Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Do We Still Need Unions?

Unions are on the decline, and have been for many years. Should we care? Are unions even necessary anymore? Some would argue yes; some no. Many people believe unions were only needed in the early days of the industrial revolution when corporations had immense power compared to workers. Some of them employed children, for example, to work as much as 7 days a week, 16 hours a day.

In fact, it was images captured by photographers that made a big dent in public opinion regarding the harm of childhood labor, and which raised the labor movement into what it became at its peak.

Once the unions, with the assistance of the courts, infiltrated the workplace, making demands for fair pay and fair hours, and once Congress stepped in to prohibit the nastier forms of exploitation of children/workers by employers, many believed unions had served their purpose and were no longer required.

Especially because unions, like employers, often overreached.

Look at some of the outrageous policies brought about by unions – like the teachers’ union in New York that bargained to prohibit incompetent teachers from being fired, forcing the government (us) to pay them to sit around all day doing nothing.

Or policies that specify employees will be kept on the job on the basis of seniority rather than competence. No matter how skilled the junior employee, the senior employee must be kept on the job in any layoff or reduction in force.

Some of these policies resulted from corrupt employers, of course. Certain employers wanted to rid themselves of problem employees who spoke up about worker rights, so these policies were put in place to protect workers from arbitrary and retaliatory actions by management.

So without unions, employers might never have put in place safety protocols and equal pay that we currently enjoy (even though many workplaces could still be safer and equal pay still isn’t as equal as it ought to be). Or those advances would have taken many more years to achieve.

Obviously a group of employees has much more power than any one person. So employers were forced to concede some power in order to keep the company alive. A certain amount of waste (in the form of worthless employees) was acceptable as long as overall the company/government entity could continue as a going concern.

Now many employees no longer want to be part of a union because they don’t want to give up part of their pay to support political causes they don’t individually support, and they see lobbying as entirely political. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t. Without political pressure, some of the worker rights we enjoy today might never have come to pass.

So where should the line be drawn? How much political lobbying is too much? What limitations should be placed on union activity not directly related to employee pay and safety? These are complex questions with few easy answers.

But one thing I know is this: we still need unions. We still need checks and balances on employer overreach. Employers should not have all the power. Neither should unions. If only the two sides could look at each other as partners instead of enemies, more might get accomplished.

Too often, one side sees the other’s successes as a personal loss. Management wants to maximize shareholder gain, even at the expense of workers. Labor often places its members’ desires above the welfare of the company. Neither position is healthy.


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