Misery Needs Company: The American Worker’s Hostility Toward Unions

In the midst of a Facebook discussion about the possible reasons for Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin,  a participant stated,

[T]here is an incredible amount of hostility towards Unions, and a unique hostility towards Public-Sector Unions. If you look at what the Unions were fighting for it’s very hard for a private sector employee to get excited about it. “Oh you want me to help you retire at 50, keep your job despite gross incompetency, 5 weeks vacation, and to top it all off raise my taxes to pay for it?”

My response was,

If I rewrite your “keep your job despite gross incompetency” as “no firing without due process” then the deal sounds like a good one, one that *all* American workers should be trying for. Unfortunately, brainwashed private sector workers, rather than forming unions and getting a good deal like that for themselves would rather drag everyone else down to their miserable, overworked, servile state.

I want to try to expand on this little exchange, because I think it contains a tiny insight about the poor state of unionized labor today.

Organized, unionized labor is on the run in the US. A tiny fraction of American workers are members of unions, and that number looks destined to decline. Part of the reason is the ‘incredible amount of hostility’ referred to above, always visibly on display when a non-unionized worker finds out:

Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%’

Unionized workers are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are approximately 18% to 28% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23% to 54% more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.

[They are]  more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement [and] their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.

Unionized workers receive 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave (vacations and holidays).

The correct response to this from a non-unionized worker should be, ‘Damn, that sounds like a sweet deal; how do I get a piece of the action?’ At which point, he responds favorably the next time a union organizer contacts him, fills out the election card, and welcomes the NLRB to make sure the NLRA is properly implemented in his workplace.

Of course, none of that happens. The average American worker’s response is, ‘How dare people organize themselves into collective bargaining units to resist the almost unlimited powers of employers and ensure a better deal for themselves?’ At which point, he throws his weight behind every anti-union force that he can find, thus conspiring against his own economic interests.

The sad truth is that the American working class has been convinced to look beyond itself, to not think of itself as a working class, but rather as one that is headed elsewhere, to the magical land of the 1%, except that they don’t have tickets, will be refused visas if they apply, and if they ever make it past the border guards, will promptly be deported. It has been taught to disdain its current status in the interests of continual aspiration with no regard whatsoever for all those forces that work–overtime–to make sure their aspirations are foiled.

Misery needs company indeed.

20 thoughts on “Misery Needs Company: The American Worker’s Hostility Toward Unions

  1. Samir, I’m sympathetic, to a great degree, with your points, but it seems to me necessary to point out that state budgets—and the federal budget—are simply so bad, right now, that they cannot bear the weight of the benefits packages that are characteristic of these public sector unions.

    So, yes, by all means, in the abstract, “Let’s all have 5 star salaries and benefits.” In reality, however, there’s simply no money for it.


  2. Dan, I agree there is some readjustment that is going to be required at this financial stage – the mess is quite bad. What I’ve disliked in the past is the suggestion that all belt-tightening only be done by one group. Look at CUNY administration: screwing our contracts while giving themselves fat raises!

  3. Agreed, but even if you got rid of all the upper-end perks, there still wouldn’t be any money. Sticking it to the rich is certainly satisfying and a kind of justice, but there’s not enough money there to get us out of the hole we’re currently in.


  4. Samir, I’d love to sit down and discuss this with you. I’ll even buy the drinks. I find this gem to be particularly baiting –

    “brainwashed private sector workers, rather than forming unions and getting a good deal like that for themselves would rather drag everyone else down to their miserable, overworked, servile state.”

    I don’t know that I could describe that as objective, and I am not sure that I can describe it as reasonable, but as I am sure that you know quite well, people are often irrational. That is not to say that I find you to be an irrational person, in fact, I think you’re one of the nicest guys around. I think that this in particular is kind of biased.

    When you talk about the increase in wages, I think it’s important to look at the long play. The long run. I’d love to discuss what these “increases” amount to in the end. Vajello, CA, (or all of CA for that matter…please see Jerry Brown.) General Motors, who, despite all of their alleged success, still owe tarp. Greece.

    I also want to make a very important point: I am very pro worker, and VERY pro teachers. In fact, I don’t know of any profession that is more important to teachers. Frankly, I think that some of them should be paid a LOT more. Just not this way.

    I’d love to discuss it with you sometime, some of my best friends have very different views and I think that these discussions leave us all better.

    I also think that it’s more important for all of us to work together to compromise and find solutions. Some things bring people together, others do more harm than good. (Like pictures of protesters dangling donuts in front of police officers.)

