3.19.2012

why unions? would you rather have input into your working conditions, or not?

I've never understood why so many working people have it in for unions. I understand why employers don't want unions: unions give workers input into their own working conditions. A union workplace shifts the balance from the employer having 100% of the power to the employer having some amount less than 100%. So companies will do anything, even close a store rather than concede any portion of their unilateral power. But why workers don't want unions, that just makes no sense.

Right now I have two part-time jobs. One is a union job (for the first time in my life)* and one is a non-union job, as has been the case for my entire working life.

I can't go into too many details (yet)**, but I can summarize. In one job, my co-workers and I have zero input into our working conditions. The employer sets the terms of our employment: our salaries, our hours, our job descriptions. Those conditions change according to the whim and will of the company, often quite suddenly and in ways that impact our lives very negatively. We accept their terms, or we don't have jobs.

In my union workplace, the terms and conditions of my employment are set in advance. The conditions have been negotiated by a team of people working in the interests of all employees. I know in advance what is expected of me and what I am entitled to, and I know that can't and won't change without further discussion and negotiation. I also know I earn the same amount as other people with my job description and level of experience.

Through the collective bargaining unit, I have some measure of input into my own working conditions. As a result, morale is much higher in the union workplace, as employees do not feel constantly put-upon and taken advantage of. We work just as hard - if not harder - but we know the performance benchmarks that are expected of us. On the non-union job, no matter what we do, it is never enough. As a consequence, most of us do the minimum.

I note that this is not about pay. My non-union job pays more than three times as much as my union job. Even when I move up in the ranks of librarianship, assuming I do, it will be a very long time before my per-hour pay overtakes my current pay as a legal document specialist. Yes, I earn triple what I make in the library, and I regard the library as the preferred workplace.

Recently Impudent Strumpet imagined a scenario where all working people could be represented and covered by collective bargaining agreements.
Wouldn't that be awesome? Wouldn't life be so much better if other jobs worked that way? You don't have to negotiate your salary half-blind (How much do other people get paid for this job? What's the employer's budget?), you just have to do your job well.
That's my dream, too. It was the dream of the Industrial Workers of the World, the "Wobblies," who advocated for One Big Union, where all workers from all industries would be protected.

Meanwhile in the here and now, working people argue against their own interests by bashing unions. They gleefully do the work of corporations and corporate governments, who need workers pitted against other workers, rather than fighting side-by-side for better conditions for all.

Working people say they oppose unions because...

...unions are corrupt. That's true, some are. Just like some companies are corrupt. Unions are organizations of humans, and in any human-created endeavor, there is the potential for corruption and abuse of power. However, just as not all companies are Enron, not all unions are the 1970s Teamsters. Would you rather have some input into your working conditions or have none?

...they get just as good a deal without a union. They might - right now. But when the company is under pressure to show a bigger profit, how many jobs will be cut, how will new hires be treated? That will be entirely up to the company, and you will have no say at all. Would you rather have some input into your working conditions or have none?

...unions are only interested in keeping their members employed. Wouldn't it be great if we all had a team of people interested in keeping us employed? The answer to this is more union jobs.

...union workers are lazy. By lazy, I think they mean work a certain number of hours, for which they are paid, and are not forced to work longer hours and/or unpaid hours at the employer's say-so. I suspect the people who call this lazy would very much like the opportunity to be lazy like that. Also, I've worked in non-union environments all my life, and I've had loads of lazy co-workers. And many industrious ones. People are people. Unions don't change that.

...they are living off public money. First, there are private sector unions: Steelworkers, Auto Workers, Teamsters, Communication Workers. The folks Air Canada is trying to crush. The folks Caterpillar recently abandoned. Second, services cost money. I'd rather my tax money support good jobs for my neighbours than higher profits for shareholders. Either way, services are going to cost. One way the money goes back into the community and the city has some oversight. The other way, corners will be cut and taxpayers will be fleeced.

...What's in it for me? Union-bashers might not use those words, but much of the venom spewed against organized labour is borne of jealousy, at the fact that union workers may have better pay and better benefits than non-union workers. But those good union jobs raise the standard for all jobs. Throughout the history of organized labour, union pay scales have set the bar and led to higher wages for all workers. Without the UAW, CAW, USW, CUPE, AFSCME and SEIU raising the standards for decent wages and benefits, good jobs would be even scarcer than they are now. Trickle-down economics is bullshit, but a rising tide of better jobs will float many more boats.

