Last night, I talked to a young lawyer who claimed to be a Democrat, yet felt that unions should basically not exist. I’ve always found this stance puzzling. Whenever I’ve asked young liberals why they’re unfavorable to unions, they come up with reasons, but they always seem inadequate or nonsensical — so that I suspect that, at bottom, they just feel that there’s something icky about the concept.
I can see why an eager young meritocrat like this lawyer would feel like that, because a world in which unions are necessary goes against his hopes for what the workplace should be. In such people’s minds, work is basically a fair competition in which the boss makes a good-faith effort to assess a worker’s contribution and reward him or her accordingly. By contrast, a world in which unions are necessary — which is to say, our actual existing world — is a world in which the relationship between management and labor in a for-profit firm is always ultimately antagonistic, in which employers are always trying to drive down wages as much as possible.
In such a world, I don’t know what option the workers have at their disposal other than banding together and threatening to shut everything down. The bosses have the ability to destroy an individual worker’s livelihood in retaliation for basically anything — the only way to even begin to level the playing field in that situation is for the workers to exercise coersive force in their turn. Ideally, the situation wouldn’t get to the point of an actual strike, but it’s the threat of the strike that makes the negotiations urgent. And in turn, the existence of unions in one segment of industry leads other firms to treat their workers better so as to avoid the prospect of facing a similar threat.
The government can make all the laws they want, but unless the workers have real collective power behind them, those laws always threaten to become a dead letter — after all, the boss can fire you for reporting violations of labor laws! The bosses of for-profit firms are always fighting against the workers’ interests, so the workers need to fight back.
One often hears that unions have become somehow “out of date” — ignoring the fact that their decline has been the result of three decades of aggressively anti-union policy from both parties — but to be blunt, what the fuck else are workers going to do? At bottom, what is the alternative to banding together and threatening to shut everything down? The institutional structure that grows out of that will vary, but I don’t see that there is any alternative to the basic concept of a labor union within a capitalist society.