This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
I hear a lot of media executives talk about why you shouldn’t unionize. But there are no good reasons to not unionize.
I say this as a manager who sat across from the TPM Union and technically negotiated “against” them.
I want to talk about some of the arguments I hear against unions and why they are nonsense. The shenanigans are out of control, and workers deserve to know the truth.
1. Joining a union reduces your “liberty” and “individuality.”
Where to begin. This is an insane argument I can’t believe exists.
When you as a worker are not in a union, you have no leverage at all. You have no liberty. You have no individuality. The company has all the leverage.
The threat of leaving and finding another job — often cited as an example of workers’ leverage over their employers — is not really a threat. Especially in media. There are stories virtually every single day about journalists being laid off and not being able to find another job. There’s no shortage of people to take your place.
Unions increase your liberty. Unions increase your individuality, by guaranteeing such things exist. Deciding on your own volition to join a union that exists only to fight for you when you have no other options means you are less dependent on the whims of your company. (This is not an article specifically about the authoritarian nature of private business, but if that is of interest to you, this is.)
Not to be pedantic, but this argument is so stupid and so divorced from reality that Adam Smith himself was able to foresee it and make fun of it in Wealth of Nations. He wrote:
We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.
Shorter Smith: Bosses everywhere are not going to pay you more than they have to — in fact, they are more likely to coordinate to keep wages down. As Smith says, anyone who fails to see this is ignorant, even hundreds of years later.
2. Joining a union is divisive.
This is another insane argument that is only postulated by media executives who have had their feelings hurt. Companies are more authoritarian than democractic. Most media companies have no worker representation on their boards of directors. Companies generally are hierarchical and unions aim to flatten the company structure, which is the opposite of division. This process is only divisive if management decides to approach it that way. It doesn’t have to be.
When TPM formed its union, I was of course unaware until the members informed us.
My gut reaction, if I am being honest, is that I was a bit wounded. It made me feel like I had somehow lost or never gained their trust and that I was bad at my job.
I quickly realized however that this was a very selfish way of looking at the situation.
It was not about me or what I had done. It was about the union members ensuring their own security, something that despite my best intentions, I could never provide. I am just a guy and my goodwill does not carry any legal force. Some day I could leave, or adopt a different worldview. Media executives need to get over themselves and not take it so personally.
3. Joining a union doesn’t save jobs.
This statement is wrong on multiple fronts.
First of all, a union can save jobs. One of the most frustrating things about anti-union and anti-collective bargaining arguments is that they tend to make blanket statements and sidestep the fact that every collective bargaining agreement is different. You literally negotiate over what is in it, that is the point. In many contracts, it is common that management and the union would meet to discuss alternatives to layoffs in difficult times. These alternatives could mean pay cuts, salary freezes, furloughs, work-sharing agreements, etc. They most certainly can save jobs.
Separately, this argument misses a key point. Journalists are not ignorant of the realities of the market economy. I’d argue, rather, that they are greatly attuned to its shortcomings. They know the industry is challenging, and understand job losses are possible. However: Job losses need not be arbitrary and they need not be soulless. Unions can ensure that when job losses are necessary, there are sufficient severance packages to ensure that a worker has some means of survival.
Management needs to realize that despite its best intentions, the only acceptable situation is for these kinds of safeguards to be legally binding. Maybe you, Mr. or Ms. Media Executive, really are a swell and magnanimous person. Buy you won’t always be in charge and you can’t always act as you wish. A union contract simply gives legal force to your generosity. So don’t resist it.
4a. Unions raise costs for the company.
Another misleading statement. Labor negotiations cost money, this is true. And of course, in the course of negotiations, costs may go up. But to pretend the potential costs of forming a union are so prohibitive as to preclude the existence of a union at all is silly and illogical.
The reality is, transparency and communication can greatly minimize costs to the benefit of both parties. The way this works is the union will come to the company with its demands. A smart company can then say, “Ok, transparently, here is a look at our fiscal health. Here is why we can meet that demand, here is why we can’t meet that demand.” Etc, etc. Again, journalists aren’t monsters who just demand insane, unreasonable things and never yield. And honestly? From what I have surmised, it seems like management goes into union negotiations assuming the bulk of union demands will be monetary when in fact they tend to revolve around basic workplace standards and protections.
Yes, negotiations cost money. Shocker: Lawyers are expensive. But management exacerbates and increases these costs when it tries to fight the union’s existence and waste everyone’s time at the bargaining table. Costs also escalate when a company, instead of trying to get negotiations over with as quickly as possible, fights every little thing a union proposes. (I would actually make the argument that fighting a union like this is the very definition of bad management as it wastes vast sums of money)
But management exacerbates and increases these costs when they try to fight the union’s existence and waste everyone’s time at the bargaining table.
4b. Unions are expensive for the union member.
No they are not. But don’t take my word for it. You can read about WGA East’s dues here and the NewsGuild’s dues here. The benefits, in my correctly formed opinion, outweigh the costs.
5. The company is already awesome and has a ton of benefits and everything.
Great! But 100% besides the point.
Once again — you may notice a theme — good will is not legally binding. It’s easy to change a retirement policy or to increase benefits. It’s even easier to just ignore your own company policies because who is going to make you enforce them? If you work at a company and for whatever reason they messed up your comp time, who are you going to go to for recourse? HR tells you the accounting is right, your direct supervisor says only HR knows — but you know they messed up. What to do? Nothing pretty much, unless you have a union to back you up.
Once again this is an ego argument. A manager says to him or herself, “Look at how benevolent we are, look at how much profit we forego on your behalf!” Be wary of such arguments, especially when the good things only started to sprout up when the union push began.
6. You will no longer be entitled to merit raises.
Simply wrong. Just a made up argument based on nothing at all.
Unless you negotiate into your contract that there will no longer be merit raises, managers will be entitled to give them. Unions want wage floors for their workers, not wage ceilings.
Those are, I think, the most significant myths I have encountered, though I am sure there are others.
The bottom line really is that a union places restrictions on management’s ability to create profit by any means necessary. When management thinks of it’s goal as the creation of profit and never-ending growth, then of course any strictures on that goal are undesirable. But profit-seeking above all else is an abomination. Your boss probably makes more than you, I think he or she should be able to handle the minimal administrative and strategic work that comes with a union. If they can’t, then maybe they aren’t that good at their job.
Joe Ragazzo is the publisher at TPM, overseeing the design, product and revenue staffs out of the New York City office. Joe used to be a journalist but realized if some journalists don’t figure out how to make journalism financially sustainable, there won’t be any left. He also says Go Browns.