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May Day Mythbusting: Ten Myths about Unions

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

To commemorate May Day, we’re putting the spotlight on Bill Fletcher, Jr. Fletcher has been involved with the labor movement since he worked as a welder in a Massachusetts shipyard after graduating from Harvard in 1976. He moved on thereafter to become a labor activist and organizer. With hands-on experience from the bottom up, Fletcher is in the prime position to bust the myths bent on dismantling unions. Watch him bust ten in “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions. Fletcher-May Day 2015


MYTH 1    Workers are forced to join unions.

Fact: Unions are created when a majority of the workers in a workplace either vote for a union or sign cards to join the union, and are recognized by the employer. Whether one must become a member of a union depends on (a) a negotiated agreement between the workers and their employer that all union members can ratify and (b) state law.

MYTH 2    Unions are destroying the economy.

Fact: Problems with the U.S. economy have little to do with labor unions but instead stem from a global capitalist economy and polices that perpetuate inequality. Labor unions seek to more fairly distribute the results of labor.

MYTH 3    Unions are run by labor bosses.

Fact: Leadership is chosen through an electoral process. Local union leaders are elected by individual members, while delegates sent from local unions then choose national union officers, including a president and an executive board.

MYTH 4    Unions are always on strike.

Fact: The number of strikes, a nonviolent tactic for asserting worker needs, has declined from an average of 352 per year in the 1950s to 21 in the last ten years.

MYTH 5    We no longer need unions.

Fact:  Unions protect workers from unreasonable firings based on a “just cause” provision that is negotiated and included in a collective-bargaining agreement. Additionally, the restructuring of U.S. industries and the growth of neoliberalism has resulted in the reemergence of sweatshops. Without unions, workers are vulnerable to low wages, long hours, and unsafe conditions.

MYTH 6    Unions always side with the Democrats.

Fact: Though more union members vote Democratic than do nonunion workers, about 30 percent of union members identify as Republicans. Some unions conduct dual endorsements in elections, choosing a Republican and a Democrat.

MYTH 7    Unions hold you back from advancement and promotion.

Fact: Unions are designed to oppose favoritism and to set work and salary standards, not to impede advancement. They provide a structure to promote fair decisions, creating a climate that depends less on an employer’s attitude and more on objectivity.

MYTH 8    Unions were started by communists and other troublemakers.

Fact: Left-wing activists were often central in the building of the labor movement, but workers will organize on their own, with or without assistance. Though individuals with specific political ideologies may help to build unions, unions themselves aren’t ideological organizations.

MYTH 9    Public-sector unions cause budget deficits.

Fact: The mere existence of a public-sector union does not affect a state, county, or municipal budget. Bargaining only affects the budget in guaranteeing that budget decisions that concern public employees are not unilateral. Though public-sector union wages and benefits come out of taxes, their jobs are a service for the larger society, and members should be entitled to fair compensation. In the case of federal unions, taxpayers do not pay for the unions but for time for representation, ensuring that federal workers, irrespective of union membership, have the right to be represented.

MYTH 10  The union uses public money for political action, and members have no say in the matter.

Fact: Unions are impacted by legislative decisions; their demands cannot be resolved solely in the workplace. As such, involvement in political and legislative action is necessary. Unions financially support candidates only through special funds collected on a voluntary basis from members.  

About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgBill Fletcher Jr. is a long-time racial-justice, labor, and international activist, scholar, and author. He has been involved in the labor movement for decades, and is a widely known speaker and writer in print and on radio, television, and the Web. He has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Fletcher is currently the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. Follow him on Twitter at @BillFletcherJr.