Are Unions Still Relevant?

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KestrelLowing
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Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby KestrelLowing » Sun Mar 20, 2011 2:02 pm UTC

There's been a particularly hot topic concerning unions in Wisconsin in News & Articles and I thought it would be nice to have a place to just talk about unions in general, as I do not believe a thread like this has existed yet. While I don't think anyone can dispute the positive effects of unions in the industrial age, I do believe the times have changed and call for a sincere look at unions.

Basically, are unions still relevant in today's society? If so, where? Where are they no longer relevant? Why are they relevant or irrelevant?

I'm inclined to believe that unions today are typically not relevant, mostly because they have too much power. I think this shows itself most readily in the fact that it is very hard to fire a union member that is under-performing.

I am currently working at a company in the US that has unionized 'blue collar workers' (electricians, assemblers, machinists, etc.). This means that the engineers are not allowed to touch anything in the assembly area or test lab. Let me tell you, this is very, very annoying. My brain doesn't function to it's full capacity if I cannot get in there and dink around with what's wrong. Add that to the fact that some union employees drastically under-perform but cannot be fired without a huge amount of work, and I really believe that the union is not relevant in this company. Perhaps if a completely re-haul of the union occurred, I would feel differently. In it's current state, I believe the union is too powerful. It decreases the efficiency of the engineers as well as overall efficiency because of under-performing workers.

The only other union I have come across is the teacher's union in the US. I know the majority of people on these boards have a strong opinion concerning teacher's unions, and I'm no different! Basically, I believe they are far, far too powerful. While teaching is a drastically underpaid career in my opinion, I don't believe it's a profession that leads itself to being unionized. If you are to strike, the students suffer and are not allowed to remedy that in any way. Also, if you are bad at your job you don't simply make defective parts or work slower, you make defective students. I know that once teachers reach tenure, it's nearly impossible to fire them, even if they should be. In high school, I basically taught my chemistry and algebra II class because the teacher did not know what she was doing (same teacher for both classes). Everyone knew she should have been fired, but she had received tenure teaching lower level classes.

So, what are your thoughts on unions? Make sure to specify where you are talking about as I'm sure different countries would have different issues.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby firechicago » Sun Mar 20, 2011 2:49 pm UTC

I think the chief issue is not unions themselves, but how individual unions function. Like corporations, unions are just tools for organizing group actions. Like corporations, unions are powerful tools that can achieve great things for society. Like corporations, unions are dangerous tools that can cause tremendous suffering when they go wrong.

Unions work best when they work in partnership with management to serve the interests of both the workers and the firm. But partnership runs both ways. Most of the most dysfunctional unions in America come out of an era when management would literally rather hire mercenaries to shoot striking workers than allow workers to unionize. And in a case where zero trust exists between workers and management, and management really does see workers as resources to be exploited as efficiently as possible, you want a union that will fight for every inch of worker's rights, because if management is determined to exploit it, a small loophole can quickly become a big one.

The unfortunate thing is that it's very difficult to get from that situation to the sort of efficient partnership where unions actually add value to the firm, rather than acting as a brake.

So are a lot of unions dysfunctional? No question. So are a lot of corporations. But no one is asking "are corporations still relevant?" Instead we should be asking the much more difficult question of "what can we do to maximize the number of functional unions and minimize the number of dysfunctional ones?"

(For an excellent look at when unions work and when they don't, check out this podcast.)

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Griffin » Sun Mar 20, 2011 5:03 pm UTC

I basically agree with the above post.

While I don't like the current form of many unions, at all, I know that most of the problems they sow are much better than the sort of problems that would be prevalent without them existing. In essence, I think them a necessary evil, especially in public service areas where instability is nearly guaranteed and short term thinking (what will make me look good NOW, how can I immediately reward my corporate backers, etc. etc.) is the only way to succeed.

Sure, its hard to fire union workers, and some unions have some incredibly absurd rules. But on the same hand, without the unions there will be a lot more workers fired because of malicious middle managers not liking something about them unrelated to their work performance. And do note that seniority, rather than merit-based benefits, are one of the biggest critiques of unions - but also exist in plenty of corporate structures without them. Many of the problems are not in any way unique to unions, and would likely exist without them.

Personally, though, I prefer co-ops. I just wish that legally they had anywhere near the power of unions or corporations.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby PAstrychef » Sun Mar 20, 2011 5:16 pm UTC

The perception about unions is that union workers are very hard to fire, especially teachers. That's not quite true. The administration has to show that the teacher is performing poorly and that, given the chance, failed to improve. Most administrations can't be bothered to go through the steps.
In general unions are completely relevant to today's workers. You know what you get in the workplace without them? Not a big happy family of busy workers justly compensated for their time and expertise. You get the working conditions you have in non-unionized countries. Like China and Indonesia, where, in fact, much of American manufacturing has gone. Is it better to have jobs at the whim of management or no jobs? If workers won't stand up and demand to be treated fairly, then they are little better than indentured servants. If the owners/management of a company has no check on its power then the workers suffer for their greed.
You argue that there are laws in place to protect workers? Those laws are written and upheld by elected officials. Many of our officials today are all too ready to deny workers protection in the name of corporate profits. The biggest money in politics today comes from a pair of brothers who have as a goal the dismantling of environmental protections so that they don't have to pay for the damages caused by their oil processing plants or other endeavors. Who bought Scott Walker? That's right-the Kochs!
One of main reasons workers are deemed to be ready for dismissal is that they earn too much. So younger workers are brought in, for less money and worse benefits. Who does this benefit? NOT the workers.
Situations where you aren't allowed to touch a piece of equipment can seem unnecessarily limiting and sometimes things do get downright silly-the way to change a lightbulb in a music stand at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago comes to mind-but they are there to guarantee that one set of workers doesn't get fired because the bosses decide that someone else can do that job for less. And to assure that the job remains within reasonable bounds. Remember, one of the main reasons coal miners began going on strike was because they never knew from day-to-day how much weight was going to be required to make a ton. When the owners decided to make the ton a "long ton" they miners had to do 25% more work to get the same pay.
If you think time has made owners more benevolent, you have no perspective on the long haul.
As for the idea that unions are too powerful-there are two sides at every table. If the negotiators can't find a win-win solution, something has gone very wrong. Workers do understand that income isn't infinite, and will make adjustments if possible. And many contracts are ratified by vote-if the workers feel they are getting screwed they won't ratify.
There was a strike at the Caterpillar plant in IL that went on for 17 months.
Here's the Wiki article about it:
Spoiler:
As of December 31, 2009, Caterpillar employed 93,813 persons of whom 50,562 are located outside the United States. Current employment figures represent a decline of 17,900 employees compared the third quarter of 2008.[3] Due to the restructuring of business operations which began in the 1990s, there are 20,000 fewer union jobs in the Peoria, Illinois area while employment outside the U.S. has increased.[citation needed]
[edit] Labor practices

Caterpillar came close to bankruptcy in the early 1980s, at one point losing almost US$1 million per day due to a sharp downturn in product demand as competition with Japanese rival Komatsu increased. (At the time, Komatsu used the internal slogan "encircle Caterpillar".)[78] Caterpillar suffered further when the United States declared an embargo against the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, causing the company to be unable to sell US$400 million worth of pipelaying machinery that had already been built.[79]

Due to the drastic drop in demand, Caterpillar initiated employee layoffs, which led to strikes, primarily by the members of the United Auto Workers, against Caterpillar facilities in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Several news reports at the time indicated that products were piling up so high in facilities that replacement workers could barely make their way to their work stations.

