I think that being from the North East of England kind of makes unions part of your DNA. Our history with mining means that we’ve had notorious unions and multiple famous strikes over the years, dating as far back as the early 1800s. While these haven’t always been successful, it does make you much more aware of how unions function in society from a young age, which can shape how you view the concept of work into adulthood (or it did for me anyway).
Now, having been out in the working world and submerged in the sphere of sustainable living for a while, I really value the power of unions. I believe unions are vital to an ethical working environment, corporate accountability, and fair treatment of a workforce. Therefore, it’s no surprise that billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos hate them, and aggressively try to bust up unionising within their own companies. According to a 2014 report in the UK only 14% of private sector employees are members of a union, compared with 54% of public sector workers. At the same time, globally wage gains haven’t grown in tandem with rising productivity, meaning that workers consistently lose out.
Throughout the middle part of the 20th century—a period when unions were stronger—American workers generated economic growth by increasing their productivity, and they were rewarded with higher wages. But this link between greater productivity and higher wages has broken down…
Looking from 1980 to 2008, nationwide worker productivity grew by 75.0 percent, while workers’ inflation-adjusted average wages increased by only 22.6 percent, which means that workers were compensated for only 30.2 percent of their productivity gains.
If American workers were rewarded for 100 percent of their increases in labor productivity between 1980 and 2008—as they were during the middle part of the 20th century—average wages would be $28.53 per hour—42.7 percent higher than the average real wage in 2008.
Whether companies manufacture in the global north or the global south, there is a stark gap between how workers should be compensated/treated and reality. This is where unions can help.
If you’re struggling to know how to rank companies or understand which option is the most ethical (whether it be a big brand or a local shop/restaurant/cinema/theatre/business), then a good place to start is to look at the company policies on unions. If the business welcomes unionisation, that’s probably a step in the right direction.
Here are the main benefits of unions when it comes to workers:
1. Collective Bargaining
A union gives workers the opportunity to present a united front: the union acts as a powerful collective voice that communicates worker frustrations clearly to management. Unions give workers a stronger voice, helping them to be allocated their fair share of money and benefits, making the businesses they work for, and the economy in general, fairer. It also helps workers come together in unified collective action, which then becomes more powerful than individual attempts to be heard (one of the best examples of this power, for good or bad, is probably the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007/8).
2. Better Benefits
Unions don’t just focus on bargaining for pay, they cover all aspects of working life when negotiating between employers and employees. Unionised employees on average earn 10% more than non-unionised members, receive 25% more annual leave each year, have better pensions, have better policies for maternity, paternity and carer leave, have more secure contracts, and have better long-term job security, on average staying in their job five years longer than non-unionised employees.
But it’s not just union workers who feel the improvements. Non-union workers tend to receive financial benefits because of unions too, as unionised workforces set the standards for the industry as a whole. Employers tend to increase wages to match what unions would win in order to avoid unionisation, especially in highly unionised industries. Unions make wages among occupations more equal by giving wage boosts to low and middle-wage occupations, more evenly spreading out payment, and the Economic Policy Institute found that the wage boost is often higher for workers of colour and those with lower levels of education, helping narrow wage inequalities.
Finally, unions have done great work to bring the living wage and more opportunities to traditionally low wage jobs:
After unionizing, dishwashers in Las Vegas hotels made $4 per hour more than the national average for that job, and they were offered excellent benefits. And hospitality workers in unionized Las Vegas enjoy a much higher living standard than those in Reno, where unions are weaker. In Houston, a 2006 first-ever union contract for 5,300 janitors resulted in a 47 percent pay increase and an increase in guaranteed weekly hours of work.
3. Health and Safety
In the USA alone more than 4,800 workers die on the job each year, while the estimated number of work-related injuries and illnesses is over 7 million. Unionised workplaces have 50% fewer accidents, as local safety reps take responsibility for a variety of issues including workplace hazards, physical demands, stress and mental health, both through investing in programmes to educate workers on job hazards and working with employers to reduce workplace injuries. Workers can involve union representatives in injury and fatality investigations, giving them a stronger voice when it comes to advocating their own safety, whilst researchers believe that unioned workplaces are also safer as workers feel comfortable to report issues, with increased reporting leading to hazard reduction.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to how increased unionisation could make workplaces safer around the world. Unionisation is linked with a 14-32% drop in traumatic injuries and a 29-83% drop in fatalities in coal mines in America from 1993 – 2010, 2.3 million US labourers received more government protection from deadly silica dust thanks to union efforts, and firefighters experiencing PTSD in Texas lead to legislation improving workers’ compensation coverage for diagnosed first responders, thanks to an education and advocacy campaign from the union.
