Why Join a Union?

KC, Corcaigh

It is my belief that it is imperative to be part of a trade union and to encourage the same of others. This may seem like a bold assertion to readers, but I wish to repeat it emphatically. It is imperative to be part of a union and to encourage the same of others. Before I launch into my argument to support this claim, I would like to acknowledge that some readers of this publication may not be overly familiar with the definition and function of a trade union. Those with no prior trade union background or experience are my primary target readership of this article, though I hope that those among you who are engaged with the workings of a union may, too, glean useful information from it.

I will begin by elaborating on the definition and function of a trade union. I shall then describe the benefits this can have on a local level before subsequently relating this to the positive contributions that it can have to society at large. I have also included a personal memory of an evening oriented around union work which, to date, ranks among the most inspirational moments of my life. I hope that readers will find this article to be an interesting insight into the vital role that trade unions play in society as well as a persuasive request to join and engage with a union, if you have not recognised this a priority before now.

A trade union, put simply, is a group of workers coming together to advance their own interests. It represents a political vehicle for workers, utilising their unified strength through organising and decision-making as a form of leverage in an effort to maintain or improve their pay and conditions. “Trade unions have traditionally been seen as the most effective means of countering employer power and achieving satisfactory pay and working conditions for employees”. [1] A union may take on many shapes and sizes. Rules and leadership positions are adapted in order to deal with changing work environments. The common denominator though, is the very process by which those decisions are arrived at. Trade unions, in contrast to most workplaces (with the obvious exception of co-ops), operate primarily on the basis of consensus-driven decision making. This means that the rank-and-file members are able to influence their union’s directions and activities in a one-vote, one-voice forum.

Through this process, union members are able to elect spokespeople: shop stewards, regional representatives, etc., to speak on their behalf regarding the issues which they feel are significant to their well-being. Through these representatives, a union can then act as a third-party, intermediary between workers and workplace management to negotiate a dispute arising between management and an individual employee or group thereof. An individual’s grievances often concern their own position: lack of career progression opportunities, harassment, etc.; whereas the grievances of a group will often relate to problems which they collectively face: unsafe conditions, unethical product procurement, etc. Obviously, an individual and a group’s concerns often overlap and may, sometimes, be dealt with simultaneously. More often than not, unions will try to mediate in such a way as to cause as little industrial disruption as possible but do possess the capacity to implement a withdrawal, partial or complete, of members’ labour-power. This occurs when a majority of the union membership of a given workforce feel that their demands cannot be met without resorting to taking industrial action.

Our namesake, James Connolly, was a crucial element of trade union activity, both at home in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and abroad with the Industrial Workers of the World. (Pictured here addressing a May Day rally in New York, 1908)

I feel that the positive attributes of union membership are innumerable but I will try to encapsulate some of what, I feel, should primarily concern readers below.

“Research shows that unionised workers and workers covered by a collective agreement earn a wage premium over non-unionised workers and those not covered by collective agreements”. [2] Studies, both domestic and international, consistently confirm the existence of a union wage premium. Essentially, this means that a worker is more likely to earn a higher wage if they happen to be a member of a trade union. The benefits of this alone may seem self-explanatory to some but, regardless, let me list some for readers. A higher salary means less risk of falling into economic and social destitution. It means that an individual improves their ability to feed their family. It helps them to pay back their mortgage and to buy decent clothes. A decent wage often means the difference between sleepless nights and sleeping soundly.

When you join a union, you become a member of an organisation which operates on the premise that a day’s work justifies a fair day’s pay. A reader may feel that their own salary is fair compensation for the work that they perform and that, based on this, they may find their own trade union membership redundant. To this, let me inform or remind you of just three things.

Firstly, it is worth bearing in mind that a union strives to achieve better conditions for each and every one of its members. Even if you feel that you are financially secure, there may be many others in your workplace that do not. Your participation in your union can go a long way to helping those around you.

