Unions’ White Knight History

Supposedly, labor unions are the ones to thank for all of our laws protecting workers against exploitation. Company towns, child labor, and other labor injustices were overcome by the organization of labor. Unions, as the story goes, began as saintly guardians and only became the corrupt, thuggish organizations we know today after many decades of humble service to the poor and abused.

Do you believe it?

Could such worker protection laws have emerged — would they have emerged — with…

  1. Schrodinger

    Sure unions had a role to play. But, it could be done without them. I worked for Steelcase, a Grand Rapids based company founded in 1912 and never unionized. Why? Because the owners were smart enough to pay the workers fair wages and benefits to the point where they saw that a union would actually take money out of their pockets.

  2. James Of England

    Unions are pretty murky today, but they’re nowhere near as murky, violent, racist, corrupt, or dominated by organized crime as they used to be. They were “white” knights only in a different sense to the one you intended.

  3. DocJay

    I suppose all the radium poisoned ladies would have liked some protection but today, unions, specifically public service unions, are a force for something a touch less than good.

  4. Paul Erickson

    In a way they are like government bureaucracies, or baby rabbits given to children at Easter.  They can (and did) serve useful and even noble ends.  But their time is past.  When they are no longer useful (or cute) getting rid of them is, at best, awkward.

  5. Paul Erickson
    Schrodinger’s Cat: Sure unions had a role to play. But, it could be done without them. I worked for Steelcase, a Grand Rapids based company founded in 1912 and never unionized. Why? Because the owners were smart enough to pay the workers fair wages and benefits to the point where they saw that a union would actually take money out of their pockets. · 17 hours ago

    But didn’t the unions bring us Feline Labor Laws?

  6. Fake John Galt

    Unions have a role to play and are an important part of our society.  They are a way for workers and communities to address issues with an employer that may be abusing its economic might.  I also believe that they are a right recognized in the US Constitution as freedom of association that is implied by our freedom of speech rights.  That being said, the right to free speech also includes the right not to speak and the right to free association includes the right not to associate so I am very much for “Right to Work” laws and against most union security agreements be it for private or public sectors. 

  7. cirby

    It’s interesting how the unions take credit for a lot of things – that they barely mentioned.  For example, the child labor laws that were finally enacted during the Great Depression – to create more jobs for men in general, not to protect children per se.  

    I can’t find any union actions in the first third of the 20th century that were specifically aimed at child labor issues.  The few references I’ve seen were the equivalent of “oh yeah, child labor laws too.”

    Even the Progressives of the time weren’t so much worried about protecting children – they were making sure the kids got a better education so they would grow up to be more productive workers in their organized society…

  8. MBF

    Unions per se are not a problem. The problem is the special privileges granted by government to the unions.

    If workers want to get together and pay a group to represent them, fine. That is freedom of association at its best.

    However, if the employer tells them to take their list of demands and pound sand because he has 1,000 guys waiting in line to take their jobs for the going wage, then that is an example of property rights at its best.

  9. Mel Foil

    Public-sector unions are a great way for politicians to launder taxpayer money through a government worker’s wages and benefits, on through their union dues, and then over to the campaigns of friendly politicians (and to third-party ads.)  We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here. The public union leaders have good reason to believe that it’s the best way to increase wages, benefits, and security for their members, and for them. It’s a big circular trough of taxpayer money, with much of it borrowed. If it walks like a kickback, and quakes like a kickback, it’s a kickback pure and simple. It’s disgusting.

  10. Olive

    I have a friend who refuses to join the teacher’s union because she knows they will take her money and use it for causes she does not support. She says, “If I get sued, I’ll just have to hire a lawyer, because I’m not joining a union.”

  11. TeamAmerica

    In 1978 a management consultant, speaking AFAIR in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, told a group of businessmen that “workers form unions when they feel they are being abused, so if you don’t abuse them you can avoid unionization.”

    Originally bigotry was probably a big factor in creating unions. In 1983 I read an interview with Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony, who said he was surprised at the contempt American businessmen had for their employees. He researched the reasons for this and came to the conclusion that it was because the era of American industrialization coincided with a period of massive immigration. Immigrants tend to have poor English skills, so they are addressed in a very blunt manner for clarity. Further, ethnic prejudice causes the management to treat them with contempt, which then became part of the newly forming culture of US management. As managers from the GEs, GMs, US Steels and other big enterprises were hired at other firms, this blunt, contemptuous approach to management became the norm. Corporate cultures, once formed, are resistant to change, but in the last 30-odd years they’ve made progress, for example changing ‘Personnel’ departments to Human Resources.

  12. TeamAmerica

    Continued from last comment:

    Also, Japan’s postwar rebuilding by the Japanese people and workers taught them that the people are the corporation, and the machines they employed were merely tools. Whereas American managers tended to think the company was the corporate buildings and machinery, and the workers were the tools.

    With today’s (over)-regulation there is less need for unions, and the competition of a world market weakens their bargaining power.

