Law in Contemporary Society
Professor Moglen's comments about unions the other day got me thinking that I have a natural aversion to praise for unions. In particular I have a deep-seated aversion to the notion of seniority for seniority's sake rather than performance-based pay. There are numerous benefits to unions, perhaps most importantly a stronger negotiating position when discussing pay and benefits for employees. But on the flip side, it also seems to create hierarchies based on seniority that prevent younger/newer members from rising through the ranks based on "merit". I can understand and sympathize with the job security concerns that were the basis of Moglen's comments, but am I missing some other valuable benefits to the seniority system? In high school I spent 3 years working at a supermarket where the members were unionized. I liked the marginally better pay than the minimum wage that other stores paid, but I also remember a lot of jaded, unproductive older employees. Unions are human organizations too and are just as vulnerable to the selfish manipulation of those at the top as other organizations are.

This is not to say that I am opposed to unions, I just found it odd that even though I have shifted far far left of my originally super conservative upbringing I was still caught off guard by the rhapsody for unions. Are there any built-in corrections for older members who take advantage of their seniority? Don't most of the complaints about teachers' unions revolve around this issue?

-- MichaelDignan - 11 Mar 2009

Maybe the distinction to be made here is between two different values.

Do we prefer a flawed system that, at its worst, leaves most of the workforce at the whims of the "market" and creates a culture of fear? Or would we prefer a flawed system that, at its worst, provides for job security while potentially fostering complacency and lower productivity?


Unions do have some measures in place to address problems like those, however, I think that the persistence of seniority in union contracts speaks to benefits it has over a “merit-based” system.

Collective bargaining itself provides a solution to the issue of abuse of seniority rights. If members don’t like seniority, they can vote it out of their contract. Ideally, a union functions like a democracy and provides benefits through representation that other political and legal entities cannot fully secure. Union members voice their concerns to their representatives, who in turn negotiate on their behalf during periodic contract negotiations. During the periods between contract negotiations, grievance procedures are in place to address concerns that arise. If provisions unions negotiate federal laws, there might be protection for employees.

Seniority gives workers a degree of due process in lay offs and promotions. Discrimination, cost cutting by hiring cheaper replacements, and favoritism often masquerade as merit. Just last night a friend who is an associate at very prominent law firm who gave me an example of some of the shady dealings companies use in employment matters. She recently made models that ran simulations that advised the client on how to manipulate classifications such that layoffs appeared to meet disparate impact requirements. The reason she’s doing this work instead of the client’s HR department is because it’s protected by attorney client privilage, so there won’t be proof of their manipulation when employees sue. I’ve also witnessed shady dealings as an advocate with the Unemployment Action Center and even in my own boyfriend’s recent lay off.

All that said, in the case of teachers and other employees that provide a public service there are very strong arguments for instituting policies that favor effective employees. Unions are moving toward modifying seniority provisions to balance the objectives of due process and high performance. Also, even though union workers might be unhappy with aspects of their jobs, they are less likely to quit than non-unionized workers. Academic literature provides a variety of explanations, such as the use of voice mechanisms over exit ones, and also job satisfaction theory that values some outcomes of collective bargaining more than others.

This post is getting pretty long winded, but I studied Industrial and Labor Relations in undergrad and I find these topics are really interesting.

-- JamilaMcCoy - 11 Mar 2009

When I worked for the City of New York, the title under which I work was unionized by a petition by DC-37 to the Public Employee Relations Board. As a result of unionization, we lost a week of vacation time, we were put into an inferior eye-and-dental plan, and we had a more limited health plan. We did have access to extremely vigorous legal advocacy if we were terminated, but most of the people in the line were not intending to work there long term anyways – thirteen years later, only one of the people who started with me is still on the job, and none of the people who started with me left involuntarily. I have a fairly low opinion of DC-37 in general, mainly because of subsequent actions by the head of the union, and by the current practice among many municipal unions of "killing the unborn" (trading pay raises for current members for lower starting salaries for new hires, who after all are not yet in the union and therefore don't vote on the leadership).

Later, in graduate school, I went on strike, refusing to grade student papers or hold TA sessions, when the state university where I worked denied us the right to unionize. Through the strike, we won the right to vote for a union, and we voted to join the UAW (which had sponsored the action); the UAW promptly settled all the issues we had with the university system, obtaining none of the concessions that the TAs had been asking for (and relieving themselves of paying promised strike pay, while collecting union dues on a future-going basis).

This being said, both my sister (a NY City public high school teacher) and my wife (a professor at CUNY) are in unions, and both speak very highly of their experience.

My thoughts, limited by my limited experience, would be that unions can benefit their members when their members share common needs, particularly when the members have specialized skills that are hard to replace (it is axiomatic that the most successful unions in the US represent professional athletes and film actors). But when unions themselves become large diversified organizations, representing many types of workers who all do different things, they can behave like other large impersonal entities, and fail to serve their members.

This may be a good topic for merging and refactoring -- I have spoken to some students who say we are using the Wiki like a messageboard rather than a wiki, and I agree we should feel less ownership over our posts and encourage work on them by our peers.

Hi Andrew,

Your varied experiences with unions are interesting and they reflect an ongoing struggles in the union movement. I do think that it would be great to refractor this page eventually. But right now I don't think that we have really explored the existing academic literature and current events enough to make a great informational page that reflects the current state, challenges, and arguments for and against unions. I linked to a few briefs from collective bargaining, labor law, and organizational behavior scholars, and newspaper articles. I think one of the best things that we can do using the wiki is that you can include images, and instant links to online authorities. The page takes on less of a message board quality when we utilize those aspects of the wiki to fully explore the subject we're writing about.

How about we aim for a mix of personal anecdotes, current events in the union sphere, and academic literature in creating the page?

Perhaps a bit more conversation, and we can produce something that explains:

  1. Personal experiences with unions
    1. Andrew's Experiences (UAW, DC-37, SSEU)
    2. Others (please add)
  2. History of Unions
    1. Introduction to Labor History, by Professor Nick Salvatore (video)
    2. Nineteenth-century Incidents in development of union movement
      1. Tompkins Square
      2. Haymarket
      3. Homestead
    3. Effect of growth of union movement on labor conditions
    4. Effect of union contraction on labor conditions
  3. current state of collective bargaining in the US
    1. Basics on how unions work (legal framework, core ideology, etc.)
      1. NLRA
      2. collective bargaining basics
    2. Prominent unions and labor coalitions
      1. Change To Win
      2. Municipal Unions
      3. Specialized Skill Unions
  4. Problems w/ unions
    1. Interests of current members in conflict with each other
    2. Interests of current members in conflict with future members

Refractoring and merging are great, but I think we need substance to edit and that we won't have that until we combine our opinions and experiences with other sources. Am I getting the gist of the purpose of the wiki or am I turning this into a research project?

--JamilaMcCoy March 12 09

I agree and was not suggesting we refactor now, but that this discussion could produce lots of different thoughts (like your input on policy and practice and mine on personal experience) that will at some point need organization. I think that your thoughts on how to put the pieces together are a good goal, and we can collect the pieces as a group and then put them together.

That being said, I did some editing to the outline you suggested both for formatting (so it will show up on the wiki the way that you drew it up in the editing window) and for content (I have added a section on "Union History"). I suggest that as others add their own experiences, insights, thoughts, that we should all feel free to edit the outline of what we are eventually aiming for. Plus anyone interested in participating should always be editing the outline, which after all is the hardest part.


Webs Webs

r9 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:47:02 - IanSullivan
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