Labor unions once existed to fight for fair and adequate pay, reasonable working hours, safe and suitable working conditions, and procedures to ensure fair review of worker grievances. Their existence made sense in an industrial, manufacturing-centric economy, as did their model of “scientific management,” which broke down work into definable tasks and allowed workers to become experts in a very specialized process.
While the economy progressed toward a “knowledge” economy, in which growth is dependent on information rather than the means of production, labor unions remained stuck in the past. Worse, rather than evolve, they fought to keep the economy from progressing, thus also hampering its growth.
Former union laborer Michael Cote explained his experience to The Atlantic:
“[T]heir strategies and focal points were stuck in an era that had no relation to reality. It was like trying to argue for the rotary dial phone. Sure, there is a need for the telephone, but any new ways to use them are forbidden. My experience was baffling and eye opening.
The average length of employment was over 18 years and like all newspapers, the ProJo was in terrible decline. I remember journalists vehemently protesting the paper’s online presence and calling on the union to prevent the company from hiring content producers. It was, to me, out of touch crazy talk. It was like watching an episode of Mad Men, where the vernacular was fro an entirely different – and dead – era.
We all had decent pay and a process for employee review, but the union prevented the paper from moving forward. The sales department, I’m not kidding, used a proprietary phone and terminal system from the 1970s and 80s. Literally these big machines with huge keyboards with weird symbols and codes. The screens were CRTs, with black backgrounds and a green cursor…Why couldn’t the sales department upgrade? Training. The employees were essentially in the same position, on the phones taking ads, for an average of over 20 years. . . . So the union saw no need for upgrades and blocked it for years.”
Cote goes on to explain his attempt to offer up innovative ideas that would save the company thousands, and how he was ultimately shut down by the union board because his ideas didn’t directly benefit workers. One of the top priorities of every meeting, Cote said, was “how to defeat the company,” which seemed odd given that it was the entity paying his bills. Moreover, he argued that employees were not being recognized and promoted based on their work, to which he received the rote response, “seniority trumps all.”
“Why — honestly — any young person would want to join a union, I have no idea,” Cote concludes.
It’s one thing to protect workers, but unions have evolved far away from that core vision. Now, they are little more than roadblocks to change in the name of being anti-employer. The nefarious effect of this devolution is a significant harm to the economic prospects of young workers. In an economy in which all that matters is seniority there is little incentive for young workers to go above and beyond and little need to demonstrate innovative ideas and processes. In that world, early career advancement simply isn’t a possibility – youth must simply show up and wait.
That’s an utterly foreign concept to today’s youth, who have been raised in an era where knowledge is democratized and where ideas capable of changing the world can come to life with nothing more than a computer and an internet connection. Imagine all of the inventions and technologies that would have never existed if our generation came to believe that the only variable that matters was age. Imagine all of the talent that would never have been cultivated if workers’ skills were ground down to match the exact shape of a given task.
Equally bad, today’s unions whittle away the speech of their workers to fill the shape demanded by union leaders. Currently, laws allow unions to force members to pay “fair share” contributions as a condition of their employment. This money then often goes into the pockets of union leaders and lobbyists, who are paid to engage in political speech that members may disagree with.
Two cases are currently working their way through the court system that may ultimately do away with this limitation on speech. In Janus v American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees, a child support specialist named Mark Janus is protesting the notion that he must “subsidize AFSCME’s efforts to compel the state of Illinois to bend to the union’s will” on several budget issues.
“The union voice is not my voice,” he wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “The union’s fight is not my fight.”
Similarly, though in more limited fashion, in Bain v. California Teachers Association, several teachers are suing in an attempt to opt out of the fraction of their dues that goes to lobbyist who defend policies they don’t support while still maintaining their membership in the union for the purposes of collective bargaining. These plaintiffs don’t want to opt out of membership altogether, they just want to push their union to be more representative of the diverse voices and opinions that undergird it.
The fact that workers must not just push for these protections, but actively sue the union designed to represent their interests, speaks volumes.
Unions, simply put, no longer make sense. The world has changed. The economy has evolved. And many workers have cheered on the innovation and evolution. But unions are inherently regressive, pushing away from progress and individual achievement and clinging tightly toward non-competitive cooke-cutter outcomes. What’s more, they charge exorbitant rates for the privilege of joining in the chorus of mediocrity. Young adults would be wise to lean into the dynamism and innovation they are famous for and push back against such stuck-in-the-mud collectivism.