In 1992, the United Auto Workers conducted a five-month strike against Caterpillar. In response, Caterpillar threatened to replace Caterpillar's entire unionized work force. Over ten thousand UAW members struck again in 1994–1995 for 17 months, a record at that time. The strike ended with the UAW deciding to return to work without a contract despite record revenues and profits by Caterpillar.[80] In 1994 Caterpillar offered a contract to the UAW members that would have raised the salary of top workers from $35,000 to $39,000 per year. However, the UAW was seeking the same top wage of $40,000 that was paid to workers at Deere & Company in 1994.[81]

During the strikes, Caterpillar used management employees in an attempt to maintain production. Caterpillar suspended research and development work, sending thousands of engineers and other non-bargained for employees into Caterpillar's manufacturing and assembly facilities to replace striking or locked out union members.

Rather than continuing to fight the United Auto Workers, Caterpillar chose to make itself less vulnerable to the traditional bargaining tactics of organized labor. One way Caterpillar achieved its goal was by outsourcing much of Caterpillar's parts production and warehouse work to outside firms. In another move, according to United Auto Workers union officials and industry analysts, Caterpillar began to execute a "southern strategy".[82] The "southern strategy" involved opening new, small plants, termed "focus facilities", in right-to-work states.

So the company was able to avoid the "over-powerful" unions by removing jobs to other locations.
Schools can't do that, true. But I don't want a school board able to just say "Fire the bastard!" and have a teacher lose her position. There has to be cause-and the administration just has to show that cause.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Thesh » Sun Mar 20, 2011 5:30 pm UTC

Honestly, I feel that agencies like OSHA, labor laws, and the establishment of a federal minimum wage have made unions largely obsolete in the United States (and most first world countries have comparable agencies/laws). At least, they are not as necessary as they used to be. They do provide services like health care to their members, but if the US fixed its health care system and then made their services public then that wouldn't be necessary either.

I think employees would be better off if their pay and benefits was based on competition with other companies (and the government has to compete as well, if they don't pay enough then people will go to the private sector), and not an agreement between the companies in the industry and the union for that industry. The way things are now, I feel there is no motivation for employees to do more than the bare minimum necessary for their job. The only chance most people have for better pay is promotion or waiting for their next small contractual wage increase, but most will not by able to work their way up and they know it.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Griffin » Sun Mar 20, 2011 6:35 pm UTC

I think employees would be better off if their pay and benefits was based on competition with other companies (and the government has to compete as well, if they don't pay enough then people will go to the private sector), and not an agreement between the companies in the industry and the union for that industry. The way things are now, I feel there is no motivation for employees to do more than the bare minimum necessary for their job. The only chance most people have for better pay is promotion or waiting for their next small contractual wage increase, but most will not by able to work their way up and they know it.


The problem, of course, is that competition between or within companies is often a joke. If there were laws to help enforce and streamline this competition, sure, but as it is there are plenty of companies that will fire you outright for revealing in public how much you make. You know why that it? Because without information transparency, its not a real competition. They know your value, you don't, which means they win. Meanwhile, if a company treats you like crap and you complain about it, they'll not only fire you but do their best to ruin your reputation as well. No matter how hard you worked, you're certainly not going to be able to use them as a reference.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are better legal alternatives to unions in this area, alternatives to make employment practices transparent and thus better enable competition. I just don't think they'll happen.

You say that right now there's benefit for a union worker to do anything but the bare minimum... but there's no benefit for a manger, in their absence, to work any easily replaceable worker until failure and then replace them with someone else who doesn't realize their killing themselves. (See, computer gaming industry, EA)

Especially true in industries such as, say, education, where administrators and "owners" (the politicians) aren't really hurt by a failure of those employees to do their job correctly.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Thesh » Sun Mar 20, 2011 6:56 pm UTC

I honestly don't see what you are suggesting as being the case. People who are unhappy with their pay look for better paying jobs; people who are unhappy with their benefits look for companies with better benefits. People who are unhappy with how the company treats them look for other companies with a better reputation.

Most companies don't like to lose employees; high turnover rates are costly to the companies.

As for schools, if a school is failing, the head of the school gets replaced. If a district is failing, the head of the district gets replaced. If the whole system is failing, politicians get replaced. It is in their best interest to make sure their jobs are done well.


You make it sound like all corporations are evil organizations that exist only to screw over employees. It simply isn't in their interest to do so.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Griffin » Sun Mar 20, 2011 7:13 pm UTC

You make it sound like all corporations are evil organizations that exist only to screw over employees. It simply isn't in their interest to do so.


No, I simply think there are industries where it IS in their best interest to screw over their employees. More precisely, any industry in which the labour supply is larger than the demand. And the list of industries where that is the case has been growing lately.

As for schools, if a school is failing, the head of the school gets replaced. If a district is failing, the head of the district gets replaced. If the whole system is failing, politicians get replaced. It is in their best interest to make sure their jobs are done well.

You don't have much experience with the real world, do you? Time delay and (especially in politics) a strategy of always attempting to step one higher than your current position means that those responsible for bad decisions often manage to avoid dealing with the consequences (hello bank managers!). There are a whole lot of reasons systems can fail, and an awful lot of the people at the top got their by being able to make sure those failures are always someone elses fault - and if they can get immediate benefits and praise, a great many people have no problem creating a situation that will end terribly at some point after they leave.

That's the whole reason many companies set up systems based on seniority rather than merit, after all - such a system at least insures people are around to deal with consequences. It doesn't always work as intended, obviously.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Thesh » Sun Mar 20, 2011 7:25 pm UTC

Griffin wrote:No, I simply think there are industries where it IS in their best interest to screw over their employees. More precisely, any industry in which the labour supply is larger than the demand. And the list of industries where that is the case has been growing lately.


It's commonly accepted as fact that happy employees work harder and are more concerned about the quality of their work. Regardless of whether there is a labor surplus or not, employees will still quit if they are unhappy and it is a lot cheaper for the company to have experienced employees working than to have to constantly train new employees. It is rare that treating employees well isn't in the best interest of the company.

Griffin wrote:Time delay and (especially in politics) a strategy of always attempting to step one higher than your current position means that those responsible for bad decisions often manage to avoid dealing with the consequences (hello bank managers!).


I don't deny that it exists, but are you suggesting that is more often the case than not? If so, I think you are highly mistaken.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby ++$_ » Sun Mar 20, 2011 8:10 pm UTC

I think unions are extremely relevant in fields where there is a labor-market monopsony or oligopsony. This includes teaching, where you have one huge buyer of labor services per state, the auto industry, where there are basically three companies in the market, etc. The presence of a union in such industries actually may make the market more efficient, depending on how severe the oligopsony is.

I also don't think it's a coincidence that these tend to be the industries where unions are most prevalent.

Unions are much less relevant when it comes to labor markets in near-perfect competition. For example, it does not really make sense to me that there is a plumber's union, as there are zillions of employers of plumbers (some large, some small).

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby PAstrychef » Sun Mar 20, 2011 8:19 pm UTC

Thesh wrote:I honestly don't see what you are suggesting as being the case. People who are unhappy with their pay look for better paying jobs; people who are unhappy with their benefits look for companies with better benefits. People who are unhappy with how the company treats them look for other companies with a better reputation.

And why do companies provide that pay and those benefits? Because the workers refused to work for less. Believe me, if they could replace their workers with happy chimpanzees, they would.

Most companies don't like to lose employees; high turnover rates are costly to the companies.

And yet, in many, many industries it's seen as easier to replace a worker than to pay a current one more money.
As for schools, if a school is failing, the head of the school gets replaced. If a district is failing, the head of the district gets replaced. If the whole system is failing, politicians get replaced. It is in their best interest to make sure their jobs are done well.

If schools are failing the first response is to fire all of the teachers. Only then does changing the administration get put on the table. (see Rhode Island) When entire systems fail, the students are often blamed, for being (usually) poor and brown. Also, schools don't work well on the widget model-a classroom isn't an assembly line and should never be made to resemble one.
You make it sound like all corporations are evil organizations that exist only to screw over employees. It simply isn't in their interest to do so.

