Friday, July 18, 2008


Similar to the post I did on the minimum wage last month, I recognize when one starts messing with another's line of work and living, certain hackles might be raised. Taking on unions, a leftover institution that many folks I know are (still, for whatever reason!) passionate about defending, hits close to the bone for many. Let me just get this out in the open: though I sincerely think unions are long past their shelf life of usefulness, and are a net drain on the economy & on productivity in general, and though I despise their anti-individualist celebration of the collective and stamping out of creativity & uniqueness, I'd probably go ahead and join one, if I were ever faced with a situation where doing so would raise my personal standard of living.

At the end of the day, caring for oneself and one's family wins out, and it always will, ideals be damned. Many before me and to this day have to throw their misgivings about unions to the back of their brains in order to make a decent living, and hey, good for them. You gotta look after number one. I do also recognize that there are many net benefits to American society and to millions of individuals like me of having a middle class, which was created last century through a combination of forces, one of which was in fact the existence of unions. I don’t believe, however, that a truly free market has any less potential to create an even larger and more prosperous middle class than the one we have today.

Let me take a second to enumerate what I see are the reasons to speak well of unions, and then those that cause me to speak ill.

The Case For Unions

1. Provides individuals with job security virtually regardless of their on-the-job performance, and allows them to reap the material and environmental benefits of collective bargaining

2. Connects one to a tradition of "labor movements", with cool posters and dramatic strikes and whatnot

The Case Against Unions

1. Unions almost always result in a sclerosis of reduced productivity, collective land-grabbing and non-market-based incentives, a system wholly at odds with the way the rest of our society operates in 2008.

2. Teachers’ unions, to take the most egregious example on record, are the prime cause of the United States’ inability to introduce even the most tepid market-based reforms into our school systems (such as goverment-paid vouchers, school competition and good-teacher incentives). Unions often have the collective might and muscle to scare away any threat to their material well-being, with the result being a shoddy educational system that is becoming the laughingstock of the First World.

3. It is the ultimate in anti-individualist movements, and the epitome of socialism. It stands out so obviously as a relic to a time that Americans tinkered with mass socialism before they knew its long-term consequences and failures, and it only survives (just barely) because of entrenched behavior, the fact that many manufacturing & services unions survive on the fumes of bargains struck long ago, and because of laws on the books that continue to encourage it.

4. Unions have the might within some sectors to demand concessions that would be deemed laughable in any other normal business/employee relationship – e.g. automatic tenure for marginal employees; inability to fire problem employees without undergoing an arduous years-long termination process, mere “verbal warnings” for egregious behavior; etc. They contribute to a hostile, non-cooperative management vs. labor dynamic that is beneficial to neither "side".

5. Unions increase the overall costs of doing business, which are the passed on to consumers.

6. Unions (naturally) force members to pay union dues, regardless of whether or not the members care about where those dues are spent. Employees are not allowed to opt out, even if it means not receiving the benefits that might come to them from being in a union.

7. Unionized employees are not subject to the same incentives as free-market employees are, and I strongly believe they therefore are unable to demonstrate their own individual potential as a result. I always believe that “you get what you measure”, and if all the union demands is mere competence, that’s all you’ll get. Unionized employees who otherwise would reap far higher gains by being superstars in their chosen fields have no incentive within unions to do so – thus hurting productivity, and their own human potential to succeed on their own merits.

8. Unions consistently oppose dynamism and the free movement of goods, services and labor that ultimately benefit and enrich everyone; most notoriously, unions are heavily and historically anti-immigrant, seeing new immigrants and their willingness to work hard & plug themselves into available low-skilled job slots as major threats to the unions’ collective might.

Because I’m not a researcher, economist nor a guy who has time to write for a living, you might assume that the lack of a bevy of statistical figures and examples to back up my claims means there aren’t any. In no way is that the case. I’ve been reading articles and studies that definitively prove unionism’s detrimental effects almost as long as I’ve been reading; a real writer or think tanker would probably take the time to assemble them. No, my claims are wholly self-evident – except to those to whom the free market is still a great & scary mystery. Check out your local schools or your local transportation system, and see if you can pinpoint a bigger culprit for its failings than unionism.


MoeLarryAndJesus said...

How absurd is it that in a time when union membership is somewhere around 12% of the workforce and union power has fallen to new lows that a right-leaning "libertarian" writes this sort of article?

Here's a stat for you. The average CEO now earns 369 times what the average worker does. That's up from 131 times in 1993 and 36 times in 1976.

