I suspect that in any discussion about whether unions are good or about whether such and such a policy designed to promote or weaken the appeal of unions is good, most parties to the discussion will profess to support unions.

In my view, the question is less whether we support unions and more under what circumstances we do and what policies we’d support or at least tolerate. As Oscar pointed out in a recent thread, he supports unions, but not the sort of “regulatory capture” exemplified by the proposed union exemptions to L.A.’s minimum wage law (a perfectly reasonable position, in my opinion).

Here are some considerations (pulled mostly from the American context):

  1. Do you support union-shop or “fair share” arrangements, where all employees must contribute union dues? Or do you support “right to work” laws?
  2. Do you support closed shop arrangements, where a prospective employee must be a member in good standing of a union before being eligible to be hired?
  3. Do you support “secondary strikes” or “secondary boycotts” where a union or its members refuse to cross other union’s picket lines or refuse to work for employers that do business with a struck firm?
  4. Should public employees be allowed to unionize? Some public employees but not others? What powers to negotiate should these unions have (wages only, wages + working conditions)?
  5. Should the law require employers to negotiate “in good faith” with a union that can demonstrate a minimum threshold of support? If so, what should the requirements of good faith be?
  6. Should the state require “first contract” arbitration, where a union negotiation automatically goes into arbitration after a certain time period has elapsed, so as to ensure that the union obtains a “first contract”?
  7. What should an employer be able to do, or not be able to do, to oppose unions? What should a union be able to do, or not be able to do, to promote unions?
  8. What, if any, preferential policies would you accept that would help promote unions? (I’m thinking of things like the minimum wage exemption Oscar wrote about, but also of things like antitrust exemptions, exemptions from injunctions, and probably other things I’m not thinking of.)
  9. Under what circumstances would you cross a picket line to shop at a struck firm?
  10. Under what circumstances would you cross a picket line to work at a struck firm?

On a lot of these issues, I myself am undecided or have changed my mind. You can no doubt think of other questions, and if so, feel free to offer them.


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19 Responses to The question isn’t whether, it’s how

  1. Murali says:

    I’m not American, so I don’t know how relevant my response would be.

    1. Right to work laws

    2. I’m of 2 minds about this. On the one hand, freedom of contract is important. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with contracts that prevent you from contracting with anyone else. IIRC that’s how segregrated neighbourhoods used to work. When you bought your house, you agreed to not sell it to a black person. I see union shop contracts as being of the same sort. Now, I’m kind of a squish about this. If union shop contracts are permitted, I am tempted to think that there should be some sunset clause, or some other way in which the employer can get out of the contract. Not having such provisions strikes me as too much like slavery contracts. Not necessarily for free, but perhaps for some additional lump sum paid to the union or something.
    I would need an independent reason to think that a given exclusionary contract was a good idea in order to be ok with it. e.g. certification requirements for doctors.

    3. I mean, they could do that but I think they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they did. Lots of people are looking for jobs. It seems stupid to not decide to work for firm B just because they do business with firm A which did not necessarily do anything wrong*.

    4. I think about the only public employees who should be able to unionise are doctors and that is only to risk pool for malpractice insurance.

    5. I do not know what negotiate “in good faith” means (at least when you put it in quotes). Otherwise, I think its kind of rude to negotiate in bad faith with someone (i.e. set absurd ultimatums that you know they’ll reject just so that you can claim that you negotiated but they didn’t take it.) If you don’t want to negotiate with someone just tell them that.

    6. Again, I’m torn here. On the one side is freedom of contract. On the other, the real world has lots of transaction costs. Stalled negotiations are one sign that his has occurred. If getting people to the negotiation table reduces these transaction costs, then it seems like an acceptable infringement on freedom of contract.

    7. I think an employer can do anything short of using violence or reneging on legitimate contracts or threat thereof(see my point 2 about why some contracts may not be legitimate.) Unions also can do anything short of violence, reneging on legitimate contract or threat thereof.

    Incidentally, the concept of striking seems weird to me. I mean, an employment contract often entitles you to have certain days of paid and unpaid leave (as well as urgent and compassionate leave). Usually, you have to book your leave well in advance so that not everyone just disappears all at once. If you are not in any of those situations, then you are contractually obligated to show up for work. But striking seems to be a situation where a whole bunch of workers can decide to not work even though they are not on leave and they don’t suffer any consequences for it. Not only that, strikers expect there to be a job waiting for them when the strike ends! Depending on the industry, not showing up for work without excuse (or because you are not happy with work conditions) can be grounds for poor performance reviews or even outright firing. If you don’t like the working conditions, ask your boss to change them or quit. Do you want to work there or not? Striking seems like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. So, on top of breaking what looks like a legitimate contract, striking is just unprofessional. About the only time striking makes sense is if the employer violates contract first (e.g. by withholding pay etc)

    8. No preferential policies that I can think of. If we are going to have antitrust laws, they better apply across the board. Except maybe when dire things like patient safety or something equally important is at stake.

