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Trade union

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Cesar ChavezWikipedia speaking at a United Farm Workers union rally.
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Waif: You can't treat the working man this way! One of these days we'll form a union, and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we'll go too far, and become corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!
Burns' Grandfather: The Japanese? Those sandal-wearing goldfish tenders? Ha ha! Bosh! Flimshaw!
Mr. Burns: Oh, if only we'd listened to that young man, instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven.
—Mr. Burns, reminiscing about his grandfather's old Atom Smashing Plant[1]

A trade union (or labor union for those across the pond) is an association of workers united for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.

Unions are overwhelmingly associated with left-wing politics, though the odd pro-union conservative crops up from time to time. The BNP has its own fundraising apparatus union, Solidarity — The Union for British Workers.[2]

In the United States, unions began to decline during the Reagan presidency (in part because of Reagan's dismantling of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, one of only three unions that backed Reagan in his successful bid to defeat President Jimmy Carter. Look what they got for breaking union solidarityWikipedia.), and today occupy a drastically less prominent position than formerly,[3][4] up to the point that the USA is only one out of two countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) with total union representation under 15%.[5] Nevertheless, conservatives continue to blame unions whenever something goes wrong with the economy, as most recently seen during the events that prompted the 2011 Wisconsin protests, and the fall of the Twinkie.[6]


Unions take a number of forms and their objectives may differ depending on profession. Main objectives have traditionally been:

  • Worker representation: Unions are charged with representing their members both to employers and to society at large.
  • Provision of benefits to members: Unions originally provided a range of benefits to ensure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In some countries these functions have been taken on by the state, however the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important hallmark of trade union membership.


Trade unions employ various techniques for achieving their ends, including:

  • Collective bargaining: Unions can bargain with employers using the collective power of the members over wages and working conditions. Since the Margaret Thatcher days in the UK this has been trivialised somewhat. If, however, civil service unions such as PCS start to look at their membership as a whole (instead of "I work for the DWP, you work for the DSA therefore DWP issues take precedence") then this tactic could be negated.
  • Industrial action: With a majority vote, unions can organise strikes or work to rule as a sanction against unfavourable management decisions. There are also a variety of "job action" measures that workers may employ, some more legal than others.
  • Political activity: Trade unions lobby for legislation in favour of their members or workers as a whole. To this end they may pursue campaigns, lobby on behalf of or financially support candidates or parties for public office.

Differing approaches[edit]

Craft unionism is organizing workers with the same skills into their own unions; industrial unionism is organizing workers in the same industry (regardless of skills) into the same union by industry rather than by skill. This is probably why the term "labor unions" is favored over "trade unions" in the United States, because "trade unions" is associated with craft unionism. A third approach of trying to organize everybody into "one big union" was also tried, notably by the Industrial Workers of the World circa 1905-1924. A fourth approach was that of a fraternal labor organization organized along the lines of a secret society, typified by the Knights of Labor, which had a brief heyday from 1869-1886. The latter two approaches fizzled and the primary distinction since has been between craft unions and industrial unions.

Craft unionism was dominant in the old American Federation of Labor where, for example, machinists, electricians, carpenters, musicians, and so on each had their own unions, and in the railroads where engineers, conductors, brakemen, Pullman porters and maintenance of way employees each had their own unions. This approach broke down with the rise of manufacturing industries where most of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers were left unrepresented with no specific craft union to represent them.

Industrial unionism in the U.S. was pioneered by an attempt at forming a single American Railway Union in the 1890s, but didn't become a permanent fixture until John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, leading to the formation of such unions as the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers, and United Electrical Workers. The UAW pulled everyone working in the auto industry into the same union, instead of separating them into different unions by skill.

A good compare-and-contrast between the two is to compare the United Electrical Workers (UE) with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The IBEW is a craft union, mainly representing electricians and linemen, and largely focused on apprenticeship job training and hiring halls; UE (and later IUE, a rival union started after UE was expelled from the CIO for having Communist leadership) are industrial unions representing workers in the electrical industry, particularly electric appliance manufacturing, who had been left unrepresented by the IBEW's focus on skilled workers. The AFL and CIO merged in 1955 and in many ways the distinction between craft and industrial unionism has since blurred, as have the industry-specific and skill-specific focus of many unions — the Teamsters, for one, are now organized in so many different fields they are far from being merely the "truck drivers union" they once were.

The above distinctions may (or may not) be specific to the United States. In some countries, government-controlled or company-controlled unions are the norm. These are rarely more than formalities that do little to represent workers' rights, though exceptions do exist. Government-controlled unions were the norm in Soviet bloc countries, where independent unions such as Solidarność in Poland were suppressed.

Criticism of unions[edit]

Some opponents of unions view them as an infringement on laissez-faire economics, infringing on the purpose of business (as they see it, according to Austrian School guru Milton Friedman) to turn a profit for shareholders.[7][8][9] Some of them regard union activity as little better than criminal and barely tolerate it only because they have had to since the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act in the U.S. (although the Taft-Hartley Act in 1949 put some dampers on unions' legal status, and also authorized states to curtail it further, as with right-to-work laws).

