The Non-Economic Objectives of Trade Unions

This subject is getting some traction these days, so I’d like to repeat something I posted a long time ago about the non-economic objectives of trade unions.  The consequences of these are, IMHO, the biggest argument against them.

Trade unions and the labour movement in general have always loomed large for me. Our family business was unionised for most of its incorporated existence, both in Chicago and in Chattanooga. I have sat across the table from both shop stewards and representatives from the local (and a federal mediator at one point) through three contract cycles and a good number of grievances as well, some of which went to arbitration.

But growing up in a world where the “dictatorship of the proletariat” seemed headed for triumph put special focus on the activities of organised working people. Reading works such as Émile Zola’s Germinal (and later Mao Dun’s Midnight) gave the impression of a militant labour force, prepared to use violence to get their way. Such presentations both inspired fear and to some extent romanticised trade unions.

The one and only strike against our family business took place before I came back full time, but I was in town to witness it. To see it was a shocking experience; instead of full picket lines and vandalised cars and property, what I saw was lawn chairs, makeshift awnings and barbecue pits, a pattern pretty typical with strikes in our area, at least. They didn’t even stand up with their signs! Such a sight was deceiving to some degree, because inducing the workforce to decertify the union was beyond our grasp, as is the case in many other companies.

The ostensible purpose of a trade union is to secure higher wages/benefits and better working conditions for their members. To a large extent unions have thrown away the latter through their political activities, something that has cost unions in the long run. But anyone who has dealt with a trade union will tell you that it is very difficult to “buy” one out through higher wages. The reason for this goes to the heart of the “non-economic” rationale of American trade unions. Beyond more money, there are two related reasons why organised American workers stick with trade unions.

The first is to eliminate “employment at will” from the workplace. In an “employment at will” situation, an employer can terminate an employee without cause. Getting rid of this is an obvious protection for the employees, and the trade union enforces this through the grievance process.

An important corollary to this is that no “self-respecting” (to use a favourite expression) union will voluntarily concede any form of merit in promotion and compensation in the workplace. This is shocking on its face, but the union’s logic behind this is simple: any form of merit contains subjective judgement of employee performance, and this leads in turn to favouritism. In addition to producing an unhappy workforce (and one vulnerable to being organised,) consistent favouritism and “politics” in promotion and compensation will kill a private company through degraded performance. In government situations, however, favouritism and politics are very much evident in the process, and the government is insulated from the effects of this by its coercive powers of taxation. This is the central reason why public sector unions are the largest constituent of trade unions in the US today: public employees are (or at least feel) more vulnerable to favouritism, and this in turn is a stronger motivation to organisation.

Unions, left to themselves, will always favour seniority and classification/job description as the method of choice in promotion and compensation. Over time, this turns the union into an advocate for its members with the higher seniority at the expense of those with less. This trend tends to run unions down as it becomes difficult to attract younger workers into the union.

We would be remiss if we did not mention some of the mitigating factors to this picture. Police and fire fighters, for example, will think long and hard if going strictly on seniority leads to having a partner who will let you down when life and death are on the table. Construction trade unions mitigate this through their worker training programs which seek to add the value of their members to their employers. (Their employment situation tends to be more unstable than other industries due to the cyclic nature of construction.) We simply want to identify the ideal goal of the unions and its rationale, all other things being equal.

The second goal is related to the first: the union wants to control the workplace, or the “shop floor” as we say in manufacturing. Doing so makes enforcement of the first goal considerably simpler. This is also designed to insulate the workforce from changes induced by the employer, which unions generally assume to the inimical to the interest of the membership. It is generally done through classification/job description and workplace rules.

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