Still, they manage to do so. Employee satisfaction is not high on the list of corporate goals-just how satisfied do you think Chinese factory girls are? The stated goal of corporation these days is to make profits for their shareholders. If they can increase dividend payouts by $.02 per quarter, they will trash employees right left and center. Many of the companies laying off huge numbers of workers could have coped just fine, if they were willing to reduce profits. But multi-million dollar CEO salaries are expensive and untouchable. (Why? because they have a contract! Just like the one the workers negotiated to get!)
One of the benefits of collective bargaining is that the best bargainers get to work on behalf of all of the workers. Say Joe is shy and sweats a lot and stammers. Does he deserve to get less pay for the same job as Bill, who is confident and brash and a good talker? Perhaps Joe even does the job better than Bill-but it's hard to tell. The foreman is Bill's cousin and gives him great reviews. He thinks Joe is probably one of those homos and gives him mediocre reviews. So Bill gets promoted and Joe languishes. A union contract makes sure that Joe and Bill at least get the same pay for the same work. And it takes into account years in the job-even if you don't get promoted you still earn more than the new guy.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby KestrelLowing » Sun Mar 20, 2011 9:36 pm UTC

PAstrychef wrote:Still, they manage to do so. Employee satisfaction is not high on the list of corporate goals-just how satisfied do you think Chinese factory girls are? The stated goal of corporation these days is to make profits for their shareholders. If they can increase dividend payouts by $.02 per quarter, they will trash employees right left and center. Many of the companies laying off huge numbers of workers could have coped just fine, if they were willing to reduce profits. But multi-million dollar CEO salaries are expensive and untouchable. (Why? because they have a contract! Just like the one the workers negotiated to get!)
One of the benefits of collective bargaining is that the best bargainers get to work on behalf of all of the workers. Say Joe is shy and sweats a lot and stammers. Does he deserve to get less pay for the same job as Bill, who is confident and brash and a good talker? Perhaps Joe even does the job better than Bill-but it's hard to tell. The foreman is Bill's cousin and gives him great reviews. He thinks Joe is probably one of those homos and gives him mediocre reviews. So Bill gets promoted and Joe languishes. A union contract makes sure that Joe and Bill at least get the same pay for the same work. And it takes into account years in the job-even if you don't get promoted you still earn more than the new guy.


I think what you're saying here applies mainly to unskilled workers - or at least ones that can be replaced easily. So perhaps unions are quite relevant for that kind of work. However, I'm wondering if they're equally useful for skilled workers. (Obviously the recession has caused skilled workers to become more of a surplus, but barring that...) If you have a skilled worker, you want to keep them around. They have the skills and experience that you need. How do you keep them around? You pay them fairly and give them some benefits. Yes, where that breaks down is when you have a surplus of workers, but I think overall that skilled workers don't really need a union. Their individual worth is something that they can work with.

As for unskilled workers, I'm not sure that the things unions provide are really fair. Perhaps it's because I personally don't rank loyalty as a top ten personality trait, but years at a company should not really factor into pay or benefits. Experience, of course, is something that usually comes with staying at a company for a while and is very, very valuable. However, if you have the type of job that is easily transferable between companies, once the initial learning curve is over (which probably only takes 2 years, maximum although I have nothing to back that up) one of the new employees could, theoretically, easily outperform an older one. If a new employee is of more value to the company, why should they not pay them more?

Do unions actually make sure that people get the same paycheck for the same work? I would assume that would mean no promotions for anyone. I am kind of ignorant in that respect, but it seems to me that a union couldn't stop someone getting a promotion, even if someone else deserved it more.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby zmatt » Sun Mar 20, 2011 9:48 pm UTC

firechicago wrote:I think the chief issue is not unions themselves, but how individual unions function. Like corporations, unions are just tools for organizing group actions. Like corporations, unions are powerful tools that can achieve great things for society. Like corporations, unions are dangerous tools that can cause tremendous suffering when they go wrong.

Unions work best when they work in partnership with management to serve the interests of both the workers and the firm. But partnership runs both ways. Most of the most dysfunctional unions in America come out of an era when management would literally rather hire mercenaries to shoot striking workers than allow workers to unionize. And in a case where zero trust exists between workers and management, and management really does see workers as resources to be exploited as efficiently as possible, you want a union that will fight for every inch of worker's rights, because if management is determined to exploit it, a small loophole can quickly become a big one.

The unfortunate thing is that it's very difficult to get from that situation to the sort of efficient partnership where unions actually add value to the firm, rather than acting as a brake.

So are a lot of unions dysfunctional? No question. So are a lot of corporations. But no one is asking "are corporations still relevant?" Instead we should be asking the much more difficult question of "what can we do to maximize the number of functional unions and minimize the number of dysfunctional ones?"

(For an excellent look at when unions work and when they don't, check out this podcast.)


I am in general agreement with this. I would also like to add that some industry no longer need unions, or never needed them to begin with. Someone brought up the plumber's union. Who will they unionize against? your granny who had a burst pipe? A good example of a dysfunctional union on a small scale is the musician's union. At least around here if you don't join the musician's union and you try to perform and profit from it then they will black list you and do what they can to keep you out. If you want in then you have to pay dues. In this capacity they are little more than thugs. A dysfunctional union on a large scale would be the UAW. I understand how and why things got to be the way they are in Detroit, but I also know that the overhead caused by greedy union members who felt they were entitled to large pensions and disproportionately large paychecks for unskilled labor is one of the causes of the American auto industry imploding a few years ago. If anyone has been keeping up with things you would see that now that GM and Ford are making some money again the UAW workers want their massive benefits back. I live and have lived all my life not to far from a Toyota plant. It is not unionized. I know many people who work there and love it there. The pay is good and the benefits are good. Not as good as the UAW gets, but you wont find a single Toyota employee who wants the UAW to show up. They know that as soon as that happens it ruins what has been a good and stable gig for everybody. There is a difference between just compensation and being greedy. I think the UAW (they aren't the only ones though just the best known) have crossed that line.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby PAstrychef » Sun Mar 20, 2011 10:10 pm UTC

zmatt wrote:I am in general agreement with this. I would also like to add that some industry no longer need unions, or never needed them to begin with. Someone brought up the plumber's union. Who will they unionize against? your granny who had a burst pipe?

Contractors who build huge buildings and hire dozens of plumbers at a time.
A good example of a dysfunctional union on a small scale is the musician's union. At least around here if you don't join the musician's union and you try to perform and profit from it then they will black list you and do what they can to keep you out.

Possibly because you are working for less than the going rate and are undercutting their ability to earn a living wage?
I also know that the overhead caused by greedy union members who felt they were entitled to large pensions and disproportionately large paychecks for unskilled labor

Once again, these benefits were negotiated. The company could have refused to pay them, and hired other workers if the union went on strike or moved their operations elsewhere. And why say that working in the auto industry is unskilled? And does unskilled equal easy? Assembly line work is often physically demanding and fairly dangerous (although less so now that OSHA exists).
@kestrelLowing:
As for whether unions are relevant to skilled workers-should they be exploited just because they have more skills and training?
Do unions actually make sure that people get the same paycheck for the same work? I would assume that would mean no promotions for anyone. I am kind of ignorant in that respect, but it seems to me that a union couldn't stop someone getting a promotion, even if someone else deserved it more.

Not at all-if you get a promotion you are no longer doing the same job. But you you work at machine A and Billy works at machine B then you get the same pay-scale. Promotions are not the same as a raise.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Bubbles McCoy » Sun Mar 20, 2011 11:42 pm UTC

PAstrychef wrote:
zmatt wrote:I am in general agreement with this. I would also like to add that some industry no longer need unions, or never needed them to begin with. Someone brought up the plumber's union. Who will they unionize against? your granny who had a burst pipe?

Contractors who build huge buildings and hire dozens of plumbers at a time.

What percent of an areas plumbers could a single builder possibly hire? Especially since some contractors I know have quite the range (I know roofers in San Diego who've taken jobs in Vegas), I sincerely doubt that a single employer could ever come to dominate the market in contractual work.