Conservative opposition to unions tends to be rooted in this quasi-libertarian ideology. Others have a more moderate opposition to unions, or at least labor laws requiring the recognition of unions, based on the idea that these laws can give unions the legal right to force an employer into bankruptcy by demanding money that the employer may very well not have.

The minority of conservatives who support unions come from a different perspective sometimes known as "producerism," which views a productive middle class as a stabilizing (and hence, inherently conservative) force in society, and tends to regard unregulated big business with some disdain.

From a strictly libertarian perspective, opposing unions makes no sense, as private sector unions would seem to be something consistent with freedom of association, freedom to withhold labor (i.e. to strike), freedom of contract (including freedom to contract for better wages or a closed union shop), and all of this outside the realm of governmental regulation (with public sector unions, however, the situation is more complicated, as the government plays the role of both "employer" and "regulator"). However, it was only following the passage of laws compelling employers to recognize unions that many of the large advances in labor rights were secured; hence, many libertarians view unions in the same way they view the Federal Reserve, as organizations that only exist by the grace of the State, hence hate them just as much as they hate the State![10] What these laws really accomplished was to establish that employers do not have the right to use yellow-dog contracts to keep workers from joining unions, or use paramilitary force such as Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts to keep unions out of their workplaces. Removal of the latter right would theoretically fit within the proper limited role of government espoused by libertarians, to protect individual right to freedom of association from the initiation of force. The one area where their objection is in keeping with libertarian principles is that these laws set up a governmental agency, the National Labor Relations Board, for mediating between unions and employers, and granting it the power to compel recognition of the union.

On the other hand, should corporations be allowed the same freedoms as unions allow workers? That is to say, should companies be allowed to collectively bargain with other employers to lower the amount they are forced to pay workers? If workers of an industry are allowed to unite and push up wages, it stands to reason that companies should be allowed unite and do the reverse. Currently, companies can't do this under federal antitrust law [11], but it's worth considering. On an individual level workers have the right to withhold labor, sure, but firms have the right to withhold capital as well. The big question is whether or not businesses should be allowed to withhold capital collectively as laborers are able to withhold labor collectively. A big determinant of the answer may lie in one's idea of corporate personhood and whether or not people believe that corporations are people and hence should be extended these same freedoms of association and to collectively bargain as laborers. The belief that a corporation itself is not a person makes sense, but just because the corporation itself isn't a person doesn't mean that those making the decisions for it aren't people. It also doesn't mean that the shareholders that make up the corporation (which ironically sometimes includes workers with 401k plans with the company) and who would be negatively affected by a worker strike aren't people either. A second line of thinking as to why corporations should not be extended this same collective bargaining ability as workers is that there exists an inequality of bargaining power, with companies or corporations having the upper hand in employment and wage negotiations. One answer to this is it depends on education level. Competition for individuals with bachelors degrees or higher has pushed their wages up, but for individuals without at least a bachelor's, their wages have been decreasing in real terms [12]. In addition to this, the industry the worker is participating in matters. For example, STEM majors make a significantly higher amount of money and have higher employment numbers than non-STEM majors [13]. This is not to say, of course, that we should just let the uneducated and misplaced workers die, and let only the strong and smart survive, that is preposterous. Of course, the government should help those people. Not to mention there are only so many jobs that require a bachelor's degree in the first place, oftentimes leaving the losers working at shitty jobs that don't require a degree. What the government of any country should do is levy a reasonable progressive tax and redistribute the wealth from those in the country who have done well to those that have not done so well in the form of welfare programs and job training programs. Many countries have done this, but some lag behind by lowering taxes on the rich in the mystical belief that it will trickle down, according to the likes of Kyle Smith.Wikipedia[14] If we attempt to fix the problem of poor individuals by progressive taxation and income redistribution, we can avoid the philosophical conundrum of allowing unions to do what corporations can not (and the whole corporate personhood issue) straight off and still help poor people. Those that work hard and help industries that are vital to an economy are rewarded more, whilst those that do are not treated like rabble.

Opponents of unions tend to use rather, ahem, pointed terms to frame the debate:

