What Are Unions Good For?

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

13 Responses to “What Are Unions Good For?”

  • wow! good post! 🙂

  • Good post. I agree with you for the most part on this union argument. I am a democrat, but I do see the excesses that unions can cause. However one thing that I do feel that needs to be added to your post is that unions do provide benefits for laborors who work in seasonal short term projects for various different employers like construction workers, actors etc…

  • I was screwed over because the freaking union!

    Last year i was hired for a Technology Technician job at nearby city. I passed the test, and was chosen for the position after a couple of interviews. They asked me to place my two week’s notice for my other job so that i could start working. But on the last day of my two weeks’, these freaking idiots call me to tell me that HR screwed up because they had to give the Tech position to another employee in the union due to seniority; Also, as time passed i heard that the person that was promoted to the position was not the ‘best fit’ person for the tech job. So yeah, unions blow!

  • Like several others who have commented here, the union where I work (a university) hindered me in the early years of my career and hurt me again more recently by getting rid of early retirement buy outs and effectively destroying post-retirement contract opportunities.

    At the same time, my wife worked in a gubmnt enterprise. She suffered from abuse , and the union was a terrific help for her, assisting her with negotiations for workplace accommodations and, eventually, a buyout. But, of course, that was a gubmnt enterprise….

  • Jesus Looks like you didn’t get screwed over by the union looks like the union protected a member like it should. You know there are somethings people forget. If you can stand on your own two feet that’s great but what happens when your just a small piece of the puzzle? Unions can keep a workforce puzzle together. Hardworkers are in the union it’s a shame that this man’s father believed that he was some how better then a union worker because he believed they were lazy. The fact of the matter is if you are in a union and posting here you need to read what is in the article the author basically just said your LAZY! there was no really Positives here given toward the union. I’m 26 years old and worked in the unions for a good amount of time and I’ll tell you what union work is good work. Union workers are good workers.

    “Only a fool would try to deprive workingmen and workingwomen of the right to join the union of their choice.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

  • When you look at the economics of unions you don’t just look at the union members, you look at non-union members as well…and when you do that you realize that it is a net drain – a drain to the unemployed, the industry, and the society at large. Just ask the people in Detroit what unions have done to their area….

  • Yea… Unions blow. I work for UPS just because I needed a job and it was open. Since it is peak (Christmas), we are getting really screwed right now and we are unable to fire those lazy workers. Everytime he screws up and misloads packages into the wrong trailers the customer is screwed over. He works slowly and shows no work ethic. The union makes sure that all of the lazy workers can not be fired. If we work hard, you don’t need a union; The company wants the hard worker so they don’t need to worry about job security. Think if this was your company, would you want a union to make sure you can’t fire incompetent workers? They only screw over the company. I am also unable to recieve a promotion because of the D*** union. I work my *** off and pick up the slack from the lazy workers but I am still unable to recieve a promotion because of the freaking seniority BS. Unions suck. +1 HispanicPundit.

  • I ask that all of the people that are anti-union, please take a history of labor class. Many colleges and junior colleges offer them, and you are never to old to learn something new and release yourself from the ignorance that radiates from you.

    We, as an American society, enjoy what we have today in the workplace because of unions. Unions fought for child labor laws. They are the reason why each one of us only are required to work 8 hours each day, and that we get paid for those full 8 hours. Unions fought for safety in the workplace and benefits for those workers.

  • Child labor laws were being pushed outside of union organizations as well. Also, the primary reason that one can enact child labor laws in the first place is because of the efficiency of the free market – something that unions hamper. So one can make an argument that unions actually slowed down the progress of child labor laws.

  • a couple of stories here and all of a sudden unions suck. hardly the big picture. i’d suggest as the other poster did. take a class or a history lesson.

    the free market? without regulation and unions you’re looking at where the free market will take you. greed run rampant. a disappearing middle class. have a look around.

    no, they’re not perfect. but this is?

  • Rick,

    The United States has the lowest percentage of unions both currently and historically…and our standard of living and employment levels are significantly better than all other industrialized nations, especially for minorities – a coincidence? I dont think so.

  • This is one of the better blog posts I’ve read in a long while.

  • I would have to agree that some uions spent a lot of time defending habitual offenders of a myriad of issues. If you work, you really don’t need a union. I work for a school district, and the stuff the union does is amazing. They are very arrogant and they think they can do whatever they want. I have looked at the history of unions, and the history has not always been a good. There may have been a time when unions were really important, but now they have become havens for lazy people, who are habitually causing problems.


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