March 17, 2023 | OPINION | By Saigopal Rangaraj

When I decided to study abroad in the United Kingdom during my junior year, I did not give a second thought to the country’s history of collective action and worker strikes. Little did I know, I would lose out on multiple weeks of class due to strike actions called by the University and College Union.

At that moment, I was enamored with not having to write my papers or study for my tests. In hindsight, however, losing out on approximately 10% of my class time significantly hindered my learning. I struggled to come to terms with these strikes; I wanted to support the teaching staff who were fighting to protect their wages and pensions which were under threat of being cut, yet the thought of hundreds of thousands of students losing out on their education was off-putting.

Labor strikes were not isolated to the education sector; in the latter half of 2022, the U.K. collectively lost 2.47 million working days due to strikes, which translated to one in five travelers changing their plans and half of all parents reducing working hours to care for their children. Labor action has a tremendous impact on the economy.

The U.K. is not alone in its penchant for such strikes; labor unions in numerous European countries regularly call for strike action. Most recently, over a million people went on strike in France against pension reforms that aimed to extend the solvency of the French pension system.

This example is not unique – labor unions often hinder much-needed societal progress. For example, police unions in the US actively lobby against accountability reforms, and in India, teacher unions stalled a teacher monitoring program which eventually led to a 21% decrease in teacher absenteeism.

However, blaming labor unions for all the ills of our society fits well into the corporate paradigm of punishing workers for standing up for their wellbeing. Corporate America has developed a playbook for union busting which it has perfected over time. In doing so, they have disempowered workers and taken a greater share of revenues.

Compared to a 1980 baseline, worker productivity has jumped by 64.6%, whereas wages have only grown by 17.3%. Workers are generating more revenue for their employers than ever before but are taking home a smaller share of these gains. Unions threaten this arrangement, which has led to numerous attempts to hinder their activities.

Starbucks, a particularly egregious actor, has targeted employees who have engaged in union activity by arbitrarily enforcing rules and firing employees who overtly support unionization. From hiring firms specialized in demobilizing unions to inundating employees with anti-union messaging, businesses have perfected their strategies of dismantling union participation. As a result, the US has witnessed the halving of union membership from 20.1% in 1985 to 10.1% in 2022 – the lowest-ever level of union participation.

This decline in union membership has played a massive role in this disparity of who benefits from economic gains. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that non-union workers make 85% of what their unionized counterparts make in the same roles. Unionized workers also benefit from better access to health insurance and paid sick leave. Despite this variation, an increase in union participation actually increases the benefits for all workers, including non-union workers, women, and other marginalized groups.

Had union levels stayed at the same levels as in 1979, the “typical” worker today would be taking home an additional $3,250 each year – $1.56 per hour. Unions clearly create better conditions for workers, yet the role that they play in inhibiting much-needed social reforms is equally undisputable.

How do we achieve a balance – a world where workers’ rights are protected, but societies are free to implement changes that make them more efficient and equitable?

That balance can only exist if workers’ benefits and lives are not tied down to their places of employment. If essential services, such as health insurance, parental leave, or disability insurance, are provided based on employer discretion, union debates will always be viewed as an existential threat to worker wellbeing.

Governments need to play a larger role in creating strong regulations and safety nets to ensure that unions become no longer necessary. By limiting unions’ focus to niche issues that are workplace-specific, governments will minimize the power that unions have to stall social progress while ensuring that workers’ rights are protected.

In the absence of such government action, a world full of unions will continue to be the next best alternative that keeps our businesses accountable and our reforms trudging along.

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