Every now and then, someone will take me to task for being a proud member of a labor union. “Why do you belong to a union? They just take your money and run!” or “But unions are so anti-woman!” or “But you’re smart—why do you need to belong to a union?” Sometime it isn’t personal. Sometimes, it’s “concern” over the economy, as with, “But unions drive up costs!” or “They strike all the time!” or “That’s why we don’t have jobs in the United States anymore.” To me, one of the more telling points in all the various anti-labor screeds is the inevitable “they”—when the person is talking to me, a union member. Let’s tease out some typical myths about unions, and get down to the real nitty-gritty (and apologies to non-U.S. readers; this post is U.S.-centric as anti-union sentiment is high in the U.S.):
1. “Unions are why all the jobs left the United States.”
No, not by a long shot. Many jobs evaporated as automation was introduced on a larger scale. Other jobs were outsourced not because of union wages, but because of United States wages; the option to relocate to nonunion areas of the United States wasn’t taken. Corporate greed, a tax code that provides preferential treatment for foreign earnings, the lack of a national healthcare system, desire to avoid environmental laws, avoidance of health and safety laws, helpful dictatorships (subsidized by the U.S., and assisted by the U.S. military) to torture and assassinate labor organizers, and federal programs designed to encourage foreign investment in the form of offshoring had/have far more of an impact than union wages (especially considering the precipitous decline in union membership). White-collar jobs in IT and financial services are outsourced, and those aren’t usually union jobs. It should also bear mention that the United States isn’t the only country that is hemmoraging jobs—the corporate-led race to the bottom is global.
2.“Unions raise the cost of goods and services.”
Because price gouging, market manipulation, monopolies, mergers and acquisitions couldn’t have anything to do with it. Besides, the price of clothing, shoes, food, etc. have all plummeted with outsourcing, right? (Right? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) And speaking of prices, what is the true cost of those “low, low prices”, hmm? Who is carrying the freight for corporations that don’t provide health insurance? What is the real cost of the impoverishment of communities? And…..why are those prices artificially low to begin with? Those “low prices” are paid for by the blood of women of color.
3.“Unions strike all the time.”
Not even close. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates there were 21 work stoppages (BLS does not differentiate between strikes and lockouts) in the U.S. in 2007. Less than 1/10th of one percent of work time is lost to strikes with employers involving 1,000 or more workers; in 98% of all collective bargaining negotiations, agreements are reached without a strike. Despite the rarity of strikes, media coverage of them dominates labor news. The days of newspapers having a “labor beat” are long gone (coinciding with newspapers becoming a nonunion environment).
5.“Unions protect deadbeats; incompetant union workers can’t be fired.”
No union contract forbids an employer from firing a worker who is drunk, high, lazy, incompetant, etc. The union insures that such firings are for ‘just cause’, and not because of discriminatory purposes (too old, too black, too lesbian, speaks Spanish to co-workers, etc.) or because the employer is having a bad day. Union members should be aware of their Weingarten rights.
6.“Unions aren’t necessary anymore; now there are laws to protect workers.”
Uhh, yeah. That’s working out real well for those folks commenting in the Eight Hour thread, isn’t it? Remember the Imperial fire? The one that resembled the Triangle Shirtwaist fire? Workplace fatalities aren’t a thing of the past. Death comes on the installment plan too, as for people who work with or around asbestos, in the chromium industry, in the PVC industry, the textile industry, with benzene (rubber or oil industry workers), or the manufacturing of artificial flavorings for food products (ever hear of Popcorn Lung?). Disability from workplace injury, dangerous working conditions due to understaffing, sexual harassment and assault, workplace discrimination, wrongful termination, violation of privacy, retaliation for whistleblowing, overtime work at straight-time (or no) pay, better pay, regular raises, pensions and other benefits, equal pay—these concerns haven’t gone away.
7.“Unions are racist and sexist.”
Is there racism in the labor movement? Is there sexism in the labor movement? Heterosexism? Damn right there is. Just like everywhere else. Yet while the labor movement gets to be the poster child for prejudicial societal attitudes, female workers and men of color get paid more in a unionized workplace.
8.“Unions are outside agitators, creating adversity with management.”
Because there certainly couldn’t have been any adversity before labor unions. Adversity couldn’t come from management, could it? I wish I had an explanation for the “outside agitators” tack, but I don’t. “They”. “They’re” steering you wrong. It’s a strange version of the “but you’re not like the rest of your people, you’re one of the good ones” game. I just repeat ad infinitum, “I am the union. The union isn’t ‘them’, over there, it’s me, right here.”
9.“Unions mean less flexibility in the workplace and more rules to follow.”
How is abiding by a union contract different from abiding by any other contract? Granted, the union will be there to advocate for the enforcement of any laws or policies that were previously ignored in a nonunion environment, but flexibility? Labor unions are in the forefront for advocating flexibility in the workplace.
10.“Union workers are overpaid.”
BWA HA HA HA! Compared to what? According to whom? Check out corporate pay and golden parachutes, and then tell me who’s overpaid.
11.“Unions are mobbed-up, in bed with the Mafia.”
There were 183 convictions for labor racketeering in the United States in 2007. Fifty-six unions are affliated with the AFL-CIO; most of them have hundreds of locals. My own union (the IBEW) has over 1000 locals in the U.S. It ought to be safe to say that a fraction of one percent of Locals have a problem with organized crime. Although there is a section of the Department of Justice dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of labor racketeers, there is no such counterpart devoted specifically to corporate crime (imagine that!) thus, no handy statistics on corporate crime, either. This helpful website is a good source for information on corporate crime.
12.“Union dues are shakedown money—a net loss from the paycheck.”
Not so. Union pay is higher. Union workers are more likely to have pension and healthcare benefits. This difference is more dramatic for workers in low-wage occupations. Frankly, I enjoy knowing that my pay is the same as any of my white, male union brethren. That sure wouldn’t happen in the nonunion world.
13.“Unions are beneath professional, white-collar workers; unions are only for those (insert sotto voce) uneducated (and back to normal volume) blue-collar workers who can’t do any better.”
Ah yes. Shouldn’t stain the white collar by rubbing elbows with the great unwashed. The problem is, it isn’t true. In the U.S., 51% of union members are white-collar. As lower pay, longer (sometimes uncompensated) hours, understaffing, greater workloads, less autonomy and less respect become the order of the day in the white-collar world, interest in union membership will rise (as is seen in the academic and medical fields).
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