The past three-plus decades have been mostly the story of the transfer of wealth from the middle and working classes back to the wealthy, but the real problem is supposed to be that workers aren't productive enough? What a humongous load of BULLSHIT. And please don't tell me that this wealth transfer has anything to do with making the US more competitive. It hasn't done anything of the kind.

It's probably too much to hope that the well-deserved bloodbath the Republicans are going to suffer in November will be enough to change things much. That will probably require a Great Depression level of suffering to pull off. Until then you can pick on the unions - they make a useful scapegoat.

Jay said...

Oh no - GREEDY CEO's!!!!

Congratulations for once again playing to type. Well done. I'll give you another chance - please refute one or more of my points rather than changing the subject. There's probably some hole-picking you can do, but setting up a straw man about greedy CEOs (which my post had nothing to do with) is not getting it done.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

It's hard to take your points on this issue seriously. Apart from some real problems with public sector unions they're no longer a major economic power in the US. They just aren't. Management greed and incompetence are far more important, but your own blinders won't let you see that and so you attack a puny and irrelevant target.

As for teacher's unions, I think the problems they cause are exacerbated by ballooning (and generally incompetent) administrative staffs and unrealistic parental demands. OF COURSE there are a lot of incompetent teachers, but the job has changed since I was a kid, and I can't think of a single change that has made the job more rewarding. The people going in to the profession are less competent than they used to be. Nothing in your comments suggest any way out of that problem.

Danny Plotnick said...

All right Jay, I’m going to pose a few questions from a teacher (albeit at a private school without a Union) and the parent of a first grader at a public school. My first question is how do you trace the decline of the public school system to the Unions? The problem with schools from my vantage point are 1) Too many kids in the classroom. 2) Not enough quality supplies or up-to-date technology. 3) Low grade facilities. 4) Not enough staffing and coverage for things like lunchtime on the playground—the place where all the real shit goes down. Last I checked, teachers make pretty mediocre-to-satisfactory money at best. It’s not like teachers and the folks that administer SFUSD are riding around in Rolls Royces at the expense of having quality books and computers in the classroom. I don’t see the lack of funding of the school system to have that much to do with the Unions. My son has had really good teachers at his school and any shortcomings in his education have had little to do with the quality on that front. Also, maybe teachers burn out because they’ve been in a place for twenty years but have not had the proper tools to do the job properly. Think about doing your job with antiquated equipment. Are we just supposed to toss those teachers out on their asses at the point they hit their burn out factor. I come from a family of teachers. We were a pretty middle class affair. My Mom taught in the Detroit Public School district for years. She didn’t make that much and she was occasionally walking the picket lines for a more decent wage. And there were plenty of problems in the Detroit public school system in the 80s. I honestly don’t feel that my Mom asking for a bit of a better salary was the main culprit.

If I’m missing something, fill me in.

Anonymous said...

Currently, I am a high school educator. Tomorrow I start back to teach for another year. I received part of my schedule and found out that I am teaching science in an English room (please try to tell a basketball team to practice in an office, it can be done but poorly).

I would like to respond to your unsupported claims about teacher unions (the neocon propaganda does not count as a credible source). These are very different from other traditional unions. Normally a union on strike would cause a financial burden on the employer. This is not the case for public schools. If teachers go on strike, administration is affected in the least. They still collect taxpayer’s money to spend on scab companies that offer no educational opportunities for students. Strikes are much riskier to teachers than other industries.

So let me refute much of the propaganda promoted by your blog. First of all in favor of unions the biggest plus is not salary, but working conditions and job security (I will address poor teachers later). My aunt worked for a Catholic school for 35 years with no union she taught 5 preps. All of my family attended this school including myself. After 35 years she was told that there was no position for her next fall. She left with no pension. I have never heard of any administrative position being cut in times of poor economics. My children will never attend that school. The point of a teacher's union is to lay out sustainable working conditions, in order for students to learn (like a lab classroom).

Point number 2 is that teachers feel connected to a "labor movement". I am not sure where your evidence comes from.

Refuting the case against union.

Point #1
Education is not a "market" producing a "product". So let’s have competitions among other public "industries" such as the fire department. Oh wait we did that with horrific effects (competing firefighting companies were fighting over territory).