    9. If it’s selling a decent product at a reasonable price, and the strike doesn’t make customer service so bad as to make shopping there painful, I would do it.

    10. If they’re offering a job I’m willing to do at a salary that I’m willing to do the job for, I’ll work in a struck firm. If I find that the boss is an abusive bastard I’ll complain. And if they don’t do anything about it I’ll quit. If I’m sufficiently desperate that I’m willing to put up with the abuse, then I’ll continue working.

    So, another question you might ask is what people think about striking in the first place.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Murali. It is interesting to hear answers from a US perspective.

      Most of the items I’ve asked about pertain to regulations that operate (or used to) in the US. For example, I understand that it’s generally illegal to engage in secondary boycotts/strikes (but I’m not sure it’s enforced), and all closed shops are outlawed while right to work laws operate in some states, and not others. (By that standard, in the US, most people who support right to work laws almost by definition oppose the closed-shop. The union shop I describe in #1 is in some ways a halfway point between the closed and “open” shop.)

      One thing about striking in the US context is that the workers don’t as a default get paid for the time they’re striking, although sometimes a union will try to negotiate backpay as part of a settlement. Also employers often hire replacement workers and strikers sometimes find they don’t have a job after a while. (I’m not sure what US law says about hiring replacement workers. I have heard (but don’t know) that it’s technically illegal, but is done anyway.)

      What do I think of striking? I’m not in principle opposed to it, as long as the strikers remain peaceful. Whether or not employers should have the prerogative to permanently replace the strikers, I’m undecided but lean toward saying they should.

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    1) Right to work, although I could be open to suggestions on answers to the free-rider problem.

    2) No. Too much cartelization for my tastes.

    3) No. Secondary strikes are to me a breach of the standing employment contract. The union can lobby for the employer to stop doing business with a struck firm, but these days businesses often have contracts that manage relationships & a secondary strike can force a business to also be in breach of other contracts.

    4) Yes, but only for working conditions and benefits. Wages should be set at the top and be consistently applied (e.g. Federal GS rankings and wage brackets).

    5) I’ll echo Murali here, and add that quite often Unions fail to negotiate in good faith as well, either making unreasonable demands or holding out on minor or secondary issues.

    6) Arbitration should be required before any strike can happen.

    7) Anything that falls short of outright lies, libel/slander, violence/intimidation/discrimination/harassment. Also, no firings for organizing activity.

    8) Aside from protecting organizing activity from retaliation, not much. A union shouldn’t need special carve-outs. Either it provides a benefit to the workforce/workplace, or it doesn’t. I still think Unions have gotten too soft & fat from their earlier successes and have forgotten what it means to compete and evolve. They often act as if the good of the union is a foregone conclusion, instead of something that should be sold & resold to the public continuously.

    9 & 10) In general, I will cross a picket line without a qualm. I will make exceptions if I feel the picketers have a legitimate complaint against the employer.

    Note: I consider the strike to be the nuclear option of the union, to be employed when all else fails and things are so bad that an argument can be made that the employer is in breach of contract. I feel that unions have too often as of late, been lobbing nukes over what amounts to minor border disputes or diplomatic SNAFUs. This is made much worse because a strike is never limited to the union & the employer, but it sucks in the surrounding community as well. Additionally, a strike prior to the expiration of a contract is a breach of that contract, so unless the union can make a good case the employer broke it first, the employer should be able to sue. After a contract expires, strikes are valid, although given the propensity of nukes flying about, I would recommend arbitration prior to a strike.

    • Murali says:

      Does it count as a strike when strictly speaking there is no contract between employer and employee. After all only employees can strike. Non-employees who only intend to apply for a position can’t strike

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        Since striking is a protected activity for union members, a non-union employee who strikes can be fired.

        Legally, wildcat strikes are not protected, or as protected, as formal strikes (I’m unclear on the law there). Usually, union contracts have clauses dealing with strikes, and US law protects such clauses & enforces them beyond the end of a contract should there be a dispute (i.e. a strike).

        The issue with firing strikers for cause, during a formal strike, is that is undermines one of the key points of leverage a workforce has against an employer. In the US, AFAIK, an employer has the option to fire striking workers, but it’s an all or nothing deal; either they tolerate the strike, or they shutter the facility for a time.

        • I should have read this comment before I answered Murali above about replacement workers and whether they can permanently replace strikers. You’re probably right.

          I do think who can strike without retaliation has more to do with coverage in the bargaining unit than with actual membership in the union, so that if one is part of the covered bargaining unit, he/she can strike even if not a union member. But perhaps that’s too fine a distinction (why would someone otherwise eligible to be a union member decide to strike and then not join?)