More generally, it seems your defense of unions supposes quite a bit. You said that a union is right to defend lightbulb installers from cheaper alternatives - what exactly would be wrong with cheaper alternatives? There's really no good reason to defend unskilled labor rates above minimum wage just for the hell of it; that's textbook inefficiency and actually a fair good example where unions exact a fairly high price on business, by both adding immediate cost and increasing administrative overhead. While employers using monopsic power to reduce wages is problematic, wages should not be fixed at a given rate just for the hell of it; that just reduces people's ability to find jobs that they enjoy (case in point with the musician's union: established musicians have every incentive to keep out newcomers to inflate their own wages, even if an up-and-coming musician would be willing to work for less to avoid other, less desirable work) and improve the broader economy.

That said, I think something like a musician's union is probably quite necessary, and for creative work in general. While inefficiencies are bound to surface pretty much whenever a union exists, the problem is that contracts are so complicated when it comes to something like negotiating royalties that there needs to be some large group with negotiating power to represent the artists interests.

You also seem to assume a somewhat overly antagonistic relationship between employer and employee in sentiments like this
As for whether unions are relevant to skilled workers-should they be exploited just because they have more skills and training?

There are certainly times when the relationship devolves to the point direct employee power is called for, but there is really nothing at all that is inherently exploitative in skilled worker environments. In general, skilled labor strikes me as being so differentiated in quality that it is hard for a union to really control, and in sufficient demand that most skilled employees can vote with their feet better than with union plebiscites.

PAstrychef wrote:Not at all-if you get a promotion you are no longer doing the same job. But you you work at machine A and Billy works at machine B then you get the same pay-scale. Promotions are not the same as a raise.

This is a rather dated practice that was actually part of the reason the Big Three made bad products in the past, which the union's clinging to slowed progress to more modern factory techniques pioneered by the Japanese (as far as I know though, many American factories, including unionized ones, have adopted more flexible techniques). Having single employees constantly work the same machine is boring to the employee to the point their lack of engagement in the job can become a detriment to their work quality. The ability to work a single machine has little to do with overall value to a company, and had more to do with internal union standing. Liberalizing who does what and pay structure can lead to better outcomes, and the force with which unions clung to these practices out of a fear of change is something I see as quite a demerit to their efficacy. (on this point, This American Life did a fairly interesting piece on NUMMI that gives a detailed look at employee relations and factory practices).

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby CorruptUser » Mon Mar 21, 2011 12:41 am UTC

PAstrychef wrote:Many of the companies laying off huge numbers of workers could have coped just fine, if they were willing to reduce profits. But multi-million dollar CEO salaries are expensive and untouchable. (Why? because they have a contract! Just like the one the workers negotiated to get!)


More like the reason being corporate incest; companies A, B, C, and D all have CEO's A, B, C, and D respectively. A's board of directors is made up of B, C, and D, and CEO A happens to be on the board at B, C, and D. A wants a pay rise, and B, C, and D will agree if A will also vote for a pay rise for them.

Isn't it great when everyone is everyone else's boss? /sarcasm.

There are several solutions to this. First being that stockholders actually pay attention to board elections, but if the dismally low turnout for Presidential elections is any hint, not going to happen. A second solution being that a law is passed stating that executives can't be on the board at another company, but this raises serious constitutional and personal freedom issues; what if A actually owns 20% of B, why can't he be on the board of a company he owns 1/5 of? There are other myriads of solutions, but I don't know enough of them to go into any detail.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby PAstrychef » Mon Mar 21, 2011 1:22 am UTC

In NYC or LA there are dozens of builders putting up hundreds of projects. (admittedly this has slowed in recent years). A 25 story office building going up on every third block will occupy a lot of plumbers. Add in the maintenance of those buildings and another set of plumbers has jobs.
I happen to agree that the situation regarding how you get a new bulb in a music stand at the Lyric is silly. So are the rules at McCormick Place that say that exhibitors shouldn't plug in their own equipment.
By no means do I think that unions are perfect-but that wasn't the question. The question was were they still relevant to workers.
One thing that skilled workers are more likely than relatively unskilled workers to bring to their jobs is a sense of excitement. They might not mind pulling a few 8 day weeks of 26 hour days to finish a project. What happens when that becomes the expected norm? What happens when they say "I can't come in today, I'm sick" and their employer says, "then we'll find someone else?" Tech companies are probably better about things like this than other firms. For a while there, they had so much money coming it it was fantasyland. (also-why the assumption that factory jobs are unskilled? It takes plenty of skill and experience to pour steel, for example, and agricultural work is physically demanding and often dangerous, if not downright toxic.)
I'm sure that there are companies that take into consideration the idea that their employees are humans. Plenty of them don't. Wal-mart, one of the country's largest employers, likes to lock the staff in overnight, refuse them proper overtime pay and time bathroom breaks. They also hate unions, and closed the only successfully unionized store (which was in Canada, if I remember correctly) about 6 months after the union was voted in.
Why not do things more cheaply? At what cost to whom does the savings come? And for what gain? Is it proper to lose people their livelihoods to give shareholders a minuscule increase in dividends?
Why does a business exist? At one point it was to provide goods or services. Now it's to make a profit for the shareholders.
There is no incentive for management to treat workers well if treating them badly saves money, and higher profits are the ultimate goal. The presence of an educated, skilled workforce wasn't what moved manufacturing from America to Indonesia. It was cheap labor who had no recourse if they were housed in dorms without toilets and payed in scrip. Africa is next on the horizon as workers in south-east Asia start to demand better conditions.
(Just what kinds of skilled jobs are you talking about, anyway? Just to see what we're comparing)
In Chicago, a significant proportion of the restaurants are owned by two companies. They provide enough leverage to depress the average wages in the industry in Chicago about 15% lower than comparable jobs in other cities. Now you can claim that if I want the higher pay I should just move-but moving is only easy if I have no responsibilities beyond myself. Spouse who would also need a new job? Kids? Elderly Parents? If my pay is low enough I might not be able to afford to move.
And then there's the race to the bottom-one guy says sure, I'll do it for less. Then everybody else has to lower prices, or accept a lower wage, to stay in business at all. This happened to the airlines. And everyone has suffered for it-crews and passengers alike.
Defending higher wages isn't "just for the hell of it" it's to get people better pay. Better pay gives people better lives. It certainly gives them more money to spend on things besides food and shelter.
When financial scoundrels insist on being paid bonuses out of dollars given to the industry by the taxpayers, the sacred bonuses are contractual obligations. But when a retired worker has health issues, his care is "too expensive", even though it, too, is a contractual obligation.
The inherent imbalance is in the relative power of the worker and the owner.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby existential_elevator » Mon Mar 21, 2011 10:40 am UTC

This discussion is really interesting. I'm actually wondering how much of it is very US-specific, and what people's experiences of unions, and the place of unions, are elsewhere. It would be pretty good to hear some voices from elsewhere.

This is the main thing that strikes me in general about the discussion, though:

The assumption that because something has done its job, we don't need it any more. It's a bit like saying that you've just taken your car to the store, therefore you can get rid of it. Or, to take a different example, it's a bit like saying that we don't need feminism any more now that women have the vote. Unions play an important role as a watchdog and an outside agency that exist to survey and protect workers' rights. Just because workers aren't being forced underneath heavy, still operating machinery for a shilling a week doesn't mean that the unions no longer have a job to do.

