Are Unions still relevant?

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People hold picket signs outside of Henry Snyder High School during a teacher strike, Friday, March 16, 2018, in Jersey City, N.J. The strike began early Friday after the teachers union and the district failed to reach a deal. The two sides have been negotiating since last year, but talks have stalled over health care costs. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Unions have long been a topic of debate in the American conscience. There is no denying the numerous benefits that unions and union members have won for all people over our nation’s history. They have helped prevent the average person from being overworked, securing the 40 hour work week/8 hour work day as well as paid vacation and sick leave. They have also protected workers from mistreatment, being strong advocates of both workplace safety and wrongful termination laws. Even social security and pensions are the result of union advocacy. While most of these benefits have been established for decades, West Virginia  just demonstrated the power unions still have when the teachers in the state went on strike for better pay and were successful.

There are many benefits of being in a union in modern times. A 2010 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median weekly income of full time wage/salary workers was $917, compared to $717 for nonunion workers. Union workers also have increased access to health benefits; in 2011 93% of union members received medical benefits as opposed to 69% of those not associated with a union. Also, unmarried domestic partners were more likely to have these benefits if one partner was unionized.

One of the most significant advantages to being in a union is the increased job security, as these workers can only be terminated if “just cause” is found as opposed to regular workers who can be fired for virtually any reason (as long as it’s not just discrimination). This increased job security helps protect workers who may feel a need to speak out about their company but would otherwise fear for their job. And of course, the power of collective bargaining in securing better wages, benefits and working conditions cannot be overstated. Unions are one of the few institutions capable of holding businesses accountable, and their strength helps keep corporations checked.  

However, not everyone sees unions as a universally good thing. One drawback is a loss of individuality when it comes to the views the union expresses. When someone belongs to a union, they get the benefits, but are also bound by the decisions the union makes. Another major issue concerns those who are not part of the union but are still required to pay dues. Union advocates argue this is necessary to cover costs and a union’s actions help all the workers in a particular field. However it raises questions of free speech. Because unions often advocate for political causes, there are those who feel that forcing non-members to contribute to an organization whose views they disagree with is a First Amendment violation. In fact,a Supreme Court case on this very issue that was recently argued.

Additionally, some feel that supposed benefits can be a double-edged sword. Because union workers have better job security, non-union members may feel that those workers can get away with legitimate infractions that may not be otherwise be tolerated. The arbitration/grievance process for union members can make it difficult to let even poor employees go. Additionally, many union contracts stipulate that in the event of layoffs, the most recently hired people are to be dismissed first. While some view this as an objective method that cuts down on favoritism, it hurts younger workers who may be more productive or efficient than their veteran counterparts.

The existence of unions, as with anything, comes with trade-offs. In my opinion, the perks of unions still outweigh the detriments. I certainly think that eliminating all unions would be an unmitigated disaster for the workers in this country, and would enable corporations to take advantage of and exploit their employees. Strong unions are necessary if we wish to protect workers’ rights.

That being said, I believe there is certainly room for unions to modify how they operate to the benefit of all. While seniority is important when considering which workers to retain, I don’t think it should be the only factor at play. Instead, some sort of balance between merit and experience should be utilized for evaluations. Additionally, having a covenant in place to separate the positions taken by a union from the opinions of union members and nonunion fee-payers could help alleviate First Amendment concerns. Reforms are important, but care must be taken to prevent a reduction in their power to protect workers.

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