serve a purpose.
    Note that the "highly regulated and subsequently safer environments" you speak of were mostly won by unions. So unless you believe there is no need to continue to protect those gains, then it would seem clear that unions will continue to be an important part of the economic environment.
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    Nov 9 2013: I think that unions will always serve a purpose as long as there are employers. However, unions should be held to market forces. This means that they cannot receive support from the government, nor should they be blocked by the government.
  • Oct 31 2013: Interesting question:
    1. Do you think the government can regulate and keep employee's safe? OSHA comes in after the bodies are counted. Unions are needed to protect the workers
    2. Now here is where Unions have to change. Traditionally, Unions fight for wages, benefits, seniority, job security and workplace safety. They need to fight for continuous training so workers will not be out of date and needed by industry. Wages and benefits will be individual and based on merit and not seniority. This requires a major change in Union goals and strategy.
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    Oct 30 2013: I think there should always be the "presence" of the unions. Sort of like when you see a parked cop car on the street and you slow down....but once you pass it, you realize there is no cop sitting in the car.
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    Nov 11 2013: Unions essentially have emerged as a ways of protecting workers from unfair business practices and unsafe work environments. Without unions, it is very likely that many workers would be working in extremely unsafe work environments, and wouldn't have weekends (or a five-day work week), pensions, or comprehensive medical benefits. So yes, I believe that unions still serve, and will always serve, an important purpose from this standpoint.

    However, as many of you have pointed out, a wide majority of the larger unions have become bloated bureaucratic corporate entities, with their fair share of mismanagement and corruption. Not only that, but many unionized employees are held back by union regulation (promotions and salaries are oftentimes based on seniority, and not on merit), while others take advantage of the protection that unions provide.

    That being said, speaking from the personal experience of being on both sides of the aisle, it's all a matter of personal preference. Although I prefer a competitive salary over a seniority-based hourly rate, there are those who would rather trade the competitive salary for the protection and perks that most unions provide.
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    Nov 11 2013: Do you think Bee's have unions? Perhaps the fly safe union or the union of concerned pollinators or perhaps the union of worker solidarity in contrast to the queen.

    Seems bee's work far better than most humans, if only we didn't poison them.

    And they don't make problems for the rest of the species.

    Perhaps we need a union for the unborn, that they may inherent a safe planet. Cause the evidence is overwhelming, humans are just to greedy to give a damn. And that is why they need unions.
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      Nov 11 2013: We are not bees.

      do bee love.

      do they have science, medicine etc.

      do they have to compete in a labour market, save for their retirement, operate dangerous equipment, work with cancer causing chemicals etc.

      I'm not sure the bee comparison is that useful for human affairs.
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    Nov 9 2013: Unions serve a purpose whether you agree with it out not.

    I personally think unionization has delivered many benefits but also counter productive some times.

    if they are to strong and to greedy it's problematic.

    same goes for capital of it is to string and greedy.

    Globalisation has weakened unions.

    In office there is no one over 55. Constant cycles of restructures and redundancies. There had to be a better way but capital in public companies is separated from the employees. They don't care about the painful existence for workers. Just like we don't care about the workers many or electronics and clothes overseas in a meaningful way.

    A healthy tension between labour and capital is a good thing. Not so good if one has too much power.
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      Nov 11 2013: I am not sure....
      There are companies that are not unionized and seem to have satisfied employees. There has been bad behavior by both employers and unionized employees or rather their unions. Let me play devil's advocate.
      I am an employer. I need employees to create my goods or services for my market. My market has forces that determine my sales price. That sales price controls my costs including labor. But, I have to pay labor a salary, provide a safe working environment or no one will work for me to produce my goods or services. If I have really good employees that are exceeding my goals, I will do the best I can to keep them working for me.
      Tension as noted may not be the best for either party.
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    Nov 9 2013: At one time unions served a purpose. But over the years, unions have come together, expanded, gathered levels, and balooned into great bureacracies with all the problems of great bureacracies.

    Now, the sustainment of the bureacracy is the cause de jour and the workers have been limited to a resource that provides a great deal of monies through dues to continue and sustain bureacracy. These GUBs are intent on building dynasties, wielding political power, large 6 figure salaries, huge staffs and private aricraft.... to conduct union business usually in Washington DC. So, do unions serve a purpose, maybe in the past.... now, not so sure
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      Nov 11 2013: Good point about the self serving bureaucracy.

