Lately there’s been a lot of articles deploring the state of trade unionism in the United States. It seems to have started with that Jamie Surowiecki New Yorker article on public support for unions declining and kicked along by reports that private sector union density has fallen to 7%.
While no expert on the American industrial relations, American unions faced many legislative barriers and have never achieved as much political influence as organised labour had in most other parts of the developed world. Byzantine processes such as the need for a union to be certified in the workplace through a ballot and no binding concilliation and arbitration are examples that come to mind. Unfortunately I’ve rarely seen this raised in those articles. Instead it’s been talking about envy and resentment of unionised workplaces rather than the circumstances and anti-union tactics that led to the gap.
What I’ve found most puzzling however are discussions about “alternatives” to trade unions floated by people such as Kevin Drum. The relative indifference to unions as a distinct type of organisation is concerning. For example, Matt Yglesias seems to think of unions as just another politically influential mass membership organisation as opposed to being based on certain principles.
Unions differs in structure from place to place but their core principles don’t. Unionism is about using collective action and solidarity to overcome inequities in power in the workplace and to ensure you have a say in your workplace as it impacts on your livelihood. Unlike the right to own a gun, most people need to work to afford to live a decent life and they spent a substantial portion of their daily lives working. The dignity we have while at work and the quality of life you get from your labour comes from how much power you have in the workplace. Power is derived from sticking together and it can be exercised economically (through industrial action) or politically (through organising for elections or campaigning on an issue) to achieve improvements and changes in the workplace and beyond.
Maybe Drum and Yglesias have problems with how trade unions operate, how they’re structured or how they organise, that’s fine and understandable. However, their discussions about “alternatives” to unions misses a key point. Even if there’s an effective ”alternative” developed, it will only appear different, it will still be using and be based on those fundamental principles of unionism.