Secondly, in addition to pay, unions also focus on issues like health and safety regulations, maternity leave, and workplace discrimination. Workers cannot be expected to take an employer’s word at face value that these will be dealt with unless they are held accountable and scrutinised by those they employ. An individual may be seen by management as subversive and thus jeopardise their own employment position should they raise these issues alone. Workers are afforded more security by highlighting these issues as a collective.

The “union wage premium” is one of the most widely studied phenomenon in labour economics

Thirdly, let us not forget that the relative degree of comfort that workers enjoy today was not bestowed upon us by a benevolent property-owning class. A minimum wage, a five-day week, and annual leave, to name but a few, can be primarily attributed to industrial action, organised and driven by the trade union movement. Just as these rights were won, they may be taken away. I believe it is imperative for every individual to play a part in defending and advancing the achievements made thus far.

This takes me to my next point, the contributions of unions to wider society.

In an effort to approach this topic as holistically as possible, allow me to now shift focus from the micro to the macro. I believe that a higher union density, i.e. the proportion of a workforce currently members of a trade union, benefits society as a whole, not least in the area of economic inequality. Over the last three decades, there has been an international trend of growing domestic inequality, measured both by distribution of income and distribution of wealth. A basic metric to deduce this statistic is known as the Gini Coefficient. Ireland does not perform well by international comparison when using this measure. In fact, “According to Eurostat figures, Ireland has the third highest equivalised income GINI coefficient of 28 EU members”. [3]

What are the implications of a growing chasm between the richest and poorest sections of a society? I believe they may be too numerous to mention in an article such as this one but here are some worth noting. Societies with higher inequality tend to experience higher rates of crime, unequal access to education, higher rates of mental illness such as anxiety and depression, lower levels of engagement in civic activity, and slower economic growth.

Why am I discussing economic inequality in an article about trade unions? It is because these issues are inextricably linked. In the U.S. the Economic Policy Institute claims that, “The share of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement dropped from 27 percent to 11.6 percent between 1979 and 2019, meaning the union coverage rate is now less than half where it was 40 years ago. Research shows that this de-unionization accounts for a sizable share of the growth in inequality over that period—around 13-20 percent for women and 33-37 percent for men’’. [4] As with the U.S so too in the E.U. can one observe a negative correlation between union density and economic inequality. This should make sense intuitively: if workers band together to ensure that they represent their collective interests in a democratic organisational structure like a trade union, it will inevitably follow suit that they will utilise their strength to ensure that members reap a higher share of the societal value that they create at the expense of those who may prefer this value be instead channeled into shareholder investments or rent. 

Union density in Ireland has, following a global trend, been on the decline (The Trade Union Wage Premium in Ireland – Dr. Frank Walsh, UCD School of Economics)

One does not need to view this matter historically in order to demonstrate this point. Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden have largely been insulated from the recent drastic drop in real wages and skyrocketing inequality of most of its European counterparts. What makes them different? They boast some of the highest levels of union density in the world. This distinction has been the key in preventing the very material basis for this chasm between rich and poor to be able to grow exponentially.

If the reader may indulge an anecdote, I would like to recount the following memory which I hope will illustrate, on a personal level, the necessity for, and the capabilities of, unionisation. It involves me visiting a meat processing factory, based in a rural town, with some representatives of my trade union. This factory employed a recruitment agency that scouted a supply of labour from Eastern Europe to work in this factory. Prior to our visit, it had been made known to us that the recruitment agency and the local management of the factory deliberately co-ordinated with one another to promote a feeling of resentment between the various ethnicities of the workers. They achieved this by lying to each about the respective pay of the others, inflaming racial tensions by falsely informing them of a wage disparity between themselves and other workers. In an intentional sleight of hand reminiscent of a shady Dickensian antagonist, the recruitment agency in question also leased out local residential properties and were renting them out, in squalid conditions, to the very same workers for extortionate rents, thus their behaviour consisted of a double-exploitation.

