Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Unionization is Tough at the Low End

Wonkblog has an interesting and somewhat rambling discussion of the various troubles at one of the nation's biggest unions, IAM. The end contains an interesting nugget about some of the underlying dynamics of decreasing unionization in the US:
"If you're trying to organize a new group, it's usually a low-paid group, and how are you going to tell them they have to pay $70 a month, and they don't know what for?" Asuncion said in an interview. "It's the dues structure that's killing us."
I often hear liberals talk about the failure of workers at the low-end of the skill/wage spectrum to unionize and how it's an error of short-term thinking, but I think this quote is telling. Although low-wage jobs have less turnover than one might expect, not supporting unionization may very well be a rational economic calculation. Unions provide economic benefits to their workers in a less concrete, more long-term way. Dues, on the other hand, are paid monthly and take a greater share of total wages the lower you slide on the income scale. Add to this that the primary weapon of unions--the strike--is a potentially devastating strategy for low-wage workers who are struggling to get by each month. If employers know that strike threats have no teeth, the bargaining position of unions (and the benefits they can promise) becomes shakier. Additionally, an increased emphasis on organizational culture and employee engagement by business undercuts some non-economic functions of unionization, such as establishing a shared identity, improving workplace conditions, and aggregating information from lower organizational levels.

On a semi-related note, many professional athlete unions have difficulty bargaining with owners because their strike threats are equally romantic: if nearly all of your total lifetime income is made within just a few years as a sports star, losing just half a season is potentially very costly.

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