Back to Prindle Institute

Unions and Worker Agency

photograph of workers standing together, arms crossed

The past few years have seen a resurgence of organized labor in the United States, with especially intense activity in just the past few months. This includes high profile union drives at Starbucks, Amazon, the media conglomerate Condé Nast, and even MIT.

Parallel to this resurgence is the so-called “Great Resignation.” As the frenetic early days of the pandemic receded into the distance, workers began quitting at elevated rates. According to the Pew Research Center, the three main reasons for quitting were low pay, a lack of opportunity for advancement, and feeling disrespected. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich even analogized it to a general strike, in which workers across multiple industries stop work simultaneously.

Undoubtedly, the core cause of both the Great Resignation and growing organized labor are the same – dissatisfaction with working conditions – but they are also importantly different. The aim of quitting is to leave the workplace, the aim of unions and strikes are to change it. They do this by trying to shift the balance of power in the workplace and give more voice and agency to workers.

Workplaces are often highly hierarchical with orders and direction coming down from the top, controlling everything from mouse clicks to uniforms. This has even led some philosophers, like the noted political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, to refer to workplaces as dictatorships. She contends that the workplace is a blind spot in the American love for democracy, with the American public confusing free markets with free workers, despite the often autocratic nature of the workplace. Managers may hold almost all the power in the workplace, even in cases where the actual working conditions themselves are good.

Advocates of greater workplace democracy emphasize “non-domination,” or that at the very least workers should be free from arbitrary exercises of managerial power in the workplace. While legal workplace regulations provide some checks on managerial power, the fact remains that not everything can or should be governmentally regulated. Here, worker organizations like unions can step in. This is especially important in cases where, for whatever reasons, workers cannot easily quit.

Conversations about unionization generally focus on wages and benefits. Unions themselves refer to the advantage of unionization as the “union difference,” and emphasize the increases in pay, healthcare, sick leave, and other benefits compared to non-unionized workplaces. But what causes this difference? Through allowing workers to bargain a contract with management, unions enable workers to be part of a typically management-side discussion about workplace priorities. Employer representatives and union representatives must sit at the same table and come to some kind of agreement about wages, benefits, and working conditions. That is, for good or for ill, unions at least partially democratize the workplace – although it is far from full workplace democracy, in which workers would democratically exercise managerial control.

Few would hold that, all things being equal, workers should not have more agency in the workplace. More likely, their concern is either that worker collectives like unions come at the cost of broader economic interests, or that unions specifically do not secure worker agency but in fact saddle workers with even more restrictions.

The overall economic effect of unions is contentious, but there is little evidence that they hobble otherwise productive industries. A 2019 survey of hundreds of studies on unionization found that while unionization did lower company profits, it did not negatively impact company productivity and decreased overall societal inequality.

More generally, two assumptions must be avoided. The first is that the interests of the workers are necessarily separate from the interests of the company. No doubt company interests do sometimes diverge from union interests, but at a minimum unionized workers still need the company to stay in business. This argument does not apply to public sector unions (government workers), but even there, unions can arguably lead to more invested workers and stronger recruitment.

The second assumption to avoid is that management interests are necessarily company interests. Just as workers may sometimes pursue their personal interests over broader company interest, so too can management. This concern is especially acute when investment groups, like hedge funds, buy a company. Their incentive is to turn a profit on their investment, whether that is best achieved by the long-term health of the company or by selling it for parts. Stock options were historically proposed as a strategy to tie the personal compensation of management to the broader performance of a company. This strategy is limited however, as what it does more precisely is tie management compensation to the value of stock, which can be manipulated in various ways, such as stock buybacks.

Beyond these economic considerations, a worker may also question whether their individual agency in the workplace is best represented by a union. Every organization is going to bring some strictures with it, and this can include union regulations and red tape. The core argument on behalf of unions as a tool for workplace agency is that due to asymmetries of power in the workplace, the best way for workers to have agency is collective agency. This is especially effective for goals that are shared widely among workers, such as better pay. Hypothetically, something like a fully democratic workplace (or having each individual worker well positioned to be part of company decision making) would be better for worker agency than unions. The question of whether these alternatives would work is more practical than ethical.

There can be other tensions between individual and collective agency. In America specifically, unions have been viewed as highly optional. The most potent union relationship is a “closed shop,” in which a union and company agree to only hire union workers. Slightly less restrictive is a “union shop,” under which all new workers must join the union. Both are illegal in the United States under the 1947 Taft Hartley Act, which restricted the power of unions in several ways. State-level  “right to work” laws go even further, forbidding unions from negotiating contracts that automatically deduct union representation fees from employees. The argument is one of personal freedom – that if someone is not in the union they should not have to pay for it. The challenge is that the union still has to represent this individual, who benefits from the union they are not paying for. This invites broader questions about the value of individual freedoms, and how they must be calibrated with respect to the collective good.

 

The author is a member of Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition – United Electrical Workers, which is currently involved in a labor dispute at Indiana University Bloomington.

“Cruel Optimism,” Minimum Wage, and the Good Life

photograph looking up at Statue of Liberty

In early May, executives from the fast casual restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that the company would be raising its average hourly wage to $15 by the end of June. A few weeks later, Chipotle also announced that its menu prices would be increasing by about four percent to help offset those higher wages (as well as the increasing costs of ingredients). This means that instead of paying, say, $8.00 for a burrito, hungry customers will now instead be expected to pay $8.32 for the same amount of food.

