The public employee union situation in Wisconsin (and now Ohio and elsewhere) got me to thinking about the reasons that unions came into existence in the first place. Before the advent of labor unions in America, typical working conditions at factories, mills, and many agricultural operations were very harsh: twelve-hour work days, six- and sometimes seven-day work weeks, extremely dangerous workplaces with frequent serious injuries and even deaths, and all this for wages that kept most workers in or near poverty. The situation was the same for women and children, except that these groups received much lower wages.
Many large employers in remote locations were themselves the only providers of housing, food and supplies, and shower facilities – all priced such that workers would actually fall deeper and deeper in debt to the company even as they continued to work. This amounted to slavery, but the workers had no alternative as there have always been more workers than jobs.
So why are things different now? It’s because labor unions formed, battled with employers, their often brutal “henchmen”, and sometimes governments, went on strike, and demanded changes in employer policies and in the law. It’s because of labor unions that child labor is illegal. Because of unions, most people work 40 hours per week and get paid extra for overtime and work in conditions many times safer.
Of course, once any entity becomes powerful, it starts to make unreasonable demands on the system. Once gains were made, the unions had to justify their collection of dues from the workers. So, union organizers regularly fired up the members to demand higher and higher pensions and things like “job security”, which brought inefficiencies to the workplace and raised long-term operating costs for employers.
The working conditions of the past would probably never fly these days, but one thing would return without unions with no doubt – downward pressure on wages and salaries. And make no mistake, when union workers’ wages fall, non-union wages will fall as well.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.
Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com