My visit coincided with the first meeting our union organised and was attended by over 90 workers of various nationalities, the branch secretary of our union, and two translators hired by the union, with myself playing the role of quiet observer. At first, there was palpable tension between groups. The purpose of the union’s presence was expressed to the crowd slowly, accommodating the need to translate from English to both Polish and Romanian. With each interpretation, murmurs began emerging from various pockets of the room. Slowly, people were coming to the realisation that there was indeed no wage disparity at all, no proportionate remuneration for time spent working for the company, not even the fundamental right of being able to change clothes without being recorded by ever-present cameras.

The initial feeling of trepidation evaporated quickly when people learned the details of they had been misled by the management in question. Their initial bemusement quickly succumbed to one of relief and hope once the union made it clear that these workers were not being left to struggle alone, that their voices were being heard and that their rights were being recognised as a worthwhile cause by those not directly involved in their predicament. After we had made our case, we switched gears and took the opportunity to hear problems we had not previously been exposed to, all delivered with an air of liberatory defiance. 

The evening ended with a rapturous standing ovation from the workers present. The work that was left to be done had only just begun but yet the very identification of the problems at hand paved the way for a ceding of racial disparity. It was, above all, class consciousness that transformed the tense and uneasy atmosphere into one of tangible excitement as the prospect of change was zealously seized upon.

Our work with these workers continues but it is this moment in particular that I will remember for the rest of my life and which I find most inspirational from my time as a trade unionist.

I believe, by now, that I have made my position on this topic clear. I would like to take this opportunity to ask the reader to take a moment to consider the following questions. What are the primary goals of a civilised society? Are advances in technological capacity alone enough to create a more egalitarian and harmonious society? What is the most effective vehicle for a worker to express their voice meaningfully?

If I may just touch on the latter question for now. I believe that at least the majority of those reading this article would agree that a democratic polity inherently facilitates awareness of the problems facing a society as well as solutions which combat those problems. This awareness, in turn, breeds change, provided this awareness is acted upon by conscientious elements of that society that are willing to challenge the status quo to implement what they perceive as meaningful change. People overwhelmingly object to the restriction of their political liberty and continuously devise new means of gaining fundamental human rights, as demonstrated in recent years in Ireland through referendum campaigns which sought to expand reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights.

Movements for social justice have always had a strong organised labour element. Between 1984 and 1987, Dunnes workers from the Henry Street store in Dublin went on strike to protest the company’s stocking of produce from apartheid South Africa. The strikers are pictured here with ANC member Nimrod Sejake (centre)

Why not then, build on this logic and extend this democratisation to where the majority of people spend most of their waking hours: their workplace? Whether it be in the aforementioned areas of directly improving workers’ pay and conditions, promoting progressive legislation, or reducing economic inequality, being a member of a trade union provides a unique opportunity to proactively remedy social and economic inequity. Trade unions provide an avenue to dissolve the fetters imposed upon ordinary citizens by those who profit from their immiseration. They can help to build a foundation upon which society can be built anew.

Join a union. Play an active role. Reclaim ownership of your future.

 

Endnotes

[1] Wallace, J., Gunnigle, P., and O’Sullivan, M. Industrial Relations in Ireland(Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 2013)

[2] Michelle O’Sullivan, ‘Can trade unions play a new role in modern society?’, RTÉ, 20.03.2019,  https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0319/1037306-can-trade-unions-play-a-new-role-in-modern-society/

[3] ‘Gini coefficient of equivalised disposable income before social transfers (pensions excluded from social transfers), Eurostat, https://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=ilc_di12c&lang=en

[4] Heidi Shierholz, ‘Weakened labor movement leads to rising economic inequality’, Economic Policy Institute, 27.01.2020, https://www.epi.org/blog/weakened-labor-movement-leads-to-rising-economic-inequality/

 

 

 

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