Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Unions, a Necessary Evil

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


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

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7 thoughts on “Unions, a Necessary Evil

  1. Ed McField on said:

    Very concise yet cogent analysis of the state of labor unions and the implications of their demise. It appears as though those ‘unreasonable demands’ on the system represents their (Unions) downfall. However, has the author considered the possibility that in today’s age of 24hr media cycles that there are other mechanisms for check/balances that would hold employers accountable? Would a slight reduction in wages (across all sectors) necessarily mean a reduction in quality of life?

    • Thanks for your reply, Ed. I think it is precisely the 24-hour media cycle that prevents it from actually accomplishing anything. The media may mention something about bad conditions or a health threat somewhere, but then it’s on to the latest Charlie Sheen scandal (MUCH more important, of course).

      As the the quality of life, well that’s a huge can of worms, isn’t it? There are many studies showing that over a certain, surprisingly low, income, more money does little to contribute to happiness, health, etc. However, there are also studies that show it is the disparity between incomes or levels of wealth that cause anxiety. In either case, I think a decreasing income has to be bad for people because of debt, and other issues having to do with the life one has become “accustomed to.”

      I forgot to add that unions are largely responsible for employers’ provision of health insurance. If that goes away, I think the quality of life would suffer greatly for many people.

      -Tom Rossi

  2. Linda Scott on said:

    After working at a university for years and being on the management side of the union issue I’ve come to see how very self-interested unions can be. They can also push organizations to the limits and make them inefficient. As you point out there were very good reasons for them to come into existence but then it was as though they were not necessary any more and were in fact detrimental to the auto industry. I think some of the reasons the auto industry has failed in this country has been labor unions–asking for too high a wages and keeping the workers acting like cogs in a machine and inhibiting any innovation. BUT now that the ruling class is trying to get working people to bail them out of any and all financial situations I can see that the unions can be a powerful force to battle them. If we are going to make any headway in this country against big capital & the monied class it is going to have to be done in organized groups such as unions. On the peace front I think we have to do that as well. I’m no fan of religious institutions but I can see churches being used as a way of organizing and protesting in support of peace and against the military industrial complex and war.

  3. If it hadn’t been for CTA/NEA, I probably would have been fired from my teaching job just because I wouldn’t lower the standards in my classroom by inflating grades and dummying down the curriculum.

    Unions do more than negotiate for higher pay and more benefits, they often intercede on the behalf of workers when management is politically motivated to be unfair and force workers such as teachers to lower standards to make voters and parents happy.

    There is truth to power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely (who said that?). It doesn’t matter if the power/corruption comes from a union or a corporation.

    When the corporation is corrupt, it helps to have a union (hopefully) balance out the equation. Without the union, the small person is eliminated one at a time.

    • Well said, Lloyd. By the way, the quote is from a letter by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton or simply Lord Acton. The complete quote reads: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

      Heavy stuff.

      • It may have been an awareness of this truth that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men” to explain why America’s Founding Fathers were so careful to build in safeguards to protect US citizens from the American government.

        Sad to say, most Americans are unaware that freedom of speech and of the press was a protection from government in case someone spoke out with an opinion or a truth that infuriated a government official or politician.

        It wasn’t a guarantee to be free to lie and deceive as many politicians, special interest groups and political pundits on talk radio do daily.

  4. COMRADE MADALA on said:


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