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Unions and the Free Market

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What would a world without unions look like?

My father was a smart man, but he was born into poverty. And not what we tend to call poverty today—making do with an old television instead of a new, big screen HDTV—but the kind of poverty where he used to follow the coal truck through town to pick up whatever pieces fell off in order to help heat the family home.

It’s typical to say he had no place to go but up, but ‘up’ wasn’t really an option in those days. If you were born in poverty, it was likely you would stay there.

I won’t tell you all the ways a smart but poor man could make a living back then; let’s just say moonshine, poker and pool all played a role in his professional life.

Until the early 60s that is, when my father joined a union.

For poor people, a union was pretty much the only way they could ‘change their stars.’

Some time after I was born, my father became a member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local #598 out of Chicago, Illinois. He was a pipefitter (which is more than just being a welder), and he never took for granted the opportunity that union membership gave him.

Growing up, we knew not to shop at J.C. Penney’s because they used non-union labor to build their stores, and yes, we looked at the label on everything, only making a purchase if it proudly stated, “Made in the U.S.A.” And we would never, ever, cross a picket line, regardless of whether or not we agreed with what the picketers were fighting for, because the picket line was the enduring symbol of ‘the power of the people.’

To this day I would not cross a picket line, even though I have lost much of my enthusiasm for unions.

In the discussions going on today, it often seems to me that people have forgotten just why the role unions currently play is important for everyone.

A business operates to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that; money that’s available over and above your cost of production can be used to grow either your own or someone else’s business. It goes without saying, however, that many means of keeping your production costs low are not so beneficial for the workers you hire.

From the worker’s standpoint, they want to be able to make a decent living, to have adequate time away from work to deal with their personal lives and have some fun, and to be able to retire once they become too old to work while maintaining a decent standard of living. Because workers en masse have more ability to negotiate these things with a company than each individual employee does, unions came into the picture. There is nothing wrong with that, either.

Now picture a world where working people no longer carry enough clout to enter into those negotiations with employers. What do you think that will look like?

Unfortunately, many people seem to believe it will look no different than it does today, in the job they hold without belonging to a union. They fail to recognize that it was unions who set the standards that their employers are meeting now.

Look to the developing world if you want to picture what it will look like.Look to the American corporations, like Nike and others, who have addressed the clash between the needs of workers and the profits of the business by moving the operations of their business to countries where workers do not have the protections that unions devised. Ask them why they think it’s okay to pay minimal wages, to hire people to routinely work 12- to 18-hour days; why it’s okay to expect children to carry that workload.* The answer is that it improves their bottom line, and if they have the opportunity to do so, they take it.

For a period of time in this country—a relatively short period of time—there was a benefit to an employer who met the needs of workers. After all, businesses need a populace with enough income to buy their goods.

But think of the world we live in today. While producers still need people to buy their product, they don’t need you to be one of those purchasers.

They don’t need any American to be those purchasers because current economic forecasts suggest it’s the Chinese who are going to have the disposable income to create a demand for products.

Without a union base in this country, who is going to stand up for you the worker? Who is going to say that eight hours is enough to work in a day, that children shouldn’t be forced into labor, and that you deserve to be able to make a decent living?

Unions are not perfect; neither are businesses. But I don’t see anyone who wants unions to go away telling us how we’re going to guarantee we will meet the valid needs of workers without them.


* The printed version of this sentence read: Look to the American corporations, like Nike and others, who have addressed the clash between the needs of workers and the profits of the business that they prefer to operate their businesses in countries where workers don’t have the protections that unions devised. (Undoubtedly I was editing while I was sound asleep, as that sentence makes no sense.)

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

business, corporations, unions, free market, bottom line, workers rights

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