Wisconsin governor Scott Walker made his name with a coldblooded campaign to destroy public sector unions. Pro-union Wisconsinites tried to recall Walker; they failed. This has led to some gloating and speculation from the usual suspects (Rich Lowry, nice blazer, hair boy) that the death knell has formally sounded for unions in America.
Let's hope not.
Unions are much more than a political mechanism by which teachers and policemen and firemen can be scapegoated. They are not limited to industries under the direct control of a governor's diktat. There is a simple reason why all those huge employers of retail and service workers—Target, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and countless others—are so emphatically anti-union: fear. These companies know that unions represent a sort of power for their workers that their workers will otherwise never have. That power translates to better working conditions and higher wages. That, in turn, eats into a company's profits, as all expenses do. For some companies, this is merely a nuisance, a potential hit to the stock price. For others—like Wal-Mart, which has built the world's largest retail chain by squeezing every last cent out of its costs—it is a potential existential threat.
This is only the end of the argument if you believe that Wal-Mart's is the most desirable business model for all the world. It is a particularly cutthroat evolution of capitalism, in which all human interests are secondary to the cause of cost-cutting and price-dropping. It is the belief that saving fifteen cents on a package of Pringles is more important than your neighbors being able to pay for health care.
Our government, in its present form, is controlled by moneyed interests, because we've set up a system in which political power can more or less be directly purchased. In such a system, no reasonable person can expect the the government to use its powers of regulation to serve the interests of workers—and when we say "workers," it is useful to think of your mother, or your brother, or your grandmother, paying for her medication by greeting customers at Wal-Mart. If the workers cannot turn to the government to protect them from the unrestrained predations of corporate capitalism, then the workers must find a way to protect themselves. Unless they plan to plunder the stores where they work for guns and start the revolution, then their best tool is a union. A strong union of workers, standing together, is in a position to bargain with a company, because a company needs employees in order to make money. Employees, alone, are in no position to bargain with a company, because employees need to eat.
Timothy Noah, the best extant writer on the issue of income inequality in America, makes a very simple point in his new book: as unions have died out in America over the past half-century, so have the earnings of the masses of people who once benefited from union membership. As quoted in Joe Nocera's column, Noah writes, "Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share, and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical."
If you've ever asked for a raise at work, you should understand the concept of leverage: to the extent that your employer needs you, you have it, and you're able to get something (increased wages) for it; to the extent that your employer considers you replaceable, you lack it, and therefore have no way to improve your own position. In the retail and service industries, employees lack leverage almost by definition. Anyone who makes trouble can simply be tossed out and replaced. Unions give those employees leverage. That leverage is a means to a fair wage. Not an outrageous, outsized wage; a fair wage. Any union that bankrupts the parent company is a failure, because all the union members end up unemployed. It is in the interest of unions to achieve the best possible conditions for workers that still allow the company to flourish. A union does not throw off the balance of power in the workplace—lack of a union does.
Large corporations are machines designed to make money for shareholders. They do it well. To expect them to do anything but minimize wages and maximize profit is to misunderstand their nature. The most basic sense of decency and respect for human rights dictates that there must be some mechanism by which the workers—the humans—can assert their interests. Otherwise they will be crushed by the machine. It's all very plain to see.
To despise unions is to despise workers. To despise workers is to despise people. That's not very nice at all.