In America, the public image of labor unions is practically a caricature. On TV, for example, union members are likely to be portrayed as either lazy, members of the mafia, or simply corrupt, and news broadcasts are quick to write off unions as unnecessary burdens on the economy. While these on-air characterizations may drive ratings, they are little more than stereotypes that ignore the enormous contributions made by unions for the nation and its workers. With that being said, take a look at some of the most popular myths surrounding unions today.
- Unions Only Benefit the Working Class
Throughout the 20th Century, workers in steel mills, automobile factories, and other blue-collar industries made up the backbone of American unions, and that image persists even today. But just because that perception remains, however, doesn’t mean it reflects reality. Many high-tech and professional occupations, like software workers, have organized into unions that advocate for better workplace conditions, better wages, and oppose outsourcing jobs. And as union participation rates fall for those classic blue collar occupations like manufacturing, a larger number of professional workers are taking up the ranks of organized labor.
- Unions Only Benefit Union Workers
While unions are accountable to their members first and foremost, the advances they make for their members often translate into benefits for all workers, unionized or not. For example, since 2012, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has poured over $70 million into a campaign to raise the minimum to $15 per hour, which would benefit not just their members, but also countless other workers across dozens of industries, and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has pointed out that strong unions have historically led to higher wages for nonunion workers. So even though unions have duties to their members, when the union wins, everybody wins.
- Some Workers Are Forced to Join a Union
The notion of “compulsory unionism,” which means that workers must be members of a union in order to be hired for or hold certain jobs, is a frequent target of anti-union pundits. Unfortunately for the talking heads, it’s not real: compulsory unionism, also known as “closed shop” hiring, has been illegal under federal law since 1947. Union shops, a policy where newly-hired employees were required to join a union within a certain period of time after their start date, was ruled illegal in 1985 by the Supreme Court.
- Right-to-Work Laws Would Kill Unions
More than 20 states have right-to-work laws that allow employees to work without being forced to join a union. While common sense might suggest that right-to-work legislation would lead to lower levels of union membership, that’s not necessarily the case. For example, postal workers, who are covered under right-to-work provisions and enjoy the benefits of union activity whether they are members or not, still have over a 90% union participation rate, indicating that workers join unions even when they aren’t compelled to do so.
- Unions Slow Globalization
Unions have vehemently opposed the spate of free-trade, pro-globalization programs of the past 20 years, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), on the grounds that an increase in free trade would siphon off jobs from the United States to countries where labor is much less expensive. Their concerns are valid, but globalization has continued its march nonetheless.