When I was 16 I worked at a Wal-Mart for about three months before the fluorescent lighting and constant McDonald’s meal breaks started to wear down my basic humanity and threatened to drive me insane, leading to me “quitting” (walking out after a shift and never going back to work).
When I showed up for my initial training shifts, I was treated to a video about how to be a good Wal-Mart employee. It was either in that video or in the spiel the manager gave afterward that the training group was told we were lucky enough not to be unionized, because we wouldn’t have to pay any pesky union dues.
That statement made me incredibly uncomfortable when I heard it then and the seemingly pervasive apathy toward unionized labour in North America continues to disappoint me.
Unions had their heyday here between the 1930s and the 1970s. They are responsible for many rights workers now consider basic to their survival: minimum wages, a limit to how much work can be required of you (which goes hand in hand with overtime pay), the five-day workweek and the right to bargain for further workplace improvements as a group.
One thing unions have to spend a lot of time fighting for, and which probably contributes to people seeing them as self-serving, is their own right to exist. But without unions, employees have to fight for benefits and higher — or just reasonable — pay alone. A single person demanding higher pay or an extra year off to care for a newborn child can easily be replaced by someone else who isn’t making those demands. One employee is held back by his or her need to eat and pay rent, whereas a group can fundraise to keep one another afloat during a strike.
Unions provide the essential service of presenting a large, unified workforce to combat the large, unified corporation or government for which you work. This is invaluable.
Companies simply do not have any good reason to care about their employees. There are more than seven billion people in the world, and the number of people desperate for any kind of work at any level of pay almost certainly numbers in the hundreds of millions. Beyond keeping enough people alive to staff their stores and have customers to buy their wares, most companies have no incentive to contribute to or ensure quality of life. And with so many people desperate for work, it is not at all difficult to replace a few workers agitating for affordable health care or toxin-free workplaces.
The goal of a corporation is to make money. In order to do this they need to keep costs down and maximize profits. Labour costs money. Minimum wages increase the cost of labour. Weekends and evenings off incurs costs by cutting down on efficiency. Overtime costs more than regular labour because it eats into mandatory time off. None of these things are good for CEOs, most of whom can easily imagine themselves taking that money home in the form of a nice Christmas bonus.
As Hamilton Nolan of Gawker so eloquently put it, the philosophy behind not allowing workers to unionize “is the belief that saving 15 cents on a package of Pringles is more important than your neighbors being able to pay for health care.”
He was referring specifically to Wal-Mart, but it applies equally to both businesses that try to circumvent employees bargaining collectively and to the cultural idea that unions are passé, a dinosaur from a previous era that is no longer required.
This is completely untrue.
You and the people you know may be treated well at your jobs despite not being unionized. But unions exist to fight for the rights of workers. They are the only type of organization that does this. To argue that unions are unnecessary is to argue that the rights of workers—which is to say, the rights of people, the rights of the majority of your fellow citizens—are unnecessary, irrelevant, passé. And that will never be the case.