Imagine how effective this could be when applied to global industries such as the mining of mica for makeup, or eliminating mercury from the mining process for gold. In fact, it’s already happening. In Bangladesh, post-Rana Plaza workers have seen some conditions improve thanks, in part, to unionisation. Unions advocate for better treatment of workers, and to keep those workers safe.
4. Fighting discrimination and illegal activity
Being a member of a union means you have the unions support when you need it, whilst unions also work to fight for equal opportunities for everyone in the workforce. They take a stand against discrimination and advocate for equal pay, whilst also offering legal services and advice to members. For example UNISON, the UK’s largest union, won a court victory in 2017 to overturn tribunal fees. This meant that anyone who has been treated illegally or unfairly at work no longer had to pay to take their employers to court (which immediately made this option inaccessible to anyone with a low income), and the government was obliged to refund more than £27 million to people charged for taking employers to court since July 2013, when the fees were introduced.
It’s also worth noting that unions are significantly more diverse than they were in the past. As of 2016 in the US 46.3% of workers aged 18-64 covered by a union are women, and 35.8% are nonwhite. While wages have stagnated since 2000 in America the decline has been worse for black workers, but black workers are also more likely to be part of a union, which advocates to close this gap. Economic Policy Institute also reported that hourly wages for women represented by unions are 9.2% higher on average than for non-unionised women, and unionised workers in service occupations make 87% more in total compensation and 56.1% more in wages than their nonunion counterparts.
This does not mean that all unions are perfect and have no histories with sexism, racism and other discriminations, but there has been clear progress in their advocacy and efforts.
5. Better for employers
Research undertaken on behalf of the Trades Union Congress found that, in the public sector, there are 8,000-16,000 fewer dismissals every year thanks to union reps. Unionised workers are also significantly less likely to quit, as they have a mechanism to sort out any problems, avoiding extra costs of recruitment and training that come with a high worker turnover. Additionally, fewer injuries and fatalities means less time off and fewer compensation payments for employers to worry about.
6. Saves taxpayer money
Despite what other reports may say (which are often biased in my opinion) unions statistically keep employees in workplaces for longer, which reduces staff turnover. It is estimated that this saves £27m-£54m of public money.
7. Counter unconstrained capitalism
Without unions there is a much starker imbalance of power between extremely powerful employers and a workforce with no one to advocate on their behalf. Workers have the legal right to organise, and management has a right to negotiate with them. It’s difficult to reach a compromise, and from the outside this struggle can seem like a waste of time, public money, or energy. However, I believe the struggle is indicative of a collective trying to find a way to represent many diverse views and lived experiences (which is a good thing), and this collective action stops the structures of capitalism from running even more rampant than they already are, crushing workers in the process of lining CEO pockets. Workers have the right to respect, dignity, and compensation equal to the increased productivity and profitability that they bring their organisations, and unionising is a key way that workers can right that power balance and be listened to.
I believe that if you’re looking at a range of options and struggling to discern which is the most ethical, finding out if the company legally has unions or has tried to suppress them can tell you a lot almost immediately. Whether it be a restaurant chain, a supermarket, or a fashion brand, generally the attitude to unions will tell you a lot about the attitude towards, and respect or lack thereof, of workers. So if you’re struggling on which factors to take into account, this can be a very good starting place.
This is not to say that unions are perfect however. There are still some ways that they could function better, in order to adapt to the changing landscape of work and lifestyle in this century.
Organize at the regional level, not the company level.
Cities have become more and more important to the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, companies have become more widely dispersed, making it harder to unionize all the workers in a single company — especially if some offices and factories are in other countries.
A solution is to have unions organize across many different industries in a particular region. This idea — which is somewhat similar to how German unions work — would allow workers in one industry to support workers in another industry, through strikes, local electoral action or other traditional methods. But it would also allow more cooperative, constructive interactions between employers and employees.
