Why Unions Still Matter

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Sasha Lilley: Over the past four decades, the number of workers in unions has declined steeply, so that today only 12.4% of American workers are represented by unions.  Yet there are great hopes that that trend may be reversed, and at least in some parts of the country, union membership has increased slightly in the past year.  Many in the labor movement have been pinning their hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, the legislation which would make it easier for workers to join or form labor unions while penalizing some anti-union efforts on the part of employers.  In his book Why Unions Matter, now out in the revised edition from Monthly Review Press, Michael Yates raise the importance of unions and the prospects of union organizing today.  He is the author of Cheap Motels and a Hotplate, Naming the System, and the just released In and Out of the Working Class, published by Arbeiter Ring.  When I spoke to him recently, I asked Michael Yates about why workers should care about unions, given that most people in this country are not in one.

Michael D. Yates: Well, why they should matter to workers is because they provide workers with really the only way that they can deal with employers in most circumstances.  Most of us are eminently replaceable, and, as a consequence, employers treat us in ways that we don’t see ourselves, they treat us as costs of production, replaceable costs of production.  Businesses are in business to make money, as much money as they can, and in order to do that, they have to control the ways in which work is done to the maximum extent possible, which means that they have to depersonalize us and treat us like costs of production, and the only way that we can get around that to maintain at least some scrap of dignity, in addition to which make better wages and have a chance to get benefits and so on and so forth, have a voice at a workplace, is through unionization.  All sorts of studies have shown, and I show in my book, that unions do improve workers’ economic circumstances, they do give them a voice in a workplace, they do make them better informed about the laws and the general drift of the country and what have you, so that’s why I think they matter.  In a kind of situation we’re in right now, probably they matter more than ever.

Michael D. Yates is author of Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue (Monthly Review Press, 2007), Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2003), Why Unions Matter (Monthly Review Press, 1st Edition published in 1999, new edition to be published in May 2009), and In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter Ring, 2009) among many other publications.  The text above is a partial transcript of the interview. Read his blog Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue at <blog.cheapmotelsandahotplate.org/>.