Monday, May 01, 2006

Labour Unions Have Lost Their Way

Today is May Day. Among other things, it is International Workers' Day.

Though many socialists and anti-capitalists have claimed the day as their own, the day is celebrated mainly by labour unions. The holiday is used to commemorate the struggles associated with establishing the right of labourers to organize in order to improve their working conditions.

It is the formation of labour unions that helped to wipe out sweatshop labour in the western world. The most unscrupulous employers were soon forced to pay their employees fair wages and improve workplace safety. Largely because of the efforts of labour unions, the average worker does not risk his life and well-being at work for slave wages.

This was not a struggle won easily. In many places, such as the United States and Nazi Germany, trade unionists were often brutally oppressed. Some, such as John Tubman, who was immortalized in Woody Guthrie's "Ballad of Harriet Tubman", even died for the right to unionize. This struggle and these sacrifices are something that must not be taken lightly.

Yet somehow, over time, they have. Not merely by the many employers who routinely oppose the ability of their employees to organize themselves into unions -- one case that comes to mind is the closure of a McDonald's restaurant that had recently unionized -- but also by the unions themselves.

The trade union movement has taken ill recently. It has contracted a disease that may well kill it more efficiently than McDonald's or Wal-Mart could ever hope to.

The disease I speak of is protectionistitis. I'm not referring to the opposition trade unions offer to free trade. Rather, I speak of the way unions are organized, and how those within a union are able to use the way this in order to fend off younger, hungrier, harder-working new employees who would challenge their positions within a particular company.

The idea of any organization where membership is voluntary (at least in theory) is to attract new members. In the case of labour unions, these new members come nearly exclusively from one segment of people: entry-level employees. However, it is precisely the way trade unions treat their entry-level "members" that will eventually be the death of this entire movement.

The majority of unions admit members through a vesting process. Much like many businesses put their employees through a four-month probationary period, many unions subject their members to a period of time when they are required to pay union dues, pay into union-organized benefit programs and are not allowed "privileges" such as participating in the decision-making process of the union. In the event of an undue or unjust termination by the employer in question, many unions will refuse to stand up for the employee, despite having taken their money for periods that often exceed four months -- sometimes, even consisting of periods of years. In short, many of these unions spend significant periods of time taking the money of an employee while remitting no service whatsoever.

Often, when engaging in business such as negotiating wages, the interests of entry-level employees are ignored entirely. Because the union leadership is established based mostly on seniority (even when these positions are elected), those who have accrued the necessary senority are often able to place their own personal interests high above those of other employees. In essence, the interests of entry-level employees are sacrificed so that these individuals may better conditions for themselves.

These are only two reasons why working in a union often makes little or no sense for entry-level employees. The structure of union workplaces -- often based entirely on senority and union politiking, as opposed to hard work and initiative -- can make unionized workplaces an inhospitable environment for younger, hungrier, harder-working individuals looking to earn their way ahead.

Part of the problem with the labor union movement is the rigidity of these unions. Once joining a union, an employee is trapped within an inflexible system within which they are expected to sacrifice their individual needs and interests in order to strengthen a collective that doesn't necessarily reflect those needs, interests, or the individual's values. Wages are then set strictly according to the number of hours an employee has worked, with no room for individual achievement.

One may argue that these workers have the right to not join the union. However, most unions force anyone wishing to be employed in their workplace to join the union. No union "membership", no job. This is very convenient for labour unions -- it saves their employees the difficulty of having to compete against someone who is not part of the union and may be outworking them.

The adage "live better, work union" truly doesn't apply to those with a desire to be duly recognized for working harder -- this may be the most significant way that unions fall short.

There is a way to negotiate these pitfalls. It's even one that most labour unions approve of -- until it applies to them. Government regulation.

Frankly, the typical union practice of collecting any fees from non-members should be illegal. Unions that want to collect fees from an employee should admit them to the union -- without condition or exception.

The law should hold labour unions to a simple legal concept -- one may not force an individual to pay fees for services unrendered. Also, no employee should be compelled or coerced into joining a union in order to secure employment. It is illegal for any business to interfere with an employee's right to work as part of a union. It should also be illegal for any union to interfere with a worker's right to work non-union. Fair is fair, after all.

There is one important caveat to be raised. Any regulation of labour unions must be done solely for the benefit of those working in the unions -- not for the benefit of employers. To this end, the law should also address the issue of "employer unions" -- unions that knowingly and willingly sacrifice the interests of their members in order to benefit the employer. All labor unions should be required to appear before a regulatory board and demonstrate that they are defending the interests of their members, not merely their own.

Of course, labour unions could save themselves the trouble of being regulated by addressing these issues themselves. In fact, if the union movement is to survive, it ought to take this May Day as an opportunity to do something new. An opportunity to do something different.

An opportunity to do something right.

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