Point #2
Again with the "market" bs. Ideally vouchers would allow students from failing districts to attend private schools (country clubs) on the taxpayer dollar. Private schools are exclusive communities. They only work because they select their students. This is not democratic at all. Conservatives put more emphasis on free market over democracy (which word is in the constitution?). Private schools exclude students with lower IQs, the mentally handicapped, and really whomever that they do not see fit for their learning environment. Public schools MUST accept all students regardless. In addition education is not inherently better at a private institution only the students and supportive parents create the illusion of being a successful school. An analogy would be a public pool that has not been taken care of. Do we give the taxpayers a voucher to go to the country club pool (where may of the taxpayers would ultimately be excluded)? NO YOU FIX THE PUBLIC POOL

As for teacher incentives: how do you go about measuring teacher performance? The intelligent teacher would stop working for the inner city where scores are low and work out in the rich suburbs where test scores are higher. Boy what a system, how great would that improve teaching. Test scores are also inherently flawed. We are judged by different cohorts every year. When a cohort does worst compared to the previous year it is always assumed that it’s the teachers fault. I also do not understand how school competition would work. Would a school rejoice at another schools failure? Again this is not a sport or market and the result should be an educated society not one business out competing another.

As for our educational system being the laughing stock of the world. I think you are confusing this with our health care system. Our failing public school system is a complete myth only supported by anecdotal evidence (which politicians use and which scientists abhor). Look into the glorious European style schools and you will see an education that promotes a rigorous separation of classes. In addition when the US is compared to other countries, it is not a fair comparison as other countries select their upper class to take these comparison tests.

Point #3
Oh no the dreaded socialism boogie monster. Him and the tax man are gonna eat all the rich people. In medicine no other country is adopting a market based health care system (Great Britain is privatizing some of its services, but it is by no means the great American medical system failure). Countries around the world are adopting a socialized health care system. I am a big believer in a free market. But not all sectors (police, fire, education, and medicine) should be completely a free market. Some things must be socialized. Most charter schools and for profit schools fail in comparison. The ones that perform better only do so due to increased spending compared to a public school and outrageous teacher working conditions.

Point #4
Unions do not protect lousy employees. Unions only require due process in termination of an employee. Most administrators don't care or have time enough to pursue (many are as overworked as the teachers), but they still have the power. I have seen tenured employees removed since I have been a teacher within the school year. In addition there is a myth that most teachers are lousy. I will be honest and say that I have met lousy teachers. They make up less than 5% of the workforce. Most teachers are extremely hardworking and dedicated people who go above and beyond what is expected of them. Think about your private industry workforce. I'll bet that 5% of the workforce is lousy. This is not a problem that plagues only teachers.

Point #5
Unions may increase costs (due to increase in salary), but so do the more vast poor managerial decisions (our superintendent is replacing all of the fluorescent lights with full spectrum lighting in all of the building because he was rooked into the pseudoscience that full spectrum lighting promotes better education. New textbooks also increase costs (lets get rid of them too). I don't understand why teacher unions are singled out.

Point #6
Non union members are not forced to pay union dues. There are only 2 members of our staff who are not union. Any non union members quickly become members after being thoroughly screwed by administration.

Point #7
Again, how do you measure teacher performance? I can teach students to ace state mandated tests, but is that what we want in education?

Point #8
Since education is not about the movement of goods, services, or labor. Teacher unions are not unions in the traditional sense. It does not apply.

Please before you and your neocon writer buddies dumb down issues like "Unions bad for schools" and "Taxes bad for everybody" please realize that education is far more complex than producing any goods or services. Please spend a day in a public and follow the life of a teacher or student. You may learn something.

Dave Crosby said...

hey - it's almost 2 years later since this was posted. i'm sitting here scratching my head and trying to figure out if any of the other comments made a legitimate case for unions - even in the education sector?

we're 2 years later and watching the Obama regime having an orgy fest w/ union leaders at the White House. how can anyone make a case that unions don't have undue influence in the political machine? they are as bad a disease as the crony capitalists.

the one thing that wasn't mentioned in either the post or the comments was the drowning effect that union pensions have on any institution - be it private or public. between the ridiculous pension funding demands AND the ineptitude of pension administrators (aka Wall Street), we see huge unfunded liabilities on the books of major corporations & governments ... ala state of California (they're doing just dandy, aren't they?), or GM (wait, the government forcibly took the company over, screwed all of the secured & unsecured creditors, and handed most of the ownership over to the Union. Nice.

Thanks for writing this article - it should be updated 2 years into the future (now) - if anyone reads this. DC

amalgam said...

@ David Crosby -

So whose fault was it that poor negotiations occurred on all sides, based on the foolish belief of the continued improvement of the "bubble economy"? An economy funded by public and private debt that happened to cover 30+ years of globalization, outsourcing, wage stagnation, loss of union membership, etc., all because of a societal shift to an over-reliance on financialization.

Plus, I love your characterization of clearly weak unions' "undue influence" when corporations/management/wealthy individuals have shown that THEY, not unions, have undue influence in the political system through the use of legal, secretive and UNETHICAL "dark money" expenditures. Ha.

Of course, let's not even talk about income inequality...