And, from a UK point of view, this is my general feeling about the relevancy of unions:

I do have a certain pride in union activity. I mean, I'm a socialist and my granddad was a union rep. The thing that gets me more annoyed is that it never seems that union members work in co-ordination with the unions. Good example: last week the union associated with my place of work called a strike over the way that the company pension scheme was being slashed. Now, the strike was decided by a group vote both on local scale and on nationwide scale. The company I worked for basically issued a statement saying "if you strike, you don't get paid, you may be sanctioned". And, you know, I saw nobody striking. This... kind of seems like inefficiency. People are in the union because it protects their rights, and in some cases gives them access to additional healthcare and pension benefits as per their membership scheme. But if you're just going to pay lip service, then it's kind of pointless. I heard people muttering "do we have to strike if we're union members?". I mean... you presumably should have voted on it? When people are not actually engaged with their unions, that's when it becomes irrelevant. And this place is a good example - I could not tell you who the union rep is :|

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby KestrelLowing » Mon Mar 21, 2011 1:31 pm UTC

PAstrychef wrote:In NYC or LA there are dozens of builders putting up hundreds of projects. (admittedly this has slowed in recent years). A 25 story office building going up on every third block will occupy a lot of plumbers. Add in the maintenance of those buildings and another set of plumbers has jobs.
I happen to agree that the situation regarding how you get a new bulb in a music stand at the Lyric is silly. So are the rules at McCormick Place that say that exhibitors shouldn't plug in their own equipment.
By no means do I think that unions are perfect-but that wasn't the question. The question was were they still relevant to workers.
One thing that skilled workers are more likely than relatively unskilled workers to bring to their jobs is a sense of excitement. They might not mind pulling a few 8 day weeks of 26 hour days to finish a project. What happens when that becomes the expected norm? What happens when they say "I can't come in today, I'm sick" and their employer says, "then we'll find someone else?" Tech companies are probably better about things like this than other firms. For a while there, they had so much money coming it it was fantasyland. (also-why the assumption that factory jobs are unskilled? It takes plenty of skill and experience to pour steel, for example, and agricultural work is physically demanding and often dangerous, if not downright toxic.)
I'm sure that there are companies that take into consideration the idea that their employees are humans. Plenty of them don't. Wal-mart, one of the country's largest employers, likes to lock the staff in overnight, refuse them proper overtime pay and time bathroom breaks. They also hate unions, and closed the only successfully unionized store (which was in Canada, if I remember correctly) about 6 months after the union was voted in.
Why not do things more cheaply? At what cost to whom does the savings come? And for what gain? Is it proper to lose people their livelihoods to give shareholders a minuscule increase in dividends?
Why does a business exist? At one point it was to provide goods or services. Now it's to make a profit for the shareholders.
There is no incentive for management to treat workers well if treating them badly saves money, and higher profits are the ultimate goal. The presence of an educated, skilled workforce wasn't what moved manufacturing from America to Indonesia. It was cheap labor who had no recourse if they were housed in dorms without toilets and payed in scrip. Africa is next on the horizon as workers in south-east Asia start to demand better conditions.
(Just what kinds of skilled jobs are you talking about, anyway? Just to see what we're comparing)
In Chicago, a significant proportion of the restaurants are owned by two companies. They provide enough leverage to depress the average wages in the industry in Chicago about 15% lower than comparable jobs in other cities. Now you can claim that if I want the higher pay I should just move-but moving is only easy if I have no responsibilities beyond myself. Spouse who would also need a new job? Kids? Elderly Parents? If my pay is low enough I might not be able to afford to move.
And then there's the race to the bottom-one guy says sure, I'll do it for less. Then everybody else has to lower prices, or accept a lower wage, to stay in business at all. This happened to the airlines. And everyone has suffered for it-crews and passengers alike.
Defending higher wages isn't "just for the hell of it" it's to get people better pay. Better pay gives people better lives. It certainly gives them more money to spend on things besides food and shelter.
When financial scoundrels insist on being paid bonuses out of dollars given to the industry by the taxpayers, the sacred bonuses are contractual obligations. But when a retired worker has health issues, his care is "too expensive", even though it, too, is a contractual obligation.
The inherent imbalance is in the relative power of the worker and the owner.


To me, unskilled labor simply means that the time it takes to train someone to do that job who has never done it before is minimal - the education required is not very high. Extra schooling isn't needed (although workers may have schooling beyond high school - it really isn't needed). Dangerous does not equal skilled. For example, to be on an assembly line probably only takes 2-3 weeks of training before you are able to do the job. It may take a little more now of days because everything is automated and being on the line means overseeing a few different stages, but the time is relatively short compared to an electrician who went to school for at least 2 years and also did on the job training. Skilled vs. unskilled to me is simply how long it takes to train someone new to do the job (assuming just a high school diploma).

However, I do agree with a lot of the points you're bringing up. However, I wonder if those issues could be solved more efficiently, or just better. I think that the unions today are not relevant because they typically do not follow the changes that are happening is society. For example, people are living longer and longer and are taking longer to get into the workforce. However, unions have not changed their stance on retirement. People are going to need to work longer and possibly be paid less of a pension because it is not economically viable to continue to support someone that no longer works for you for 20 years.

As has been mentioned, the UAW has traditionally been overpaid for the work they do. I know it's hard to put a price on work, but often the factory workers would be receiving more than similar experienced engineers. This is not to say that engineers are inherently better (trust me, I know they're not! First lesson I learned, always listen to what the blue collar workers have to say, they are a very, very valuable resource) but engineers did take more education and are typically providing more value to the company (what they personally do creates more profit).

I guess I just feel unions are broken and need to be fixed somehow, although I still believe the general idea of a union is important.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby elfcharm » Tue Mar 22, 2011 1:06 am UTC

I'm just a little curious, how much money do you guys feel an individual need to make for a company in a year for $50,000 to be an unreasonably low salary?

Should that number change if the labor supply willing to do that job significantly exceeds the supply of jobs making that salary also making that amount for the company?

If there is an answer, I suspect it is a moral answer (yuck), which also means I have to ask how one would calculate the financial contribution to a large company from an individual employee?

I'm asking because I feel like when the employer isn't actually making a whole lot after paying the employees, then clearly IF that company has the power to exploit its workers, that company is (probably) not doing so. Also I feel that if a company has only 10 employees and is making 2 billion dollars a year, then that company is (probably) exploiting its workers, EVEN if that company says correctly, "well, it's market rate", if those employees are making that above salary.

An above poster claimed the musician union acted like thugs, forcing out people who don't pay protection money. That union might in fact be such an organization, but they may be using their power to reduce the labor pool specifically to address these question.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby drkslvr » Tue Mar 22, 2011 5:56 am UTC

I'm not against unions, but I am against rules which benefit union members at the expense of everyone else. The current law basically boils down to, meet our demands or you can't do business. And it's not fair to the rest of the folks contributing to and benefiting from the economy that unions can hold us all hostage like that.

PAstrychef wrote:Once again, these benefits were negotiated. The company could have refused to pay them, and hired other workers if the union went on strike or moved their operations elsewhere.

Not really. You can't fire strikers here in the US. It's considered an unfair labor practice. Were unions and employers on a fair playing field (sure you can strike, but that means they might fire the lot of you) it wouldn't bother me so much. Employers would have to meet reasonable demands but unions wouldn't want to risk making the crazy ones. But the fact that strikers can't be fired lets them make all sorts of unreasonable demands.

Eg, I happen to know a little about the local sheet metal workers union (tinners). The cost-to-employ a tinner ($75/hr for what is essentially on-the-job training) is a good $10/hr higher than the cost-to-employ a pharmacist ($65/hr for 6-8 yrs college and a doctoral degree). Now, no factory would fire an entire shop full of master craftsmen just because they demanded a living wage. Shoot, they'd have to be crazy not to give them some basic benefits, too. It's just not practical to think that they could fire all their tinners and start from scratch for something so small. But you bet your bottom dollar they wouldn't be paying wages + benefits adding up to $75/hr if they were legally allowed to fire union workers. I imagine you'd be looking at something closer to $40, which I will point out is still higher than the cost-to-employ the average person with a four year college degree.

PAstrychef wrote:Defending higher wages isn't "just for the hell of it" it's to get people better pay. Better pay gives people better lives. It certainly gives them more money to spend on things besides food and shelter.

