Every year, the union reps make their rounds and talk to every teacher in the district. This year, my building’s representative sat in a student desk across from mine and asked if I had any feedback or thoughts I’d like to share. I summarized my discontent, to which she gave a thoughtful rebuttal. The conversation proceeded as expected—respectful but unfruitful.
As she walked out, she apparently could not resist a quip: Since other teachers paid union dues, but I didn’t, she said, perhaps I should consider that I profit at my colleagues’ expense.
That jibe is a common refrain in defense of unions. They provide a common good, the argument goes, defending worker rights and bargaining for compensation. Thus, I have an obligation to provide money from my paycheck. Another snide remark directed at me phrased it as “all the benefits I reap from the unions I so disdain.” It’s a deft little guilt-trip that crumbles with the slightest application of pressure.
Needing to Be Needed
In his book The Four Loves, while discussing familial love, C.S. Lewis provides a fictional anecdote that works to frame a rebuttal to this argument.
I am thinking of Mrs. Fidget, who died a few months ago. It really is astonishing how her family have brightened up… Mrs. Fidget very often said that she lived for her family. And it was not untrue. Everyone in the neighborhood knew it… she did all the washing; true, she did it badly, and they could have afforded to send it out to a laundry, and they frequently begged her not to do it. But she did. There was always a hot lunch for anyone who was at home… She always sat up to “welcome” you home if you were out late at night… you would always find the frail, pale, weary face awaiting you like a silent accusation.
Mrs. Fidget created fictitious needs for her family, wasting her own energy and binding her children with a guilt-ridden adherence. Lewis writes that she “needs to be needed,” and so all of her selfish do-gooderies could not create a healthy family dynamic. Unions are Mrs. Fidget—creating non-existent needs to the chagrin of their constituents.
Is a Union Necessary?
Regarding the non-existent needs, unions may have once been necessary institutions. During the Industrial Revolution, an era when workers had no individual clout, unions protected them from corruption between capitalists and government officials. Lewis’ allegory continues to provide insight here, though. He writes that “we feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves… [we] must work towards [our] own abdication.” And so, while workers once needed unions, the American economy has grown to a place where collective power is no longer required.
Speaking for my field, teachers don’t need a union to defend them. They have advanced degrees, and many come to the field with former work experience; thus, they have secondary or even tertiary employment options. Like educators, many other professions require skills and intellectual capital that give them bargaining power, which line workers lacked at the turn of the century.
Regardless, unions bargain for pensions, and so workers are obliged to give their money to a lackluster retirement fund.
Speaking generally, the average yearly household income in the United States was over $73,000 in 2014. For those without degrees, the American economy is in a place of such prosperity that simple decisions like finishing high school can open the way for affluence. Personal choices and commitment can create personal wealth where unions cannot. As such, they are not needed in the 21st century.
Continuing on with the allegory, as Mrs. Fidget filled fictitious needs, she became a burden to her children. It would have been far better for the Fidget family had their clothing gone to a laundromat or lunch come from a restaurant. Regardless, their mother made it, so the children were obliged to eat it. With pensions, money would be better spent on immediate needs or invested in personal retirement accounts. Regardless, unions bargain for pensions, and so workers are obliged to give their money to a lackluster retirement fund.
Mrs. Fidget’s laundry and meals were subpar. They are pensions, grid-based pay scales, rigid work rules, and onerous regulations. As one example, Chad Alderman explains the mediocrity of teacher pensions. He says,
States are paying an average of 12 percent of each teacher’s salary just for debt costs. If states didn’t face these large debts, they could afford to give that money back to teachers in the form of higher salaries—an average of $6,801 for every public school teacher in America.
As such, the guilt trip in defense of unions asks for thanks for a mediocre product.
Like the guilt-ridden relationships in the Fidget household, perhaps the most onerous effect of unions is the nebulous atrophy they cause in any industry. It’s an all-pervasive conflict between employees and their employers. It’s blocked reforms like school choice, merit-based pay, or other market-based initiatives that promise to improve industries. It’s the artificially raised wages that shrink demand and thus the number of potential jobs. It’s the sense of entitlement for jobs they create, through all of their messaging, that lowers expectations.
In sum, the defense my rep gave would stand if a union’s representation were both necessary and beneficial. Then, it would be incumbent upon me to provide monetary support in return for a valuable service. As it stands, they fall short of those requirements. They may have been helpful once as dear Mrs. Fidget, but their passing would leave workers and their industries to breathe more freely.