What’s the story with unions?
The History of Unions in America
Unions– love them, hate them– they’re an integral part of our labor history in America. And they’ve been in the news a lot recently. Between the fights with teacher unions and return to school plans last year to now Starbucks and Amazon locations voting to unionize– there are a lot of big feelings on this topic. But why is it so controversial?
Some Background History of Unions in America
The early forms of unions were craft guilds or mutual aid organizations working to protect workplace entry and conditions for skilled artisans. It didn’t raise too much resistance because these artisans were small in number as were the organizations who hired them. It wasn’t until industrialization that more of a gap between the workforce and employers came to be. Soon, workers began to see a threat emerging against both their wage and status.
The mid to late 1800s became a violent time in labor history. Unions utilized general strikes and rallied for standards like an eight-hour work day and livable wages. However, big businesses were heavily involved in government and local law enforcement as well as cohesive in supporting their own common interests. It was also socially accepted for employers to use brutal violence against striking workers. Therefore they succeeded in limiting the growth of trade unions and quashing most of their efforts at the time.
The turn of the century brought a new approach to union efforts. The American Federation of Labor was founded with the belief that individual unions were too fragmented to withstand the violence orchestrated against them. Instead, they recruited unions to band together under one large organization. Under AFL support, they were able to withstand the onslaught of retaliation from employers with unemployment pay and benefits.
The National Civic Federation (NFL) went one step further and brought leaders from both the trade unions and corporations together. Their explicit goal was diplomacy and with them the premise of collective bargaining was born.
Where the Controversy Comes In
On paper, unions appear to be entirely altruistic and no-brainers. However, as with everything in life– nothing is that simple. With larger organizations there are compromises in the name of the greater good at the expense of the individual. There are also politics that come into play.
Over the years, workers have rebelled against the idea of wages being garnished to support the union for what they felt was little return for their own individual benefits. Right to work laws came into play to support worker’s individual choice to opt out of union protection.
Some feel this has hampered unions and limited their protections and is why we have seen a downfall in their involvement and popularity in the last thirty years. We are a capitalist society that is run by the bottom-line. Both in our own households and in keeping a business running. But there are always two sides to every story.
When you’re arguing against an employer’s whim to fire or downsize without merit– you are also going to get an underperforming worker who is difficult to fire. You’re also going to get employers needing to make the difficult decision to raise prices for consumers to pay for a livable wage for their employee.
But on the other side, is it fair for a worker to be forced to choose between their safety, health or newborn infant and their paycheck? Or for an employer to mislabel a worker as an independent contractor to avoid paying benefits and taxes?
Just as the girls in the Triangle were fighting against the injustice railed against them– there are still many employees in this country with the deck stacked against them. Whatever the answer is– unionizing, legislation, or consumer support against corporations– we must be aware. The job is not done. Support is still needed– the fight for Worker’s Rights is far from over.