In Kashana Cauley's recent New York Times op-ed, "Why Millennials Should Lead the Next Labor Movement," she raises several points about the benefits that union membership provides and why millennials should fight for a revival in the labor movement. Cauley's description of higher wages, guaranteed days off, and good health benefits is certainly attractive to many millennials struggling to find their way in today's difficult economy.
Yet, before millennials rush to start unionizing their workplaces, they should consider some of the consequences and tradeoffs that come with being in a union.Like Cauley, I, too, am in a union: the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). Being in a union certainly does come with some of the perks Cauley described. After a certain period of time, I have access to excellent healthcare benefits at very low cost, I am guaranteed a set raise every six months, and it would be very difficult for my employer to fire me.
However, there are also several downsides to being in a union that blow a few clouds into the sunny picture that Cauley painted.
There are trade-offs and costs to every action, and unions are no different, especially when it comes to money. Unions cost money to run, and unless you live in a right-to-work state, there is no way you can opt-out of paying dues if you have a unionized workplace.
Every week, about an hour's worth of pay is taken out of my paycheck to cover my mandatory union dues. If you only work 20 hours, since most service industry jobs are part time, dues can be a whole 5 percent of your paycheck, on top of taxes.
If your union workplace operates on fixed pay schedules based on how long you have been employed, like mine does, that means that no matter how hard you work, you will always make less money than people who have been there longer, even if you are more productive and do a better job. This becomes even more frustrating when you end up being saddled with more work to make up for the bad employees who can't be fired. (When the grocery store chain I work at tried to give some merit-based raises to hard-working employees, the UFCW sued to stop it.)
Another core problem with labor unions is their economic ignorance.
Many unions are on board with the "fight for 15" campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Basic economics says that setting a price floor on labor will price everyone unable to create $15 in value out of the market, leaving many low-skilled people, especially young workers, unable to find jobs.
Increasing the price of labor also makes it more likely that investing in capital to replace the now more expensive workers would make more sense, leading to even fewer jobs in the affected sectors as companies installed more self-checkout and self-ordering kiosks.
People in highly-skilled unions (such as Cauley and the Writers Guild of America East) don't need to worry about technological unemployment. But for many people in the UFCW, raising the minimum wage would all but guarantee fewer hours, employers being more aggressive about finding ways to fire people, and fewer opportunities for low-skilled workers.
If you are comfortable with stasis, enjoy having underachieving colleagues, and are largely lacking in ambition, fighting for the expansion of unions might be a good idea for you. However, if you are not afraid of achieving through your own ability to create value for others, and have ambitious goals to reach and strive for, more unions are rarely the best way to get there.
Basic economics tells us that wages do not rise because of unions, but rather because people have become more productive, in large part thanks to education and investment in capital goods by businesses.
If you really want to secure a better future for yourself, the best way is to invest in your personal human capital by learning more skills and gaining workplace experience, rather than advocating for the revival of a declining and ineffective method of workplace organization.
Zachary Yost is a Young Voices Advocate who lives in the Pittsburgh area.
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