One argument that we're hearing a lot now, as union-bashers parrot Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, is that public-sector workers have "jobs for life". This is said with tremendous disgust and disdain - and with the certain knowledge that such a thing exists. Other than the Pope and maybe a United States Supreme Court Justice, no one has a job for life. Union workers may have more job security than non-union workers. That's why we need more union jobs, so workers and their families can be more secure.

There are other arguments, too. But in response to each one, I ask the same question:

Would you rather have some input into your working conditions or have none?




* I was active in the National Writers Union, but that was more movement than union, and all the members were freelancers. There was no shared workplace.

** One day. I can hardly wait.

8 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

One little detail that's important for Toronto people who don't know it yet: the City of Toronto thing that gets described as "jobs for life" is actually a provision where, if your position is eliminated, they try to place you in another position that's available.

Analogy: my first job was as a cashier at a fast food restaurant located inside a gas station, one of several such businesses in the area owned by the same person. So let's suppose my employer decided they didn't need as many cashiers. But, instead of outright firing me, they put me to work in the kitchen, or as a cashier on the gas station side of things, or send me outside to pump gas, or offer me a job at one of their other locations. Or maybe, since I've been there a while, they look at how much training it would take to qualify me for the assistant manager position that's open. It's basically good business sense - you've got a reliable worker who knows the ropes and is a known quantity rather than having to train up some n00b from scratch.

But it's this exact practice, at the city level, that's being spoken of disparagingly as "jobs for life".

laura k said...

Thanks, Imp Strump. I couldn't work in that concisely.

This is done in many private sector companies, too, only it's not contractual, it's more informal (and so can be not done at the employer's will).

Job security, what a concept. Imagine it was once the norm!

johngoldfine said...

Every year, there is a short window of opportunity to enroll new people in the union--or people who have dropped out.

Sometimes the ex-members say incredibly stupid shit:

" I'm going to save the dues. I want to negotiate for myself."

[You stupid fuck, you don't have the right, asshole; the union is the exclusive bargaining agent. And the rest of us will pay your way in negotiations, whether you join us or not, shitbrain.]

" I lost my grievance. Why bother to pay dues?"

" You guys didn't get much at the bargaining table last year, so I'm making up what you didn't get me by not paying dues."

" You didn't press my grievance hard enough. If you don't believe in me, why should I believe in you?"

Honestly, when I hear these jerks whining and smirking, I wish they still handed out the blackjacks and brass knuckles so I could be a genuine union goon.

And don't get me started on members who do 'negotiate' for themselves in the sense that they violate the contract and establish precedents by doing things for management like taking unpaid overloads.

johngoldfine said...

And then there are the Ph.Ds who think union membership is beneath their dignity. In fact, there are a lot of teachers so stuck on themselves and their self-proclaimed professionalism that they don't want to be part of any social action. They are individualists, you see.

laura k said...

"You guys didn't get much at the bargaining table last year, so I'm making up what you didn't get me by not paying dues."

OMG what morons.

And then there are the Ph.Ds who think union membership is beneath their dignity.

My father was chief negotiator and grievance counselor for the instructors and profs of CUNY, City University of New York. The union is called the Professional Staff Congress, purposely so it doesn't have the word union in it! He came from a labour background (textile workers), and he had never heard of anything so stupid.

laura k said...

I know a guy who is a social worker who moved from the US to Canada. Where he lived in the US, he had a massive case load and was paid in the low $30K range. He moved to Ontario, where his work is unionized. He now has a cap on his case load and his salary more than doubled.

He complains about his union dues and questions (out loud, all the time) why the union needs two full-time staff. He actually thinks his better working conditions are because Ontario is better than his former US state. Ha!

During the Toronto municipal strike, he helped spread rumours on FB and Twitter that 400 people lost their jobs because they couldn't get to work because the Toronto Island ferries weren't running. Fact: the ferry was running for residents, just not tourists. (It was the first day of the strike, how could 400 people have already lost their jobs?)

MSEH said...

"And then there are the Ph.Ds who think union membership is beneath their dignity."

And then there are those of us who teach at private universities in the US who support unionization, but are prohibited from unionizing because our positions are deemed "too much like management" because we do things like, um, "manage" the curriculum (NLRB v. Yeshiva, 1980)...

laura k said...

(NLRB v. Yeshiva, 1980)

Grrr. Thanks, MSEH.