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Why Workers Need Unions to Counter the Power of Their Employers

Capitalism offers workers an illusory freedom while holding the threat of destitution over them if they demand too much.

Paddy Quick May 27

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Most workers understand very clearly that they are better off if there is a structure in place in their workplaces that allows for their work-related concerns to be addressed, rather than having to rely, as individuals, on the “goodness” of their supervisors and ultimately, their employers. 

It is hard to overestimate how important a union can be in speaking on behalf of workers to address the multiple issues we face at work. These go far beyond the need for decent pay to include such crucial matters as health and safety and work schedules, as well as the determination and application of workplace policies such as those governing sick days and bathroom breaks. Workers also understand that their employers, most obviously in the form of corporations, rank the maximization of profits over the well-being of their employees and their willingness to address such concerns only to the extent that they can contribute to this goal. To some degree, unions may even provide an “efficient” way to address grievances that do not interfere with profit maximization, but may nonetheless be appreciated by their members. 

The truly heroic struggles for unionization that have been taking place within corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks attest to the enormous risks that workers have been willing to take in order to realize their legal right to unionize and the benefits that result from this. These struggles have in turn led many workers throughout the United States to recognize that the harsh and often near-intolerable “terms and conditions” of their employment are not inevitable and can be challenged.

For advocates of free-market capitalism,  “bargaining” between a worker and an individual employer is said to be no different from that between a car-buyer and a car-seller.

In the United States, the basic law governing relations between workers and their employers is based on what is known as “at-will employment.” This means that employers can terminate employees for no reason — they do not have to “show cause,” for example by documenting a poor work record. Similarly, employees can leave a job without giving a reason. 

This “employment at will” system is said to be the same as the relationship between the buyers and sellers of any good or service. You do not have to buy a new car and no car-dealer has to sell one to you. The two of you can bargain over the price of such a car, and then each of you can choose whether or not to sign a contract. (These contracts are understood by both parties to govern what are called the “terms and conditions of employment,” which include not only hours and rate of pay, but the day-to-day and minute-to-minute activities of workers during those hours of work.) The “bargaining” between a worker and an individual employer is said to be no different from that between a car-buyer and a car-seller, and, the advocates of “free-market-capitalism” therefore argue that both of them should be equally “free” as to whether or not to enter into an employment contract. After a contract is signed, workers who don’t like its terms and conditions, have the right to quit — they are not slaves. If employers don’t like what workers are doing, they can fire them — they are not obliged to be philanthropists. It is true that workers do need jobs in order to live, but then it is also true that employers cannot make a profit without hiring workers. In this sense they “need each other.”

The discrepancy lies in the reality that workers who have been fired or laid off are in trouble. They cannot buy the food that they need so they must go hungry, pay the rent on their homes so that they won’t be evicted or make the payments due on the loans that they have taken out to prevent their homes, their cars, their furniture from being repossessed. Employers, on the other hand, can easily find replacements for those workers from among the many unemployed who share their difficulties, and perhaps pay their new hires even less that those they replace.

This is how capitalism works. And this is why workers have always had to struggle against this “unequal” bargaining system that lies at its heart. These struggles take place on many different fronts. They include the enactment of minimum-wage legislation, rules governing health and safety of workplaces, and prohibition of certain forms of discrimination. They also include measures that reduce the immediate hardships resulting from unemployment, such an unemployment compensation and food stamps, and the very inadequate government provision of health care and shelters for the homeless, that together reduce the necessity of accepting rotten jobs.  Capitalist “bargaining power” depends on the threat of poverty — it is an essential component of capitalism, rather than merely an unfortunate result of the inadequacies of the unemployed.

The ability to strike is the most powerful weapon workers have. 

At the same time, it is in this “bargaining process” that we can identify the most powerful weapon that is potentially in the hands of workers: The ability to strike. It is the work that we do that provides the profits of the capitalists. A strike, a refusal to work, constitutes a refusal to generate those profits. The ability of workers to strike, and to prevent scabs from replacing them when they do so, enables workers to “bargain” with capitalists so as to force them to return to us a portion of the fruits of our labor that they have taken from us. 

Unionizing does not, however, mean that unionized workers have, in practice, much power, including the right to strike. The overall 10% of unionized workers includes those in public-sector unions, such as the 700,000 members of American Federation of Government employees (AFGE) and the 1.6 million members of American Federation of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Although important to their members, these unions are not only legally prohibited from striking but are also unable to participate, as unions, in the determination of wages. The contracts that cover the 6% of unionized workers in the private sector restrict and often outlaw strikes. When they do strike, their jobs can be replaced by those of what are called permanent workers, those who have crossed union picket lines. The active or passive compliance of many workers with management’s protection of the privileges of white workers, or the hiring of men in preference to women, undermines the picketers’ appeal for “solidarity” in the conversations that take place at the picket lines.  

There is increasing recognition, including within existing unions, that despite the recent successful union drives, it is not possible to reverse the decline in unionization within the current structure set up by the National Labor Relations Board. Within this, unionization is not a right, but only a very, very slim possibility. Thus, the total number of union members fell by 191,000 in 2010 and a further 214,000 last year. We need a broad movement on several fronts to reverse this trend. The successful struggles of the newly unionized workers can inspire us to take up this challenge.

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