But at whose expense? If the cost of higher wages is passed on to consumers as a more expensive product, then we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Except that it's actually worse than that. Faced with increasing globalization, we may be robbing Peter to pay Wang Shengjun. When union demands become too extravagant it's actually cheaper to haul products across the world's largest ocean than it is to produce them natively. Consumers end up paying the higher, union-inflated prices, but the union workers don't end up getting all the extra money from the price increases. Instead it goes to shipping companies and Middle East oil sheikdoms. It's a lose-lose situation for the national economy.

elfcharm wrote:I'm just a little curious, how much money do you guys feel an individual need to make for a company in a year for $50,000 to be an unreasonably low salary?

A whole lot of money. The average HOUSEHOLD income in the U.S. is less than the figure you just cited. Any single employee who is making that much is earning significantly more than average, so I would expect that he be producing significantly more of the GDP than average, too.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Zamfir » Tue Mar 22, 2011 2:54 pm UTC

Not really. You can't fire strikers here in the US. It's considered an unfair labor practice. Were unions and employers on a fair playing field (sure you can strike, but that means they might fire the lot of you) it wouldn't bother me so much. Employers would have to meet reasonable demands but unions wouldn't want to risk making the crazy ones. But the fact that strikers can't be fired lets them make all sorts of unreasonable demands.

I don't think that is so obviously "a fair playing field". The big difference in most labour relations is that a company can take away the entire job of an individual employee, but an individual employee can only threaten to take away a small fraction of the labour force. If you are fired, it can easily cost you many months of income, eating away at your savings rapidly and forcing you to change a significant part of your life. But in most firms, there at best a few employees who can threaten to do anything resembling such structural damage to the firm by leaving.* So the basic negotiation positions of employee and employer are rather different.

Of course, if all employees cooperate and act together, they get to equal footing with the company. But such coordination is not a given, far from it. It requires complex agreements between different employees and it is highly susceptible to freeriding. Your idea of a "fair playing field" gives an enormous headstart to companies, since a company is by its nature already organized to act as a single player.

Laws like the ones against the firing of strikers are attempts to address that imbalance. Unions are another possible balance. They are imperfect balances, sure. Perhaps too strong in particular cases, too weak perhaps in others. But large firms are useful (even critical) to modern society, so it is important to have some systemic protections against the unavoidable power difference involved in them. If you think other balances are more efficient, please propose them. But don't take away such balances without other measures in their place.


* Of course, some employees are in a position where they can credibly harm the company by quitting. This is especially true for upper management, who can temporarily stall the decision-making processes of a company if they leave without warning. Obviously, such people have a far better negotiating position than most.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby existential_elevator » Tue Mar 22, 2011 3:03 pm UTC

drkslvr wrote: If the cost of higher wages is passed on to consumers as a more expensive product, then we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. Except that it's actually worse than that. Faced with increasing globalization, we may be robbing Peter to pay Wang Shengjun. When union demands become too extravagant it's actually cheaper to haul products across the world's largest ocean than it is to produce them natively.
Hold on a second, drkslvr. I think you started out there by making a somewhat flawed assumption. If the cost of higher wages is passed on to consumers....when union demands become to extravagant... The cost of higher wages is only passed on to consumers where unregulated corporations are overly concerned with keeping their profit margins nice and plump, and having a good reserve for their bonuses. In an ideal world, employers would pay their employees proportionately to the profit that they make from them. You really, really can't blame unions for driving up prices. Unions are just demanding fair pay - their workers are the people responsible for the profits, and they do not see any benefits from this. The real problem here is corporate greed and the culture of growth. Don't go blaming that on unions. Don't go thinking that having workers on minimum wage is going to make your products cheaper.

...okay, I'll step down from my socialist high horse. But you get the point there, surely?

Also, @ Zamfir, very well said :D

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby drkslvr » Tue Mar 22, 2011 5:07 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Laws like the ones against the firing of strikers are attempts to address that imbalance. Unions are another possible balance. They are imperfect balances, sure. Perhaps too strong in particular cases, too weak perhaps in others. But large firms are useful (even critical) to modern society, so it is important to have some systemic protections against the unavoidable power difference involved in them. If you think other balances are more efficient, please propose them. But don't take away such balances without other measures in their place.
I suppose I must not have been clear enough earlier. I think that unions can be a good balance, to use your words. But when you have unions + laws against firing strikers, there is no balance any more. Management's only options are agree to whatever demands are made or close up shop. Were the right to unionize protected, but the right to strike unprotected, management would still be forced to meet reasonable demands of the workers in order to prevent strikes or having to train an entirely new workforce. But the unions wouldn't be able to make a continuing upward spiral of demands with impunity, putting a brake on the entire economy.

How much market share do you think that Toyota, Honda, Kia, and Hyundai would have in the US if the UAW were subject to the rule I just proposed? Now, I'm about the furthest thing from a nativist that someone can be. But even I can see that practically giving away a major industry is bad for us.

Zamfir wrote:Of course, if all employees cooperate and act together, they get to equal footing with the company. But such coordination is not a given, far from it.
In a country where the right to organize is legally protected, as it is in the U.S. and most developed nations, labor has no excuse for not getting their act together. That's why I see protecting the right to organize as sufficient, without making it illegal to fire strikers. Like you said, if the entire labor force is organized, they're on equal terms with the owners and management. If, in addition, we also protect strikers, the terms aren't equal any more.

As an aside, I think it's important for me to state why I believe its best that the terms be equal. Could we have terms heavily skewed in favor of labor and still get a great outcome? Sure, if the laborers were the perfect socialist workers who lived and breathed "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In the same way, we could have a situation heavily in favor of management that worked out well if we had the perfect socialist managers who lived and died by the same motto. But in America, neither the managers nor the laborers are socialist, at least not a majority of the time. They're all capitalists out to get the biggest piece of the pie that they can. That being the case, the best hope for the nation as a whole is to pit them against each other on a level playing field, allowing their interests to cancel each other out so the economy can move forward with the least baggage. That's why I believe bringing unions and managers together on equal terms is important.

existential_elevator wrote:Unions are just demanding fair pay - their workers are the people responsible for the profits, and they do not see any benefits from this. The real problem here is corporate greed and the culture of growth.... okay, I'll step down from my socialist high horse. But you get the point there, surely?
What is fair pay will always be difficult to define. I don't think there is anyone in the world who comes at the problem without bias. But when I see the cost-to-employ for someone with what is essentially on-the-job training as over $150,000/yr and the cost-to-employ a teacher with four years of college as less than $50,000/yr, that just reeks of unfairness. Am I cherry picking examples by comparing to teachers? Let's try comparing to pharmacists, instead. Cost-to-employ is around $110,000 depending on what type of pharmacy. That's for someone with six to eight years of college and a doctoral degree. By my standards of "fairness", that doesn't even come close. But I realize that "fair" is subjective. What are your standards? Does this situation meet them?

As for the socialist bit, I can't tell you how much I would love to see America transition to a socialist society. First education, then healthcare, then finance, then energy, then everything else. I can't tell you how many times I've wished it were true. But the truth is, most American unions aren't socialist. They're really no different from the managers and owners. Their actions, if you were to put them in words, would look more like "From each according to his vulnerability, to each according to his greed," than like the great socialist mantra.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Griffin » Tue Mar 22, 2011 6:59 pm UTC

In a country where the right to organize is legally protected, as it is in the U.S. and most developed nations, labor has no excuse for not getting their act together.


This isn't always true. There are plenty of places where even talking to someone who might be a union organizer will get you fired in a heart beat.

What is fair pay will always be difficult to define. I don't think there is anyone in the world who comes at the problem without bias. But when I see the cost-to-employ for someone with what is essentially on-the-job training as over $150,000/yr and the cost-to-employ a teacher with four years of college as less than $50,000/yr, that just reeks of unfairness. Am I cherry picking examples by comparing to teachers? Let's try comparing to pharmacists, instead. Cost-to-employ is around $110,000 depending on what type of pharmacy. That's for someone with six to eight years of college and a doctoral degree. By my standards of "fairness", that doesn't even come close. But I realize that "fair" is subjective. What are your standards? Does this situation meet them?