    @James of England- I would guess that in Britain’s case it would’ve been the class structure, not immigration, that stimulated unionization. Would you agree?

  13. Tommy De Seno
    C

    I understand that in years past the lonely worker was at a disadvantage in negotiating with his employer and benefited from the union professionals who would secure his deal for him.

    But weren’t the education levels for workers  much lower than they are today?  Wouldn’t today’s workers have a better shot at negotiating directly with management than workers 100 years ago?

    When I was 16 I worked at a grocery story and was forced (that’s what they told me) to join the union.     I went to the manager and said, “Look – I don’t need all these insurances taken out of my check.  Can’t I just get the money in salary and not get the insurance?”

    The manager told me that wasn’t allowed.  I suppose he was right.

    But I was sure then at 16 that I could negotiate a better deal for myself than the union pro did.

  14. Scarlet Pimpernel

    Historically, unions often protected white workers against black, nonunionized, workers.  Part of the push for the Davis-Bacon (union wage law) passed during the 1930s, was to protect white workers from competition from blacks.

  15. Ryan M
    Mark Belling Fan: Unions per se are not a problem. The problem is the special privileges granted by government to the unions.

    If workers want to get together and pay a group to represent them, fine. That is freedom of association at its best.

    However, if the employer tells them to take their list of demands and pound sand because he has 1,000 guys waiting in line to take their jobs for the going wage, then that is an example of property rights at its best. · 13 hours ago

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with this.  Unions allow workers essentially to bully employers by going on strike and then threatening anyone who would come in to do the work while union workers are on strike.  Anti-trust laws guard against that kind of thing, and I don’t see why unions should be exempt simply because individual workers are at an “economic disadvantage.”

    Seems like this is freedom of association at its worst.

  16. Miffed White Male

    I’m no expert, but my understanding of Child Labor Laws is that they mostly followed the reduction of child labor in the work force, not led it. 

  17. Barkha Herman

    I remember my first class in statistics (a very long time ago).  One of the more interesting piece of statistics was that after slavery ended, farm related accidents went up.  The reasoning behind it is that when you “owned” a slave, it was in your interest to keep them safe.  Workers could be replaced with no impunity.

    In those early days of industrialization, it was the Unions that protected the workers.

    But as it often happens, Unions grew and abused their power.  In “Unions Shops” they were used to keep certain people out (based on race and ethnicity) for the work force.  (source: Walter William videos, aired on PBS, can’t remember the name)

    The problem is monopolies.  Unions still have a purpose, but where a person has no choice but to join Unions, then it’s a problem.

    That now people have to pay their employees to do “Union work” is also a problem.  If Union work was that necessary, coercion would not be needed to cover it’s costs.

  18. James Of England
    TeamAmerica: Continued from last comment:….

    @James of England- I would guess that in Britain’s case it would’ve been the class structure, not immigration, that stimulated unionization. Would you agree? · 7 hours ago

    Edited 7 hours ago

    I think you need to separate the guild-like Tolpuddle martyrs, which were products of increasing wealth and fast social change, but not particularly class conscious, from the radicalized descendents of the Chartists.

    The American labor movement was more violent, with US Army Air Corp bombing raids being required et. al., the UK labor movement was much bigger. They came quite close to successful revolution before Britain was saved by WWI. While there was tremendous class warfare in the age, with Lloyd George and Churchill destroying the old constitution, instituting a progressive income tax, neutering the Lords, the unions were not in lock-step with the Liberals who were engaging in it.

    Quite early on, the British left took class labels as tribal identifiers rather than descriptive terms, so you could be a lord, professor, or journalist and be a “worker”. British unions consequently had most of the rhetoric of class warfare, but less, I think, of the substance.

  19. James Of England

    With American unions, you really need to split the history into pre-30s and post-30s. Before the 30s, American unions were heavily involved with organized crime, extremely violent, and highly racist. The emergence of the CIO over the 30s helped to reduce racism and the development of the secret ballot in the NLRA helped reduce organized crime’s control (you can’t intimidate people so easily with a secret ballot, and it turns out that this is organized crime’s chief advantage). Over the following decades, you see America’s unions becoming less powerful, but more interested in their member’s interests. By the ’80s, American unions were the only unions who would deal with Solidarity, as European unions were all entirely dominated by the Soviets.

    Britain never had a CIO figure, but also never had quite so racist a labor movement. More importantly, the secret ballot didn’t arrive until Thatcher. As such, UK unions were dominated by foreign funded communists for much more of their history, and were always more focused on revolution than American unions were. To put it another way, ideological leftism is a better analog to American immigration.

  20. James Of England
    Barkha Herman:

    But as it often happens, Unions grew and abused their power.  In “Unions Shops” they were used to keep certain people out (based on race and ethnicity) for the work force.  (source: Walter William videos, aired on PBS, can’t remember the name)

    You dramatically understate the case here. If you’re interested in this, I’d highly recommend this book (the used version for $3 seems better value than the new for $50). It’s short, readable, but absolutely packed with amazing and accurate information. My labor law professors all hated it with a fiery passion.

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