      Still I think we need to balance worker rights against capital freedom to operate.

      unfettered capital and markets benefit a small minority.
  • Nov 9 2013: If we had a better education system we would not need unions and a whole lot less health care and prisons.
  • Nov 1 2013: As said below, unions are there to protect its members. That being said, I strongly believe that unions are doing the job of what a government should do, or have rules about. I have worked in both environments.

    In The Netherlands, before '78, it was not necessary at all to be a member of a union to have the proper benefits. The rules and benefits were set by the government. A socialistic government. Many, if not most, workers were not union members (it is illegal to force someone to be a member in order to work there). There were more benefits for the workers there than anywhere in North America. Strikes were extremely rare because the unions and business managers were organized differently than here. Both sides had access to all the same financial and organizational information. So there was negotiation, that is what it was. It was not like a war as in England and North America.

    Seems to me that unions in North America exist to protect its workers against the company's disregard for its workers. The two sides face each other as opponents in a war, and as in any war, both sides lose. Especially when the union says, "hurrah we won!!" while the business is now bankrupt.
    Some time ago I read an article in the NYT called "Going Dutch" writen by a manager that went to work in Holland.. nice!
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    Nov 1 2013: I have to confess, I do not know much about unions other than what I have been told. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania in a small coal mining town I've heard good and bad about unions. Good when the miners and power plant employees were treated like slaves and the unions fought for them; Bad when there were murmurs of strike simply because they ran out of toilet paper. It seems to me though that unions, no matter what your opinion on them, are a band aid of a remedy we have placed on a severely fractured society. I feel like unless we address the root cause of this disconnect between employer and employee, we will always be asking questions similar to this one. As I have mentioned though I do not know very much in regards to unions, it seems as though there is some well thought out and meaningful commentary supporting both sides. Just my one cents worth...
  • Oct 30 2013: We have to look at the "unions" in two separate categories.
    1. The unions representing workers in industrial or commercial businesses. The unions do accomplish the responsibility of protecting the worker from unjust wages and benefit, and also poor working environment or high risk of injuries. Furthermore, the union's negotiation opponents are the business or industry owners or their representatives. There couldn't be unreasonable demand by the unions that could be accepted or agreed upon by the management if the demand would wipe out all the profits by the business owners. So there is an absolute boundary of how far the demand of the unions could go to.
    2. The unions for the government employees are a different story all together. The opposing negotiating "parties" of these unions are the elected representatives in the cities or states. First, the representatives are not very good in the accounting of how much the demanded increase in workers pay or benefits could be sustained by the revenue stream of the city or the state. Second, some times they don't care so much as compared with the support of the unions to get reelected in the next election. This not only caused a lot of cities and towns into financial difficulties or bankruptcies, it also caused the large increase of taxes to the taxpayers, including the business and industry within the area to move out to the suburbs or even out of the state in order to maintain their profitability.
    In summary, the former unions, which give the the business owners the choice of either accept their demand or to close or move out from the area, then obviously they serve their purpose of protecting the welfare of the workers.But of course they have to compete with workers in foreign countries in this global competition era. As for the latter, I am not sure that the decision of the union demand on the city legislature could run rampant, without the consent by the city controller of finance and the local business council.
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    Oct 30 2013: Trade unions are a school of communism.

    -Vladimir Lenin

    wholesale corruption as many union chapters have historically acted as fronts for organized crime

    The most frequent visitors to the White house are Labor Leaders only slightly more often than George Soros.

    Unions are more into politics than industry .... The goal being the conversion of the USA to communism.

    Yeah unions still have a purpose and goal ... none of which are good.
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    Oct 30 2013: There are both good and bad unions, just like there is both good and bad managements.
    So yes a few good unions are needed to deal with the bad managements, but when a bad union is combined with bad management it does can really ugly for the employees. I know this from first hand none-automotive experience.

    As to automotive unions, I personally will never pay a unions make auto.
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    P.S. for a union to be good, my first rule is that they need to stay out of political politics. If they spend time supporting a party, then they are not spending proper time supporting their members. (AKA their job!)