If this is really as outrageous as you say, why hasn't anyone started up a competing sheet metal firm that refuses to deal with the unions?
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby mosc » Tue Mar 22, 2011 7:23 pm UTC

I think unions were instrumental in securing basic standards of living across the developed world to the extent we forget how different the world was for the average joe before their institution. Unions were the trailblazers in many areas we have now passed into legislation. It's important to understand that companies become supportive of legal restrictions to support workers when the already have to deal with a union anyway. When they don't, they can fight through lobbying. A particularly significant and unappreciated role of unions is that it acts as a buffer between corporation lobbying and legislative power.

It's fair to say that some of the most important union victories of the past 100 years have now been backed up by legislation. This is true, and with more legislation, the issues unions address become less and less severe. I would point out though that legislation is dynamic, and as we see in Wisconsin the winds of politics can take away laws we thought essential. The role of unions has definitely changed but is of no less value.

I would also point out the absurdity of some people's "anti-union" arguments when they talk about the unions handcuffing corporations ability to be function. The unions have the largest vested interest of any group imaginable in the success and well being of their company. If their company goes out of business, they're out of work. And not on some golden parachute like many of the people on the other side of the negotiating table. No, I would argue the "best interests" of the company are better represented by the employees than the ownership. Ownership answers to their own salaries. In the case of a publicly traded company, that interest is in short term stock value, not in long term company survival. Anecdotal, which person do you think is more affected if GM goes under: the 50 year old assembly worker at GM or the CEO? Which do you think would be more affected if they lost their job, benefits, retirement money, and life insurance tomorrow? Which person's personal interests are better aligned with the survival of GM?

Unions need to take some of the blame not adapting to the modern world. Legislation has changed, but unions are often slower to react structurally. Also, the role of unions in the public sector is even more tied to changes in legislation. Unions have also suffered from a great deal of bad press and poor communications. They need to re-brand, re-focus, and better adapt to the new world.

The most dangerous thing to do about unions is to legally prevent them from working, as many states are currently debating. This was probably inevitable, and it almost seems cyclical that the power balance shift from company to employee and back to company as we "over-react" to issues... but it is still very very very dangerous. People forget how horrible the world was before unions and how quickly corporate money could get into politics, change existing laws, and take away stuff we take for grated.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby zmatt » Tue Mar 22, 2011 8:03 pm UTC

PAstrychef wrote:[
Possibly because you are working for less than the going rate and are undercutting their ability to earn a living wage?



It's called capitalism. If I can offer the same service for less than awesome. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But there is with people who actively keep competition out because they want to keep the gravy train rolling. I don't think joining the union has anything to do with under cutting them though. Nowhere was there anything about you having to charge a certain rate to ensure there was no competition, only that you have to be a member of this club to do business.

On the topic of plumbers, since it works on a contractual basis any issues would be brought up in small claims court. I don't see how a union is necessary.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby mosc » Tue Mar 22, 2011 8:51 pm UTC

zmatt wrote:It's called capitalism. If I can offer the same service for less than awesome. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But there is with people who actively keep competition out because they want to keep the gravy train rolling. I don't think joining the union has anything to do with under cutting them though. Nowhere was there anything about you having to charge a certain rate to ensure there was no competition, only that you have to be a member of this club to do business.

It's called a failure to list your assumptions. Capitalism has MANY. Lets start with "low barriers to entry" and "free and open competition". More specific to employees, having them make the best capitalist choice possible means that they are free of base concerns like feeding their family. Survival is a poor driver of capitalism. It makes people do things that are not in their long-term financial best interests.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby savanik » Tue Mar 22, 2011 9:08 pm UTC

mosc wrote:... having them make the best capitalist choice possible means that they are free of base concerns like feeding their family. Survival is a poor driver of capitalism. It makes people do things that are not in their long-term financial best interests.


Of course, part of the problem there is the gradual erosion of the concept of 'need'. Does having a cellphone count as a 'need' in modern day society? How about a car? Depending on what part of the country you live in, your mileage may vary.

I am reminded of a quote:
"What the heck is this? I told you - take only what you need to survive."
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby OllieGarkey » Tue Mar 22, 2011 9:39 pm UTC

Yes. Unions are relevant.

Unions are relevant for one reason. I would rather that a company be abused, as it was in the testimony provided by the OP, than the inverse. There are plenty of bad companies that behave in ways which are unethical.

Until pay rises above the cost of living, until management runs by democracy rather than edict, there will be a need for unions.

Unions can be made irrelevant.

The way forward is to have creative groups where all of the workers own the company. If you look at companies that are worker owned, most of them light engineering corps, small factories, you see some of the most efficient and productive companies on the planet.

The reason that these aren't created is because they require a benevolent leader to finance them, or creative individuals who have financing.

The problem with the American economy at the moment is that 400 people have 95% of the money. Reagan's Trickle Down Economy failed. Instead, the wealth trickled up, and is held in a very small number of hands.

Until this situation changes, unions are the only way for american workers to get fair pay. And yes, this leads to abuse. This isn't perfect.

But to argue that unions have too much power is irrelevant.

The only way to remedy this is to destroy both the power of the union, and the dictatorship of management. If we want a healthy, stable, functioning economy, this is the only way forward.

Otherwise, it's going to be labor wars forever.

It's still the economy, stupid.

As for this discussion of "need:" We will fix the economy when we create a system that incentivizes wealth creation.

The best way to do this is to say that your percentage (your 1%) pays the percentage of tax that is equal to the public tax burden.

If you have 30% of the wealth, you pay 30% of the taxes.

The easiest way to lower your taxes? Pay the middle class more, so that their share of the national wealth increases, lowering your tax burden.

That's not 30% income tax, that's 30% of the tax burden, which would be a very different number.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby CorruptUser » Wed Mar 23, 2011 4:08 am UTC

OllieGarkey wrote:The problem with the American economy at the moment is that 400 people have 95% of the money.


Citation needed.

From wikipedia, the total net worth of the 413 American Billionaires is 1.5T. Not income, just assets. The US GDP is ~15T. You mean to tell me that 10% of GDP is 95% of all assets? I mean, the total net worth of the US must be around 100T, and if so, the billionaires have only 1.5%; a not insignificant chunk, but that's less than 1 year's federal deficit...

OllieGarkey wrote:As for this discussion of "need:" We will fix the economy when we create a system that incentivizes wealth creation.

The best way to do this is to say that your percentage (your 1%) pays the percentage of tax that is equal to the public tax burden.

If you have 30% of the wealth, you pay 30% of the taxes.


You mean, we will reduce income disparity by changing from a progressive tax to a flat tax?

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby drkslvr » Wed Mar 23, 2011 5:20 am UTC

CorruptUser wrote:You mean, we will reduce income disparity by changing from a progressive tax to a flat tax?

I think he is suggesting that we base income tax rates off of net worth. (E.g., I personally own 0.00001% of all US wealth therefore my income tax should make up 0.00001% of all US income tax.) However, this seems like an inherently bad idea to me. It simply encourages people to spend faster than they earn and to always be in debt. Always in debt = Never pay taxes. I doubt it would do much to increase the tax burden on wealthier Americans, because the wealthier we are, the more debt we tend to have.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Dark567 » Wed Mar 23, 2011 5:28 am UTC

CorruptUser wrote:
OllieGarkey wrote:The problem with the American economy at the moment is that 400 people have 95% of the money.


Citation needed.

I don't really want to do it... it doesn't support my position, and I hate the guy who said it. But... it's true.


CorruptUser wrote:
OllieGarkey wrote:As for this discussion of "need:" We will fix the economy when we create a system that incentivizes wealth creation.

The best way to do this is to say that your percentage (your 1%) pays the percentage of tax that is equal to the public tax burden.

