Labor

Why We Need Unions

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 11:45 AM EST

Here's a tweet from one of the economists at Modeled Behavior:

I'm highlighting this not to pick on MB or to weigh in on charter schools. Nor even to weigh in on whether teachers unions should be friendlier toward charters. (I happen to think they should be, as long as charters aren't used as merely a sub rosa way of busting unions.) I'm highlighting it because it represents an all too common style of argument, which goes something like this:

Unions do (or support) X.

X is a bad thing.

Therefore unions are bad.

And (sometimes this is implicit, sometime explicit) they should be done away with.

Every single human institution or organization of any size has its bad points. Corporations certainly do. The military does. Organized religion does. Academia does. The media does. The financial industry sure as hell does. But with the exception of a few extremists here and there, nobody uses this as an excuse to suggest that these institutions are hopelessly corrupt and should cease existing. Rather, it's used as fodder for regulatory proposals or as an argument that every right-thinking person should fight these institutions on some particular issue. Corporations should or shouldn't be rewarded for outsourcing jobs. Academics do or don't deserve more state funding. The financial industry should or shouldn't be required to trade credit derivatives on public exchanges.

Unions are the most common big exception to this rule. Sure, conservatives will take whatever chance they can to rein them in, regulate them, make it nearly impossible for them to organize new workplaces. But they also routinely argue that labor unions simply shouldn't exist. This is what's happening in Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker isn't satisfied with merely negotiating concessions from public sector unions. He wants to effectively ban collective bargaining and all but do away with public sector unions completely.

Nobody should buy this. Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they're on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They're the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

So sure: go ahead and fight the teachers unions on charter schools. Go ahead and insist that public sector unions in Wisconsin need to take pay and benefit cuts if that's what you believe. Go ahead and rail against Davis-Bacon. It's a free country.

But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven't made that clear, I don't know what will.

More on this tomorrow morning.

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