Since an individual employer would be justifiably afraid of raising wages if competitors failed to do the same, it would make sense to have collective bargaining take place between employees and employers of many companies at once. But collective bargaining at the industry level — for example, all restaurant workers bargaining with all restaurants at the same time — is very difficult, since the U.S. is so huge, and conditions vary so much from place to place. Instead, it makes sense to have bargaining occur at the city-industry level — for example, all restaurant workers in Phoenix bargaining with all Phoenix restaurants. That would reduce employers’ fear of wage increases affecting some, but not all, restaurants.
Meanwhile, the increasing importance of cities potentially strengthens unions due to local service businesses’ increased incentive to stay in town. And local organization would also give unions the power to influence local politics, if employers decide not to come to the bargaining table.
Have unions provide more services to their members.
The idea of unions as bargaining collectives is so firmly cemented in our minds that we forget that they also provide other services to their members, such as legal advice. Unions should experiment with expanding the range of benefits they provide.
One example is job searches. Often, workers lose their jobs because an employer goes belly-up or has to close some of its operations. If a union or confederation of unions organizes across different industries, it can help laid-off workers quickly find new employment. This is especially important for service-industry workers, since employers don’t often spend a lot of money and time on searching for these employees. A union can also help vouch for a worker, reducing an employer’s risk that the new hire will end up being a bad apple. Unions in China already provide a similar service.
Obviously, if unions are organized at the city level as per the previous suggestion, providing job-search assistance becomes much easier. Having unions act as a cushion against city-wide unemployment would also make them more valuable to municipal governments, increasing their local political clout and allowing them to push for regional minimum-wage increases in good times.
The advantage of these ideas is that they complement unions’ classic function and mission, rather than conflicting with it. City-level organization and increased member services would preserve and enhance unions’ traditional role as bargainers, while also increasing local political clout and giving non-unionized workers more incentive to join up.
Despite the benefits that unions bring, many business and government bodies are attempting to dismantle unions and worker rights. From 2011 – 2015 fifteen US states enacted legislation that severely limited or dismantled collective bargaining rights for public sector unions, with some going on to pass further laws to diminish worker rights. For example, Wisconsin eliminated the requirement to allow workers at least one day off per 7-day week.
When state budget deficits increased after the Great Recession, business-backed governors in a number of states sought to curb the powers of public-sector unions by arguing that government unions were to blame. Though these anti-union laws were presented as homegrown responses to specific fiscal distress in each state, the laws’ similarities, and the fact that states with more fiscal distress were not more likely to introduce such legislation, suggest that lawmakers were enacting an agenda driven and funded by national corporate interests. In fact, the financial distress was caused by Wall Street’s excessive risk-taking, not by unions. And, many of the same states that curbed state employee unions also enacted new tax cuts for the wealthy.
Similarly in the UK the TayPayers’ Alliance, a right-wing think tank and lobby group with the lowest rating for transparency and ties to climate change denial groups, published a report claiming that councils spend £15m per year “subsidising unions”, these reports tend to be directly quoted by right-wing media outlets in the UK, leading to misunderstanding and anger from readers. However, it is clear that unions are better for businesses and for workers, and the claims they’ve made that unions take money away from other important government services places the blame in the wrong place. I would argue that getting mega-wealthy corporations to actually pay their taxes so we could better fund public services would be a better way to focus this energy.
So how do we tackle these sentiments? I think it starts with supporting unions in our own backyard. If you’re in a workforce with a union, why not join it. If you aren’t, why not look into starting one? Beyond this, I think it’s important for all of us to watch out for anti-union campaigning or legislation, and to fight it through conversation and education, helping others understand why unions are a good thing, and collective action in our local political areas. Beyond this, we all have the vocal power to demand brands let their workers unionise. I think a lot of the ethical issues with Amazon could be avoided with proper unionisation, and they are not the only ones.
Ultimately unions give workers a voice, and the ability to be treated well and earn fairly. Businesses, CEOs and certain politicians often act in the interest of unmitigated power over workers for personal gain and increased money, and this is why protecting unions is more important than ever before. It’s important for democracy, and it’s a key way to determine how businesses and individuals really feel about those who work for them. As the global workforce continues to change and adapt to the modern world, unions will become increasingly vital to giving workers a voice. Advocating for unions and supporting our local ones whenever we can, is paramount.