Why Unions Will Rise Again

Two straight decades of steadily decreasing worker benefits has taken its toll. If we continue to fight it individually, we will be reduced to Industrial Age style servitude.
Photo: Mike

It doesn’t take a mathematician to plot the slow, steady decline of the unions in America. From a high of 35% in the mid-sixties, it’s hovering close to 10% at present day. More than half of that is concentrated in the government sector. There are myriad reasons, all well documented, for this sharp decline: loss of manufacturing jobs, union busting tactics, anti-union sentiment in the tech sector etc. but some are more insidious. One of the most damaging is taking the gains from hard won battles of the past for granted. If like me, you work a cookie cutter corporate job almost everything you take as standard issue was in fact fought for tooth and nail by union members of the past.

From the 8 hour day to the 40 hour work week, from a living wage to paid sick leave, from vacation pay to employer sponsored healthcare, there’s almost no part of a standard corporate benefits package that was not a direct result of actions taken by unions. We can’t imagine a corporate job without these perks but like a frog in a slowly heating pot of water, we sit idle while each of these previous union driven rights are methodically strip mined of the original benefit to the worker.

Let’s explore how corporations have decreased worker benefits year after year with literally no resistance. The first master stroke was classifying your rank and file techno worker bee as “management”. This allowed big business to create salaried positions that are not tied to hourly wages. This means you are expected to fulfill your job duties regardless of the number of hours it takes. As anyone who has spent any amount of time in an office environment knows, this means you don’t ever really work 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. You work much more than that.

You arrive early and leave late to impress your boss. You take meetings during lunch because it’s the only available slot on your calendar. You take early morning/late night calls because you have business with people on the other side of the country. You fly in planes late at night, stay in hotels for days at a time. All of these extra hours count nothing towards increasing your actual paycheck. This is just par for the course to not get fired for under performance. The best part is they can classify anyone as management. You don’t even need direct reports…brilliant!

If you monitor modern day union negotiations at all, you’ll know healthcare is a huge sticking point. Hell it’s a huge deal to all of us due to America’s amazing ability to think socialized medicine is evil yet a for profit system run by drug and insurance companies is not. Just in my own career I’ve watched company provided healthcare decrease in quality and coverage while the burden of paying for it is increasingly shifted onto the actual worker themselves. So what originally started as 100% employer paid healthcare has become high deductible plans with the employee not only responsible for paying out of pocket every month, but also for a deductible that can be in the thousands of dollars every single year. And each year the portion an employee pays increases while companies shoulder less and less of the healthcare cost burden.

Another area corporations have effectively decreased worked benefit is in the area of sick leave/vacation. Even me combining those two separate concepts is an indication of how effective this tactic has proven. When I first started out, sick leave and vacation were two separate buckets, each with their own assigned amount of days. Of course this led to lots of fake sick calls as employees viewed not being able to take sick days, even if they were healthy, as getting less time off than their sick co-worker (granted it sucks to be sick in bed all day!). Regardless, you had the ability to take vacation and sick days separately. This also created the tactic of burning your sick days while hoarding your vacation to roll it over into the next year, either to use later in bigger chunks or get a fatter paycheck when you quit.

So how did companies clamp down on this? Many eliminated the concept of sick days altogether. Instead they opted for a term like “paid time off”, combining the former sick days and vacation into one bucket. Of course this bucket was smaller than before. If you had say 5 sick days and 15 vacation days before this change, you got 18 paid time off days total after. So in one fell swoop corporations were not only able to eliminate employees from using sick days when they were not sick but also reduce their overall amount of paid leave.

How did they deal with vacation hoarders? By either eliminating vacation day roll overs or by letting employees roll over a small token sum into the next year. Now it’s a use it or lose it scenario that keeps companies from having the big payouts of the past when a vacation hoarder quit.

How has big business been able to eliminate or reduce so many worker benefits without workers putting up a fight? The answer seems pretty clear to me. By stroking individual egos into thinking it’s more effective for them to personally negotiate their benefits package than through collective bargaining. Look at me, I was able to get three more days’ vacation than the initial offer. Look at me, I was able to negotiate 3K more in pay than the base offer.

Never mind that on the whole, your overall benefits have been steadily eroded, so much so that these small wins that benefit you personally are overshadowed by the overall reduced worker benefits companies are able to push through at scale as there’s no equal level of pushback. How can you fight this ebbing tide of less and less worker benefits by yourself? We know the answer is you cannot, at least by yourself.

That’s why I think it’s inevitable that unions will rise again. Workers, even special snowflake tech workers, will realize that they cannot stop the decline of worker benefits individually. Now I think many would agree that unions may have taken things a bit too far in the past. We all know examples of bad teachers that schools are unable to fire due to tenure or watching five construction workers stand around and watch one actually work but on the whole, unions have far more tallies in the positive column.

The only way corporate workers will be able to stem the bleeding of worker benefits is to collectively apply pressure to the wound. Otherwise we will find ourselves in a pre-union state of unregulated pay, hours, and time off. A time when workers were literally driven into the ground and callously tossed aside when they cease to be able to work. Everything we take for granted in the modern workplace will slowly revert to this more brutal, more soul crushing form of capitalism if we continue to let corporations deal with workers on an individual level.

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