Labor Unions: Effective. Political. Necessary?

I work for a school. Last week there was a board meeting, and as communication coordinator I was there to stay current on new business.

Unbeknownst to me, the teachers had decided to attend as well. They came in large numbers filling the library and all wearing blue T-shirts with yellow lettering reading, “Because our WORKING environment is the school’s LEARNING environment.”

My school is a great school, but there has been some friction between the teachers and the administration. I don’t write to disclose any particulars of the situation. Safe to say that the teachers like working there, too. That’s why they care about this justifiable concern.

As a non-union employee, I was simply struck by the draw and the mentality of those who participate in unions. At one point, a union rep -- the stereotypical older gentleman in blue-collar stylings of blue jeans, black sweatshirt, and a thick, grey mustache -- spoke to the board about the value of work and the importance of solidarity and family.

“Sure, we have our quibbles, but we stick together,” he said.

He finished to the applause of the teachers who, too, feel strength in numbers, in unity, in wearing the same shirt.

I’m not one to want to put on the same shirt as everyone else, but I understand it. These teachers represented something bigger than their group of 25. They represented that life-outlook of seeing their best chance in life exists when this kind of arranged unity makes their actions impactful and their needs heard. And in many cases throughout history, they’ve been right -- that unless they unify, career laborers, educators, and other employees may very well be exploited by those without that need to unify (and without the empathy for those who do), and so independently accumulate and leverage their power.

Unfortunately, there’s more than a streak of politics that gets brought into the fold, causing impassioned pro/anti-union stances. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a union, with this strategy of solidarity to accomplish goals. The problem is when it's forced on the unwilling.

The most extreme, of course, happened in China and the Soviet Union, and is even hanging on in a few countries today, where perceived threats of the runaway capitalists made it illegal for their kind to operate. These countries would move ahead with this supposed "enlightened unity" philosophy not just at the forefront, but as the only life-outlook allowed. The attempt to normalize this mindset and effort -- to the tune of preventing emigration, executing the rich, and controlling the economy -- led to catastrophe and suffering impossible to comprehend and measure.

Today in the U.S., a much lighter politicization of labor vs. capitalist is in play. But it’s still there, because (perhaps by necessity) there’s an element of force still in play. My brother the schoolteacher has no choice but to pay union dues. That’s messed up, he says. And he’s right. The argument is that if he’s going to get the benefits of union negotiations, then he also has to pay. But this all or nothing approach, though cleaner, cuts moral corners to justify payment under duress.

I’d like to see the day where people who want to be in unions, can do so freely. And those who don’t, won’t have to. Because as long as force is in play, then we have this unnecessary clash between philosophical factions who may otherwise view each other as people who have different tastes in music, fashion, or some other benign distinctions. Force is the only reason we have pro/anti-union sides, pro/anti-union politicians, bumper stickers, lawn signs, and related political opinion pieces. One could imagine a new set of resentments against people who simply liked different music than you if there was a vote for whose music was going to be legal.

I don’t know all the ins and outs. Maybe by some set of circumstances, unions have to force membership on all if a majority of employees vote for it. If that’s the case, then I hope to see the day when those circumstances end and people can be free to choose.

I’m optimistic. I think union numbers have gone down in general because employers are better at providing fair and contenting compensation and conditions without the need for workers to team up to fight for more. And that’s because today there are ways other than unions for workers to get their fair share. Businesses are as concerned about petitions, customer boycotts, and a negative story going viral as they are their employees unionizing. The result of technology, connectedness, a wealthier society than yesteryear means the floor for compensation and conditions has never been so high.

Isn’t this what we all want: a world where unions aren’t disallowed, but unnecessary?