While you might think that such a negligible increase would hardly be worth arguing about, opponents of a minimum wage hike jumped on this story as an example of the supposed economic threat posed by changing federal labor policies. During recent debates in Congress, for example, those resistant to the American Rescue Plan’s original provision to raise the federal minimum wage frequently argued that doing so could disadvantage consumers by causing prices to rise. Furthermore, Chipotle’s news exacerbated additional complaints about the potential consequences of the Economic Impact Payments authorized in light of the coronavirus pandemic: allegedly, Chipotle must raise their wages so as to entice “lazy” workers away from $300/week unemployment checks.

Nevertheless, despite the cost of burritos rising by a quarter or two, the majority of folks in the United States (just over six out of ten) support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. As many as 80% think the wage is too low in general, with more than half of surveyed Republicans (the political party most frequently in opposition to raising the minimum wage) agreeing. Multiple states have already implemented higher local minimum wages.

Why, then, do politicians, pundits, and other people continue to spread the rhetoric that minimum wage increases are unpopular and financially risky for average burrito-eaters?

Here’s where I think a little philosophy might help. Often, we are attracted to things (like burritos) because we recognize that they can satisfy a desire for something we presently lack (such as sustenance); by attaining the object of our desire, we can likewise satisfy our needs. Lauren Berlant, the philosopher and cultural critic who recently died of cancer on June 28th, calls this kind of attraction “optimism” because it is typically what drives us to move through the world beyond our own personal spaces in the hopes that our desires will be fulfilled. But, importantly, optimistic experiences in this sense are not always positive or uplifting. Berlant’s work focuses on cases where the things we desire actively harm us, but that we nevertheless continue to pursue; calling such phenomenon cases of “cruel optimism,” they explain how “optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” Furthermore, cruel optimism can come about when an attraction does give us one kind of pleasure at the expense of other, more holistic (and fundamental) forms of flourishing.

A key example Berlant gives of “cruel optimism” is the fallacy of the “good life” as something that can be achieved if only one works hard enough; as they explain, “people are trained to think that what they’re doing ought to matter, that they ought to matter, and that if they show up to life in a certain way, they’ll be appreciated for the ways they show up in life, that life will have loyalty to them.” Berlant argues that, as a simple matter of fact, this characterization of “the good life” fails to represent the real world; despite what the American Dream might offer, promises of “upward mobility” or hopes to “lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” through hard work and faithfulness have routinely failed to manifest (and are becoming ever more rare).

Nevertheless, emotional (or otherwise affective) appeals to stories about the “good life” can offer a kind of optimistic hope for individuals facing a bleak reality — because this hope is ultimately unattainable, it’s a cruel optimism.

Importantly, Berlant’s schemata is a paradigmatically natural process — there need not be any individual puppetmaster pulling the strings (secretly or blatantly) to motivate people’s commitment to a given case of cruel optimism. However, such a cultural foundation is apt for abuse by unvirtuous agents or movements interested in selfishly profiting off of the unrealistic hopes of others.

We might think of propaganda, then, as a sort of speech act designed to sustain a narrative of cruel optimism. According to Jason Stanley, a key kind of damaging propaganda is “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals.” When a social group’s ideals are eroded into hollowness — when stories about “the good life” perpetuate a functionally unattainable hope — then the propagandistic narratives facilitating this erosion (and, by extension, the vehicles of propaganda spreading these narratives) are morally responsible.

The case of Chipotle arises at the center of several overlapping objects of desire: for some, the neoliberal hope of economic self-sufficiency is threatened by governmental regulations on market prices of commodities like wage labor, as well as by federal mechanisms supporting the unemployed — with the minimum wage and pandemic relief measures both (at least seemingly) relating to this story, it is unsurprising that those optimistic about the promise of neoliberalism interpreted Chipotle as a bellwether for greater problems. Furthermore, consumer price increases, however slight, threaten to damage hopes of achieving one’s own prosperity and wealth. The fact that these hopes are ultimately rather unlikely means that they are cases of cruel optimism; the fact that politicians and news outlets are nevertheless perpetuating them (or at least framing the information in a manner that elides broader conversations about wealth inequity and fair pay) means that those stories could count as cases of propaganda.

And, notably, this is especially true when news outlets are simply repeating information from company press releases, rather than inquiring further about their broader context: for example, rather than raising consumer prices, Chipotle could have instead saved hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months by foregoing executive bonuses and stock buybacks. (It is also worth noting that the states that elected to prematurely freeze pandemic-related unemployment funding, ostensibly to provoke workers to re-enter the labor market, have not seen the hoped-for increase in workforce participation — that is to say, present data suggests that something other than $300/week unemployment checks has contributed to unemployment rates.)

So, in short, plenty of consumers are bound to cruel optimisms about “the good life,” so plenty of executives or other elites can leverage this hope for their own selfish ends. The recent outcry over a burrito restaurant is just one form of how these strings are pulled.

Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions

A low-angle shot of the U.S. Supreme Court

An upcoming case in the United States Supreme Court could have significant effects on the state of the American Labor Movement: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. At stake is whether public sector unions can require employees who have not joined the union to pay agency fees—fees that go to exclusively cover the costs of negotiating the labor contract that covers all workers at a workplace, union members and non-members alike. If the court were to rule against the legality of required agency fees, this would overturn a previous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that agency fees were allowable, just so long as those fees were not used for the political or ideological activities of the union.

Continue reading “Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions”

Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws

This post originally appeared on October 20, 2015.

In March 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt “right-to-work” laws. Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia are all considering such laws. Right-to-work laws do not prohibit unions. They prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require workers to be members of unions or to pay agency fees for the benefits they receive from union representation.

Continue reading “Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws”