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Do Unions bring positive change or create more harm than good?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Drew Angerer
*Updated 2023
Labor forces across the globe once experienced unsafe and unregulated working conditions, which arose from the imbalance of power that existed between employers and employees. To even out this imbalance, workers came together and formed what we now know as unions. While unions originated in the UK, they later became popular in the US with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Today, unions play a huge role in the political and economic ongoings of America, having secured fair working conditions for the common man, which could be why companies such as Amazon and Starbucks may seemingly be against them. In fact, today, 71%  of Americans favor unions, up from 65% before the pandemic and the highest level of support since 1965. However, alongside these positive social changes, there has been uncertainty over whether unions are yet another institution that leverages its own power at society’s expense.
Here are three reasons unions have given rise to overall societal improvements, and three reasons unions have brought about more social harm than good.


Down With Unions!


Exploitation goes both ways

In many cases, unions – which were initially formed to protect the underdog – have become the bullies on the playground. This is particularly relevant following George Floyd’s death, when many people blamed police unions for protecting certain officers who have abused their authority. In addition, although unions are meant to control and prevent worker exploitation, sometimes the reverse ends up happening, where leaders exploit their own members. Unite Here, the former hotel and restaurant workers’ union, reportedly pressured union members to publicly divulge personal information about themselves (bordering on psychological abuse), because they believed it would attract newcomers to the union. Additionally, Philadelphia unions were filmed using intimidation, threats and violence on numerous occasions to get their way. Workers deserve to be treated well, yet these institutions preserve the hierarchical power structure that has, in some instances, harmed these workers in the first place.


The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Unions may be well-intended, but their actions can hurt the general population. Most strikes, for example, negatively affect everybody – not just the people unions are trying to negotiate with. Teachers’ strikes, even over coronavirus safety concerns during the pandemic, still hurt children who were trying to learn and parents who needed to find last-minute arrangements for their kids; similarly, a health workers’ strike could potentially endanger the lives of the sick. It seems that this hurting of the general public is a tool that unions will use to get what they want. Moreover, union violence has been used in the past, such as in the Occupy Oakland strike of 2011, which culminated in violent riots that were later condoned by the US Supreme Court. Good intentions or not, public harm should not be an acceptable means for unions to achieve their goals.


Hinder companies all around

Studies have found that the high wages that union members enjoy mean some companies are forced to either hire fewer workers or drive up their prices, which restricts their competitive advantage in the market. Additionally, in some cases, individual worker effectiveness can become somewhat irrelevant under unions, because their contracts may limit the amount an employee can advance within a company. As a result, some unionized employees may not be motivated to work hard – yet they are protected by their union from losing their job. By the same token, employees that want to excel find it difficult to do so in an environment that places importance on seniority rather than merit. It’s hard enough for businesses to thrive without the added headaches of unmotivated workers and restricted competitive advantage, but union interference can make company success a much more difficult outcome.

Workers, Unite!


Workplace improvements

Imagine working for 16 hours a day, yet barely making enough money to buy yourself dinner. This was the reality for many in the US before the National Labor Union was introduced in 1886. There was no minimum wage or standard of safety regulations until unions established a precedent with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which put limits on child labor and demanded fair pay for overtime work. The benefits many in the workforce have come to rely on are also a result of past unions’ work; dramatic improvements that we now take for granted, such as sick leave, paid vacation, including for Labor Day, which celebrates workers, and pension, were only introduced into the workforce after unions fought against the terrible conditions that plagued the working class. Still today, unionization is way for employees to fight for better working conditions, though attempts to unionize may be challenging (just ask some Starbucks workers) or may not always be successful (just as some Amazon workers).


Collective bargaining power

Unions give individual workers a collective voice – one that can adequately negotiate on behalf of its constituents. Where the complaints of a single worker are more easily ignored, the strength in union numbers allows that worker to be heard. (This was particularly important when educators faced hard choices and unintended consequences during the pandemic.) This extends to all members of a unionized workplace, regardless of whether said members are in the union or not. For example, in 2018, low-cost airline Ryanair pilot unions succeeded in their struggle to improve pay and conditions across Europe. In general, there is statistical evidence that this collective bargaining power works in union members’ favor: As of 2019, 95% of union workers had medical care benefits, which is almost 30% more than non-union workers.


Protect minorities and women

Unions help balance racial wage inequality, giving minorities a fair chance in the American workforce. A study found that, if union representation were to endure at high levels, weekly wage gaps between black and white women would be reduced by up to 30%. In general, unionization raises African American wages by over 16%. Women, too, find a 23% increase in salaries when represented by unions, which significantly narrows the gender wage gap. While there may still be discrimination in the workforce, unions are an important tool through which to level the playing field for all Americans, regardless of race or gender.


The Bottom Line: Do unions help achieve an equal employee-employer balance so that everyone wins, or do they contribute to the exploitation they are meant to fight against?

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