  • "Union bosses" — A phrase intended to invoke comparisons to "mafia bosses" and imply that unions are somehow corrupt or criminal organizations. There have indeed been several corrupt unions with ties to organized crime (a prime example is the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa's leadership), but the use of this phrase to imply criminality is a false generalization.
  • "Right to work" — ostensibly a person's right to hold a job in their chosen field if, for some reason or other, they do not wish to join a union, or are booted out of one. In practice, however, this often means infringement on the freedom of unions and employers to contract for a closed union shop. It also means unions are forced to bargain collectively for the free riders who don't want to pay union dues, yet reap the benefits of having the significantly higher rates of pay and benefits found at union shops. In the United States, workers in states that are considered to be 'Right-to-Work" states have a lower annual income than those in other states.[15] So while the wages of sin might be death, the wages of Right-to-Work are just less than what others are getting.
  • "Secret ballot" — this refers to employers being able to dictate to employees that they have to hold a secret ballot election before the union is recognized. What this really means is if a majority of employees want a union, the employer should know about it first and require everyone to attend meetings where they are forced to listen to anti-union presentations, while denying union organizers access to company property to give pro-union presentations, and then and only then conduct a "secret ballot" after enough employees have been turned against the union by the one-sided propaganda. Some employers have also been known to fire the most vocal union supporters before the election. Not very "secret," is it?
  • "Big labor" — this is a play on peoples' distrust of "big business" and "big government," by portraying unions as cut from the same big bad cloth.

Unions today[edit]

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate. When workers combine, masters ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations[16]

With the rise of the "me me me" and the "I'm alright Jack" cultures as a result of Thatcherism and Reaganism (as well as a few rather embarrassing incidents in which unions played political power games and lost), union membership and power has been greatly diminished in the UK and US[17], to the point where many young workers (in whatever profession) are happy not to belong to a union. Despite the good work that unions have done for laborers in the past, the union tradition is comparatively weak among the white-collar and (especially) the professional occupations, which have accounted for a large part of the new jobs in recent decades, so many of the iPod generation see unions as an anachronism.

It is almost as bad in the United States, where corruption in the largest unions such as the Teamsters has reduced unions to something of a necessary evil, making it very easy for anti-labor propagandists to convince workers that they don't need a union; in fact, in some industries such as the recording industry, the very organization set up to protect the financial interests of their talent (RIAA, ASCAP, BMI) is controlled by the industry itself rather than by the musicians. The mafia influence in the Teamsters (and similarly corrupt influence in other unions, most notably the International Longshoremen's Association during the 1950s as portrayed in the movie On the Waterfront, and the United Mine Workers during the Tony Boyle era in the 1960s) was rooted out long ago, although opponents of unions are still fond of bringing this up. The nature of being a human enterprise is such that there are always dirtbags who pop up every so often, but without diminishing the damage some of them have done to individual workers these are now almost always cases of people acting alone.[18]

Some people are also a bit leery because of the occasional but persistent horror stories coming out of teacher's unions, which have at times made it almost impossible to fire admitted and/or convicted sex offenders; this is, however, a problem specific to certain unions (the biggest fireworks tend to come from New York City, and a few other large cities have similar issues) and not nearly as widespread as it's made out to be.[19] The so called "protection of sex offenders" is much more right-wing fabrication. They, the rightists wrote, "This past week the most prominent teachers' unions made it painfully obvious, they are on the side of the sex offender, rapist, and murderer who has been convicted. They are not now (and pretty much never have been) on the side of your child."[20] Fox News cheerfully featured the story for all it was worth, which was that it was yet another propaganda slur coup for the right. Another account of this same occurrence more accurately reported: "Of course, the objections that teacher unions have voiced are not objections to protecting kids against sexual predators. The teacher unions want to strengthen the bill, not stop it. But no matter; the bill is a set-up. While it is about stopping "sexual predators," it is used here as a honey-trap to elicit objections that can be used against unions."[21] People who actually know something about education may be sharply critical of teachers unions and their leaders, notably Steven BrillWikipedia in New York City, and still emphasize that any meaningful improvements to education will inevitably require the unions to buy in.

This is fairly typical of the sort of anti-union sentiment that unions are subject to in the United States.

Far more decimating to unions in the U.S. has been globalization, and the resulting loss of jobs in the once heavily unionized manufacturing industries; today, the most heavily unionized sectors of the economy are public service and government employees. Some companies such as Wal-Mart have an apparent policy of closing any store where employees vote to unionize; while this practice is highly illegal, it has not to date been seriously challenged by regulators.

But let's face it, we live in an age of globalism, MacBooks, blogs and cool. Who would need a union now we're all masters of our own destiny? Right? Right?

Union membership, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is up by 262,000 as of the end of 2017.[22]

As for the members themselves on the political spectrum, Trump managed to get 40% of Union votes.[23]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Simpsons Quotes, "Last Exit to Springfield" (1993)
  2. Not just the name nicked from the famous Polish union, but the logo too. Its claimed membership as of 2009 was 439.
  3. "Union Membership in U.S. Fell to a 70-Year Low Last Year", The New York Times
  4. Trade union membership by country
  5. The other is South Korea.
  6. Who Killed the Twinkie?, The New Yorker
  7. The Myth of CEO Pay and "Greed" Mises Institute
  8. The union myth Mises Institute
  9. The Myth of Voluntary Unions Mises Institute
  10. This view is not particularly true, as craft unionism was already well established long before the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, as some craft unions came out of the trade guild tradition.
  16. Read it.
  17. What's behind the decline in unions
  20. some right wing site
  22. "The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.8 million in 2017, edged up by 262,000 from 2016."
  23. Statista