Unionization May Not Be the Best Path to Labor Fairness

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one in this entire school who has ever taken an economics class or worked with a union. Between the collecting of signatures, rallying, and general noisemaking, it seems to me that no one has actually stopped to think that there might be a downside to a union. From personal experience (and a decent bit of reading), I can assure you that unions are often both unfair and inefficient.

First of all, unions have a tendency to impose themselves (and, coincidentally, their fees) upon workers who do not support them. This is unfair because, at least in my opinion, when one agrees to be an employee, he is agreeing to provide a service specified by the employer. He is in no way signing up to be financially, ethically, and otherwise bound by other employees. Thus, unions have the unfortunate effect of unjustly imposing themselves upon non-supporting employees.Furthermore, it becomes difficult to fire or penalize workers who underperform because union policy and sentiment tend to oppose such action. Most Pomona students once attended public high school, and I’m sure many of you had an experience where the inability to fire incompetent teachers negatively affected your schooling.

In addition, the total income paid to currently employed workers usually increases after unionization. Many would argue that this is undoubtedly a good thing and that it very much seems that Pomona College employees deserve a raise. Though I am not sure this is in fact the case—given that they should be receiving at least market value for their labor or else would likely be seeking more gainful employment elsewhere—I shall concede the point for the sake of argument. What people seem not to realize is that the newfound income is not distributed in a fair manner. Unions tend to opt for pay and benefit scales that are independent of actual performance. Therefore, the extra income will likely go to those who have been around longest and, as such, have the greatest job security from the union and therefore ability to slack off, potentially at the expense of the newer employees. Thus, the highest-paid workers will have the greatest incentive to underperform. This is not in the interest of those who work hardest, and it is surely not in the interest of Pomona College.

Additionally, unions tend to oppose capital investment that decreases the demand for labor, even if said capital is in the best interest of the college as a whole. Let’s assume for a second that I invented and offered to sell to the college a machine that could wash all dining hall plates with minimal water use and no need for human operation. Undoubtedly the union would attempt to stop the college from employing such a machine because it would reduce the hours available for union workers. However, this union stance would end up adversely affecting the college.

Until now I have almost entirely overlooked the benefits of unionization. So I concede, of course, that a union would prevent the many worker abuses cited on the WorkersForJustice.org site. It is distressing that such injustices are occurring in our community; however, the presence of such mistreatment is not necessarily justification for student support of a union. There are other things to consider.

If we, the students of Pomona College, were rational actors interested only in our own welfare, we would strictly oppose a union because we are not directly harmed by the lack of a union and because the costs of a union will be borne by us and our tuition fees. But, given the character of most of our students, we should cast this selfish sentiment aside and assume that we are interested in the welfare of the entire Pomona College community. What we as members of the Pomona College student body must decide is whether the benefits associated with a union outweigh the costs.

This is a difficult question to answer. I am not an employee and cannot accurately assess the degree of employee abuse. I am also not responsible for the Pomona College budget, so I could not predict the costs of union inefficiency. Thus, I propose a solution: we should let the workers weigh what they believe to be gained through a union against what the administrators believe will be lost by the formation of one.

But wait! This is exactly what is accomplished by the secret ballot proposed by President Oxtoby. The preceding dialogue process plays an important role in the process of deciding whether or not to unionize because it allows the administration of the school to express how significant the costs are of unionization. Thus, if the workers stand to gain more by unionization than the school stands to lose, the workers will press through the intimidation and unionize via secret ballots, and we can rest assured that the greater good is being served. If we allow the card check method, on the other hand, we cannot be sure that the benefits of a union are not outweighed by the costs. Allowing for unionization free of so-called “intimidation” will lead to an over-allocation of unions, which is not in the best interest of our community.

Unionization is not the only way to promote fairness for the Pomona College workforce. The student body can take a stand for fair treatment independent of unionization. While one would have a hard time dragging me to a rally for unionization, I (as well as a good portion of the silent majority) would be much more affable toward the idea of rallying for fairness in the workplace. In this manner, we may be able to transcend the inefficiencies of unions in our attempts to better our community.

Long story short: I stand with Pomona College workers, but that is not to say that I stand with a Pomona College workers’ union.

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