I think unions were an absolute necessity in the early days of the industrial revolution. Workers were so spectacularly abused in those days, in part because they had limited mobility when it came to looking for greener employment pastures, that only by united action were they able to change the employer/employee dynamic away from mind-bogglingly brutalizing practices. (See, for example, the horror of phossy jaw, which afflicted 19th and 20th century workers in match factories.) I still think unionization is useful in certain unusually dangerous industries where the risks of employment go beyond the economic and into life and death scenarios — and this is especially true in the chemical industry, when the employer has information the employee lacks and has the ability to control environmental safety which, again, is something the individual employee cannot do.
BUT, as long-time readers know, there are a lot of unions that have become bloated entities that no longer ensure that the employees have a living wage and safe work conditions, but instead have become bullies (1) that drag down the economy, (2) that affect delivery of the product or (3) especially when it comes to teachers, that get involved in matters that have nothing to do with the terms of their employment. Indeed, it is this last that long ago turned me against the unions. My Dad was a teacher and a union member, and brought home unending stories of the union’s failure to affect his barely-there wages (we were often at poverty level, despite his working a second job all year long). At the same time, the union aggressively advance all the brilliant “educational” ideas that brought California diving down from its ranking in the top ten States for education to a position somewhere near the bottom. So I really dislike unions that abandon their mandate, which is to negotiate wages and benefits, and instead start trying to run their employer’s businesses.
As it is, unions nowadays aren’t doing very well, with membership falling everywhere (or maybe everywhere but in the government sector). In a way, they are a victim of their own early successes. Because of their early agitations, we have federal and state wage and hour laws, we have huge statutory systems and federal and state run commissions in place to protect worker’s rights, we have OSHA, we have retirement plans, etc. Thanks to the unions, the systems are in place, essentially making the unions redundant. Also, as a Weekly Standard article pointed out a few weeks ago, union management no longer shares the values of many union workers. Workers apparently are tired of seeing their dues fund candidates who hold political views directly antithetical to their belief systems.
The fact that employees don’t need unions very much anymore, and that they may not like the unions very much any more, has led to an interesting phenomenon: outsourcing picket lines to non-union labor. You heard me correctly. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t read it at Labor Pains, a blog devoted to news about unions. Thus, Labor Pains reports that a seven month long strike has been going on against a store called Farmer Joes (which boasts two locations). Aside from the fact that the strike is irritating customers and shoppers at neighboring stores, the union members themselves seem to be calling in the strike, which really can’t benefit their position.
Indeed, the fact that union members call in their work seems to be a problem that goes beyond the picket line. Here’s some anecdotal evidence: Periodically, the big San Francisco hotels are shaken by employee strikes, with tourists weaving their way through picket lines made up of strikers who accuse the hotel management of all sorts of heinous practices. But the heinous practices aren’t all on one side, and I’m not talking here about dirty strike tactics. I’m talking about the fact that a kitchen manager at one of the big hotels confided to one of my friends that he loves the strikes, because he finally gets decent labor. The scabs who are willing to work during the strikes work hard and do a good job. The union members who come rolling back into the kitchen every time one of these strikes has run its course are dead weight. This guy is in the uncomfortable position of being a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat (this is San Francisco after all) who can’t stand the unions.
The problem, of course, is that once an entity exists, it’s hard to get rid of it. Even though the union may have outlived its usefulness in most (not all, but most) industries, it’s just going to keep grinding away, sucking up worker’s dues, throwing its money at Democratic politics, and otherwise messing around with an economy that might benefit from a bit less union involvement.