If you have 30% of the wealth, you pay 30% of the taxes.


You mean, we will reduce income disparity by changing from a progressive tax to a flat tax?

He is talking about wealth not income, it would be a flat tax if it were income. Wealth taxes work horribly though, they are hard to enforce, and have completely unpredictable revenue streams. They also generally have horrible distorting effects throughout the economy(i.e. Hyperinflation, due to over spending). Also, it doesn't make sense that if you want incentivize wealth creation, you would tax it. When you tax X you deincentivize X.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby firechicago » Wed Mar 23, 2011 10:12 am UTC

Dark567 wrote:
CorruptUser wrote:
OllieGarkey wrote:The problem with the American economy at the moment is that 400 people have 95% of the money.


Citation needed.

I don't really want to do it... it doesn't support my position, and I hate the guy who said it. But... it's true.



2.3% =! 95%

The real statistic is eye-popping enough, it doesn't need improvement by 1.5 orders of magnitude.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Zamfir » Wed Mar 23, 2011 11:09 am UTC

Yeah, Moore compared the wealth of the richest 400 people with that of half the people, not with half the wealth. It hardly tells us anything about those 400 people, it just means that most people don't have any siginificant amount of net wealth at all. Which should not be that surprising. It mostly means that lots of people rent a house and rely on social security for their old age. Neither of those facts are particularly troublesome, as long as social security pays a decent amount of money and the rental market functions OK.

I'd say his other statistic, that the richest 1% own more than the "poorest" 95% is far more interesting. It's a particularly strong effect in the US, but you'll get somewhat similar figures for nearly all countries. I'd say that still supports OllieGarchey's first point, even if his claim about 95% of the wealth is bogus.

Basically, the means of production are mostly owned and controlled by a reasonably small elite. A few percent of the people at best, even in countries with a less stark concentration of wealth than the US. Keep in mind that the combined wealth of the people outside the few richest percent is for a large part the non-mortgaged part of their house, so their share of ownership of productive assets is even less than their share of toal wealth.

Perhaps a modern advanced economy can function without such a concentration of power, but we haven't seen that yet in practice. For better or worse, capitalist economies really do seem to have a rough division between capitalists and non-capitalists, even if that doesn't lead to eternal suffering for the workers.

In that situation, I find it weird to find people who complain about the power of unions, but who appear to have far less problem with individuals who sometimes own and control literally the entire other side of a unions's negotiation. It seems very reasonable to me to think (like zmatt above for example) that unions sometimes can have enough power to distort the economy in their favour. But if unions can have such power, with their need to coordinate action between large numbers of people, than surely employers with their far smaller numbers have at least as much power of distortion.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby OllieGarkey » Wed Mar 23, 2011 12:40 pm UTC

firechicago wrote:
Dark567 wrote:
CorruptUser wrote:
OllieGarkey wrote:The problem with the American economy at the moment is that 400 people have 95% of the money.


Citation needed.

I don't really want to do it... it doesn't support my position, and I hate the guy who said it. But... it's true.



2.3% =! 95%

The real statistic is eye-popping enough, it doesn't need improvement by 1.5 orders of magnitude.


I apologize for mispeaking, but the point remains, doesn't it?

What I intended to say is better said by Citigroup: "To continue with the U.S., the top 1% of households also account for 33% of net worth, greater than the bottom 90% of households put together." http://www.scribd.com/doc/6674234/Citig ... ort-Part-1

But those figures are dated. According to figures gathered by the U-Cal Santa Cruz sociology department (http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesameri ... ealth.html) the top one percent now accounts for 43% of the nation's financial wealth, and 35% of the net worth.

So since Citibank came out with their report, in six years, the top 1% gained 2% of the total wealth. The bottom 20% of earners, which is most of us, have 8% of the wealth.

If you read that link from UCSC, you'll see that the trend lines are proving the theory of wealth condensation correct: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_condensation

So we've got to incentivize the top 1% to create wealth for everyone else.

You mean, we will reduce income disparity by changing from a progressive tax to a flat tax?


A tax that isn't flat or progressed but is based on assets rather than income. If you have, as a group, 5% of the assets, your 1% should pay for 5% of the burden, whatever percentage of income that happens to be.

That's fair, wouldn't you say?

And it's easy to lower your own taxes. Just make sure that the wealth for another group goes up by a few percentage points. If you create new wealth, not only is the entire country richer, but your taxes are lower.
Last edited by OllieGarkey on Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:07 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby zmatt » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:01 pm UTC

mosc wrote:
zmatt wrote:It's called capitalism. If I can offer the same service for less than awesome. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But there is with people who actively keep competition out because they want to keep the gravy train rolling. I don't think joining the union has anything to do with under cutting them though. Nowhere was there anything about you having to charge a certain rate to ensure there was no competition, only that you have to be a member of this club to do business.

It's called a failure to list your assumptions. Capitalism has MANY. Lets start with "low barriers to entry" and "free and open competition". More specific to employees, having them make the best capitalist choice possible means that they are free of base concerns like feeding their family. Survival is a poor driver of capitalism. It makes people do things that are not in their long-term financial best interests.



^Implying that most people who play at bars are professionals and it is their only source of income.
No, the vast majority do it as a side thing with friends. Some younger guys like myself my play during the day. If you completely support yourself on music, you either have a record deal, and session musician (why are you playing at bars?) or you do side work, ie work in a music store, give lessons etc. You can't subsist on the amount of work and pay one can get from working bars. However, if you do it for a few years your equipment can pay for itself and maybe you can make a bit of money. At that level you do it for fun. It isn't really a lucrative business arrangement.

Don't get me wrong, making $150 for playing at a casino across the river is nice and all, but it has always been supplementary income. There is a big jumping off point if you will getting from doing that to only living off of music. The musician's union isn't about putting food on the table, it's a bunch of old guys making extra money off of the rest of us. It always has been, and I don't know anyone actually involved who thinks differently.
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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby Zamfir » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:29 pm UTC

Zmatt, that makes it a terribly bad example to discuss unions. Most unions are for jobs that people do in fact rely on for a living. Those are the unions people care about, whether they like or dislike them. A union for people's hobby might or might not be a good idea, but it hardly tells us anything about unions for main jobs.

EDIT: It's not just that people rely on their job, it's also that people usually have a lot of repuation, experience and specialization tied up in their current job. That makes switching to other jobs far from a trivial step. That alone makes most economic models of markets ill-suited for the labour market, but people continue to use such models to show how "labour flexilibity" must be good for everyone.
Last edited by Zamfir on Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:44 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby OllieGarkey » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:36 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Zmatt, that makes it a terribly bad example to discuss unions. Most unions are for jobs that people do in fact rely on for a living. Those are the unions people care about, whether they like or dislike them. A union for people's hobby might or might not be a good idea, but it hardly tells us anything about unions for main jobs.


You're right. It's also the kind of thing held up like it's normal when it's an exception.

That's the propaganda tactic, hold up the exceptions as the rule.

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Re: Are Unions Still Relevant?

Postby zmatt » Wed Mar 23, 2011 2:21 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Zmatt, that makes it a terribly bad example to discuss unions. Most unions are for jobs that people do in fact rely on for a living. Those are the unions people care about, whether they like or dislike them. A union for people's hobby might or might not be a good idea, but it hardly tells us anything about unions for main jobs.

EDIT: It's not just that people rely on their job, it's also that people usually have a lot of repuation, experience and specialization tied up in their current job. That makes switching to other jobs far from a trivial step. That alone makes most economic models of markets ill-suited for the labour market, but people continue to use such models to show how "labour flexilibity" must be good for everyone.


I think we have gotten too far form my original post and lost the point of it. What I had originally said was the musician's union is a place where there should be none, because it doesn't help the musicians, who work on a contract basis and it benefits a few who run the racket. I didn't say that it was an example for all, and in fact I used different examples in my post.
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