Contributed by the Northeastern Progressive Student Alliance (PSA)
At Northeastern, dining hall workers, part-time faculty, security guards, and janitors have all fought uphill battles to organize unions. For every campaign, Northeastern responded with anti-union rhetoric, even hiring the notorious union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis. In the end, all these workers succeeded in winning unions and a collective say in their working conditions. The Progressive Student Alliance supports these campaigns because we believe no member of the our campus community should have to work under exploitative conditions.
Over the past few decades, right-wing anti-worker movements have been methodically stripping labor unions of the power they once had. Misleadingly-named “right to work” laws play a major role, but the shift in power away from workers relies on calculated anti-union myths and narratives. As a result of these efforts, the rate of union membership has halved since 1983 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). Everything that has greatly improved working people’s quality of living (weekends, 8-hour workdays, paid sick time, etc.) had to be wrestled from the grip of the ruling class by a massive and well-organized labor movement. Union-busting is standard practice for corporations, but universities (Northeastern included) deploy the same myths in their attempts to deny workers the benefits of collective bargaining. Here are a few union-busting myths you might come across, if you haven’t already:
MYTH: Unions can force you to join them. We need “right to work” laws!
FACT: Closed shops, or workplaces in which all workers have to be union members, have been illegal in the U.S. since 1947 (See the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 [Taft-Hartley Act]). Typically, a worker in a unionized workplace who does not want to join the union must pay an “agency fee” or “fair-share fee,” which covers the union’s collective bargaining activities, but not any political activities. This fee prevents freeloading because a contract covers all workers, whether they’re in the union or not. “Right to work” laws make such fees illegal in the private sector. So “right to work” really means “right to benefit from a union without paying for it.” When freeloading is an option, unions tend to lose members, and thus lose power. Because less powerful unions mean less protection for workers, “right to work” measures are anti-worker legislation disguised in the language of workers’ rights.
MYTH: Unions are outside third parties that threaten the trust between workers and management.
FACT: Unions are the most democratic institution that can be introduced into a workplace. In non-union workplaces, management dictates everything. Organizing a union is the only option workers have if they want a legally-protected say in how their workplace operates. Every decision–forming the union, choosing a larger union to affiliate with (or organizing independently), ratifying a contract, even decertifying the union–can only happen if a majority of the workers approve.
MYTH: Unions are bloated bureaucracies. (Something something fat cats!)
FACT: Not all unions are created equal. Many have staff who are dedicated organizers with a focus on building the power of rank-and-file members, while others might be inefficient, undemocratic, corrupt, or even racist. The fact that certain unions are flawed is not a reason to write off unions in general, as many bureaucratic and corporate-friendly unions are still arguably doing more good than harm. (Not the racist ones, though. They suck.) Luckily, democratic movements within large, corporate unions have had some success in shifting their unions’ priorities back towards their members (see Teamsters for a Democratic Union). As future workers, we need to play a part in pushing unions to be truly democratic institutions, rather than forsaking them and disenfranchising workers completely.
TL;DR: CAPITALISM IS BAD, UNIONS ARE GOOD.