      • “After all only employees can strike.”

        Interestingly, in the US there have been known to be ploys called “lockouts,” where the employer refuses to let the workers work, often as a way to preemptively stave off worker demands for higher wages/better conditions, etc, or sometimes as a way to bust a union or to act in sympathy with another employer struck by the same union that represents his/her own workers.

        That’s something I need to learn more about, because I have a hard time wrapping my head around the rationale for locking out. I assume it’s in part a distinction established by law, so that some parties have certain rights or claims when it’s established that a “lockout” and not a “strike” has taken place….but there’s a lot I don’t know here.

    • Murali says:

      While I don’t think workplaces should penalise employees for things they do on their own time, I don’t see organising as necessarily done on own time, especially when it involves strikes. In fact, I don’t find it objectionable for employers to fire strikers (unless there are explicit provisions in the contract that allow time off to strike). And I consider firing strikers a for cause incident. After all failing to show up for work without taking leave (or at least calling in an emergency) seems like adequate cause for termination.

    • A lot of what you say, Oscar, makes sense, and I certainly agree on some of them, especially #2. I think I agree with the spirit of your answer in #4, but I’d define working conditions more narrowly to make it easier to discipline non-performing workers. I’d still let them negotiate for due process in the employment relationship, though.

      I’m not so sure what I think about your answer to #6, if only because required arbitration subjects both parties to a decision made by someone else. Also, I suspect required arbitration–or at least a required “first contract” arbitration–would be a boon to unions, at least in the US. The standard story is that the employer drags negotiations out forever, and compulsory arbitration would set up a contract relatively quickly.

      As for strikes being a nuclear option, I agree, although I’m probably less inclined to think unions use that option as flippantly as you seem to think. Or rather, there are the tactical nukes where every three years the contract is up and the workers strike for about a week and everything goes back to normal, and the icbm nukes that are part of a struggle for recognition or “to bring the employer to his knees.” I suspect most strikes are of the tactical variety while relatively few are of the icbm kind, but tactical strikes can turn into global thermo-nuclear war.

      • oscar.gordon says:

        Unions can drag out a negotiation/strike as well. When the IAM struck in 2010, Boeing was on the cusp of releasing the 787. The IAM strike was done, in large part, because the union felt they had Boeing over a barrel & that Boeing would cave rather than threaten the release of the plane.

        • That’s an interesting example and certainly works as a counterpoint to what I said. I do think an important point is that the IAM is highly skilled, or at least they control a strategic bottleneck in a way that lesser skilled, or less strategically placed, workers don’t. (But of course, I painted with a broader brush than I should have.)

        • oscar.gordon says:

          The nature of the skill of IAM machinists/mechanics is of a type that I would argue the union has magnificently failed its membership.

        • I didn’t mean that question snarkily, by the way. Just that I don’t know enough about the machinists or their union to understand your point.

        • oscar.gordon says:

          IAM machinists at Boeing (& I suspect other Unions have this same issue) are highly skilled and well trained at building Boeing airplanes according to Boeing’s process (although the Union likes to talk like all of it’s members are the next best thing to A&P Technicians, which they are not). Which means that their skills are only very marginally transferrable to other aerospace employers (i.e. Boeing suppliers). From Boeing’s POV, this is fine, because that’s what it needs, and a workforce that can’t shop it’s skills around much is a captive workforce.

          This is where Unions like the IAM fail (and where Unions like SPEEA actually prove their worth), in that Boeing provides some pretty generous education benefits that IAM members generally fail to take advantage of, and the Union does not really encourage (&, to hear some tell it, subtly discourages). Even if Boeing did not provide such benefits, the Union could, thus improving not only the employee’s value to the employer, but also helping to secure the employee’s future marketability by having a skill set that is expanded beyond “The Company Way”. The IAM should offer, and strongly encourage, it’s members to pursue any and all standardized education & certification opportunities. Why they don’t, I can only speculate (from “don’t care” to “don’t want members to be able to leave easily”).

          SPEEA, on the other hand, actively encouraged education, offered seminars during the workday (which Boeing agreed to pay for, as well as allow them on the clock), encouraged active membership in professional organizations (and would try to get Boeing to defray the costs), and would go to bat for a member who needed to flex time for a class, but whose managers were causing static.

        • Thanks for the explanation, Oscar. That’s a bunch of stuff I didn’t know about.

  3. After reading both your comments, I realize I’ve touched on only one aspect of the good’s and bad’s of unions. My list focuses primarily on points of conflict–strikes, negotiations, what should or shouldn’t be legal, etc. I haven’t actually really touched on how a unionized shop works or how a heavily unionized economy might be good or bad, perhaps because I have too little knowledge. Those are questions, too, I should’ve asked.

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