Just as the Black Death increased the bargaining power of Europe’s peasantry, so too has COVID-19 increased the bargaining power of the American worker. While nowhere near as deadly, the combination of worker shortages and reasonable unemployment benefits has allowed those still working to agitate for better conditions and better pay.
On Oct. 5, Kellogg’s factory workers went on strike across the country. Citing long hours, little pay and a failure to negotiate a new contract, cereal production for Kellogg's cereal was entirely halted. On Oct. 14, more than 10,000 John Deere workers also went on strike after rejecting the company’s contract.
Only 10.8% of the American labor force is formally unionized, however over the course of the pandemic, the country has seen a sharp increase in worker collective action from both union and non-union labor. Unionization rates in this country used to be much higher than they are today, but former President Ronald Reagan broke the power of unions over the course of his presidency, doing considerable long term damage to the country.
One of the primary ills of the modern American economy is rampant wealth inequality, the likes of which we haven't seen since the Gilded Age. However, there is a handy solution to this problem: unions.
Unions help decrease the wealth gap not only between the rich and poor but also between racial groups. White, Black, and Hispanic households with a union member make on average two, three and five times as much as their non-union counterparts respectively due to the wage increases that unions fight for.
Another important aspect of strong unions is worker safety. Workplace safety can manifest in a number of ways that will depend on the job, but one huge work safety measure is more breaks, reducing worker fatigue, which can cause accidents. On average union jobs are far safer than non-union jobs. Not only are unions able to hold employers accountable by exerting pressure on the boss but they also legally insulate workers from employer retaliation if an employee raises a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Some bosses will attempt to snuff out unionization early on, making it harder for workers to take collective action to stop illegal anti-union actions. In this country, organizing a labor union is not a privilege, it's a right, and any action taken by management or owners to prevent organizing is illegal.
Unions can be beneficial for both workers and their employers. Some businesses whose workers are unionized are actually more productive than ones without a unionized workforce. A more productive and safer workplace doesn’t just help workers, it also helps the bosses. All the evidence seems to support the notion that unions are simply a net benefit to everyone involved. So why are bosses so opposed to unions?
I would contend that the boss’ hostility to unions is driven not by worries of lost profit, but a result of their fear at a loss of control. We live in a democracy except when we clock in for work. The traditionally organized firm is not a democracy, it is a dictatorship.
While unions do not automatically turn the workplace into a democracy, they certainly make it more fair. If we truly want to live in a democratic society, that means that we cannot surrender our democratic principles when we come into work. Unions can help pave the way for true workplace democracy.
If you take anything away from this piece, let it be this: the bosses wouldn’t try so hard to keep workers from unionizing if it wasn’t so effective.
Nick Finan is a junior political science major. Reach him at email@example.com.