    My mother was a teacher, private. My wife was a public school teacher, my mother in law was one, and my father in law was huge in the ny public school system, and I respect and value each one of them.

    I think that respect is a great place to start. I am open-minded to ideas and views and would love to delve into this deeper. I’ve taken the bait. Some of these statements are just more than I can ignore.

    I think that we come from different viewpoints. I was NEVER a Santoum fan, for example. (I am a “classical” liberal…more liberal than those that call themselves “liberal” from a social perspective.) I still would have never said that he was the missing link in evolution, as I think that you said once on the crossfit blog. I didn’t offend me, I have no affinity for him, but I found it beneath a man of your dignity. I just don’t think that it moves the ball forward.

    I am finally posting here because I think that you are a good man and as a philosophy major, probably enjoy engaging dialogue, and not just with people that agree with you.

  5. sorry, meant philosophy teacher, not major. Lastly “[They are] more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement [and] their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.”

    The term “guarantee” is especially interesting. Just ask anyone who has had their benefits restructured as the result of a bankruptcy. That’s the kind of thing that I’d like to discuss.

  6. Jim,

    Thanks for the comment; much appreciated. Happy to talk about this more in person. In the meantime, I will try and write a response for the blog.

  7. I think it’s very misleading to attempt to rewrite “can’t fire even in cases of gross incompetence” as “can’t fire without due process.” I think if people felt like the process worked effectively, you wouldn’t see those complaints. If we could be shown how to avoid the problem of prolonging incompetence in a unionized environment, we might be more receptive to unionization. Pretending it’s not a problem at all isn’t the way, though.

    1. Natalie,

      Thanks for the comment. Welcome. What I meant by that ‘rewrite’ was that following due process ensures arbitrary firings cannot take place, that a procedure has to be followed. If there have been difficulties in following those, then that should be right target for reform (there was a good editorial on this in the NYT about difficulties faced in disciplining high-school teachers that had abused children in their care). It doesn’t seem to be me that the right response is to give employers arbitrary power over their employees.

      1. I agree, Samir, but there’s a trust issue. My impression is there is a large swath of people who think that unions result in organizations having to keep around incompetent people, and no one is in favor of being forced to interact with incompetent people. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of public sector rather than private sector unions – people’s feelings about the DMV tend to bleed over into their feelings about unions. Until that impression is changed, the needle won’t move much – and it may not be fair, but it’s going to have to be the unions themselves that do the work of emphasizing that they are not fighting for rubber rooms (anymore).

  8. There is the small problem, that non-union employers can fire the entire staff if they catch a hint of “union” anywhere near. When the odds of getting a new job are slim, you don’t endanger the bread on your table. It’s not always brainwashing, but the fear of that very small distance between survival and losing what little you’ve scraped together

    It’s far from ideal – but beware judging those you seek to help before you have considered ~all~ they face.

    1. Red,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you highlight yet another reason why workers should unionize – employers can exert the kind of power you mention! I’m not discounting the perils of unionization in the workplace, but I don’t think that fully explains the rhetorical assault against unions.

  9. i want to second red skyes. i have worked a lot of jobs, all of them non-union jobs in the private sector. to dismiss private sector workers’ hesitation/hostility/skepticism-or-what-have-you toward unions as “brainwashing” is waay to simplistic, if you consider the very real, not to be minimized, perils of organizing on the job. union drives are brutal, long, and exhausting, and people burn out, get fired, and even lose most of their friends along the way. it’s just not easy.

    also, don’t forget that a lot of unions are totally autocratic, make closed-door sweetheart deals with management, and are completely unaccountable to their membership. unions, like any other organization, are vulnerable to the political machinations and egoes of their leaders, and a lot of unions are just downright fucked up.

    lastly, consider where most people in the US work: the service sector. why haven’t mcdonald’s, starbucks, or walmart workers unionized? certainly NOT because they are brainwashed or lazy and not because they haven’t tried. they’re facing down multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations in the middle of an economic depression and getting their asses crushed.

    we need new, creative solutions to deal with the challenges that folks face on the job. we need real solidarity – as in, solidarity with unemployed and underemployed workers, workers in non-union shops, incarcerated workers who are denied real wages.

    scott walker, the koch brothers, these folks are not morons. we have watched and stood by as divisions among the working class have deepened. now, after they have criminalized people (esp. young men) of color and latino@ immigrants and vilified single moms who survive on cash and food assistance to support their families, now the right-wing is finally going after public sector workers.

    1. Forgetfully,

      Thanks for the comment. Red Skyes’ and your comment deserve a longer reply – perhaps as a post. One coming up, hopefully sooner rather than later!


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