This question isn’t asked enough. Here is my take on workers’ unions.
Leaving the economic jargon aside for the moment, my dad (and uncle) happens to work for one of the biggest unions in the country. He is a mechanic that works off the port of Long Beach, California, and has been in the union for more than twenty years. He and my uncle are the hardest workers I know, and they both happen to dislike the unions. My dad ran into problems with the union when upper management recognized all his hard work and wanted to offer him the opportunity for more training. The training would increase his pay by a significant amount – a matter of great importance for someone who is the sole provider to a family of five. The problem was that the union wouldn’t allow it. They said that if the company was going to do that for him, then they would first have to do it for everybody else who has more seniority than my dad. So after a few months of arguing, my dad decided to leave the union. This was a very big thing back then because everybody was part of the union. But my dad struck a deal with the company where he would only work off site, not on the port, thereby not technically violating union rules (union rules stipulate that every non-manager worker on the port be a union member). Since my dad had so many years with the company and was really liked by all of the workers, this caused a huge ripple throughout the union.
To make a long story short, the company ended up paying for my dad’s training and he was able to get the promotion he wanted. But a few years later, he lost the lower half of his leg in an accident at one of the junk yards he was working at. After the settlement (which, my dad says, was bigger than it would have been had he still been in the union), he went back to work, but was not able to work off the port anymore since the driving would be too hard on him. He had to rejoin the union in order to comply with union rules, but he still stands firm that if you are a hard worker, you don’t need the union to protect you.
My dad is in his mid-fifties, a minority, continues to have a difficult time speaking English and works in a somewhat dangerous work environment, all factors that should increase his need for a union. Yet he still tells me that it is primarily lazy people that benefit from unions and that the hard workers are given less opportunity to grow because seniority rules protect those who have been there longer. In short, you don’t really need a union to protect you if you are a hard worker because the company has an incentive to keep you and please you.
Now, I’m not saying that unions don’t come in handy sometimes, there certainly are instances where unions stand up for the little guy. But I would be willing to bet that most of those cases could have been handled by other means. For example, if your complaint is about basic safety environments, those can be handled through legislation. If your complaint is about child labor, that too could be handled by legislation. In other words, the true benefit of the union is becoming less and less prominent, while the negatives are still very much there. Some of those very real negatives are things like how unions reduce the competitive edge of companies to compete with others (just look at the Wal-Mart versus Ralphs debates). They also force companies to artificially raise prices on goods (an act that primarily hurts poor people), they increase unemployment (another act that hurts the poor), they push down wages in other fields (yet again, bad for the poor), they create incentives for companies to go overseas, and increase the barriers for new businesses to come in and compete (which limits competition thereby helping keep prices of goods high, again, primarily hurting the poor), all in all, it becomes less and less economically prudent to have unions.
That is not to say that unions have absolutely no purpose at all. I would find my support for unions rising in areas that serve an inherently dangerous work environment for workers. Unions are notorious for raising the cost of labor so much that it pushes companies to invest in machinery to do the same thing. For example, my dad was telling me that a few job openings (I think it was around 500) had opened up for longshoremen, and my dad says that they received more than 500,000 applications. Why so many? The reason is simple, the unions have forced the companies to pay these longshoremen so much over the market price that they were essentially creating a surplus of people who wanted the job (It’s interesting that liberals are often the champions of income equality, but when it comes to unions they turn a blind eye – union wages benefit the few select people that work in unions at the expense of the overwhelming amount of people that don’t – a perfect case of severe income inequality). When you push wages above their market levels, you give companies extra incentives to find other ways to accomplish the same thing (think of the coal mining industry and its decline). In areas where it is inherently life threatening to work, this is a good thing. Therefore, unions serve a good purpose in getting us closer to that than would be the case had unions not been involved.
I’d like to end with just a little bit of economic talk. The great economist of the twentieth century, Milton Friedman, explained it this way in his book on economics, Capitalism And Freedom,
“If unions raise wage rates in a particular occupation or industry, they necessarily make the amount of employment available in that occupation or industry less than it otherwise would be — just as any higher price cuts down the amount purchased. The effect is an increased number of persons seeking other jobs, which forces down wages in other occupations. Since unions have generally been strongest among groups that would have been high-paid anyway, their effect has been to make high-paid workers higher paid at the expense of lower-paid workers. Unions have therefore not only harmed the public at large and workers as a whole by distorting the use of labor; they have also made the incomes of the working class more unequal by reducing the opportunities available to the most disadvantaged workers”. — Milton Friedman in “Capitalism And Freedom“