Unions Are for Fighting the Boss. Don’t Turn Them Into Toothless Guilds.

Manhattan Institute fellow Allison Schrager argues in a nationally syndicated opinion piece that unions can best serve their members by focusing on insurance schemes and cooperating to find boss-friendly solutions. That’s nonsense.

Starbucks union members join the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild on the picket line in Los Angeles, California, on July 28, 2023. (Katie McTiernan / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A few days ago, the Writers Guild of America finally reached a tentative agreement with Hollywood executives after a five-month strike. They writers took on the studios, which now include some of the biggest tech companies on the planet, and won major concessions.

Meanwhile, the president of the United States just walked an autoworkers’ picket line in my home state of Michigan. His main rival, former president Donald Trump, hasn’t talked to the United Auto Workers (UAW) — but only because the UAW told him to stay away. (He spoke at a nonunion plant near some striking workers and hoped no one would see the difference.) Both Biden and Trump are clearly reading the polls showing that a supermajority of Americans support the UAW’s strike against the Big Three automakers, and responding accordingly.

Even Manhattan Institute fellow Allison Schrager admits that the “labor movement is having a moment.” That can’t be an easy thing for a fellow at a right-wing think tank to concede. But not to worry; the world hasn’t turned upside down. Now that the Right is forced to reckon with the surge in labor movement activity, it’s only expressing its typical antiunion sentiment in a more subtle way.

In a nationally syndicated op-ed published earlier this month at Bloomberg Opinion, Schrager argues that unless unions “reform,” the moment they’re having now could be “their last gasp.” Right now, workers are benefiting from a tight labor market, but that will change. Schrager predicts — or maybe just hopes — that the “political environment” will become “less favorable to unions.” (Translated from think-tank-ese to English, that means that union-busting Republicans will come to power.)

Fortunately for the labor movement, Schrager has some advice to offer. She recommends that unions give up on all of this fighting-with-the-bosses-to-get-a-bigger-slice-of-the-pie nonsense. Instead, they should work with the bosses on finding arrangements with more “flexibility” — think-tank-ese for accepting lower wages and less protections — and otherwise focus on providing various sorts of insurance services for their members.

If they do this, she says, unions can “save themselves.” I’m sure it’s disinterested advice and merely a coincidence that the Manhattan Institute is funded by the Koch family, Goldman Sachs, and numerous plutocrats whose interests aren’t served by labor unions that actually behave like unions. But leaving that aside for a moment, we should ask: Do Schrager’s arguments make any sense? Do unions really need to tone it down for their own good?

America’s Union Blues

This time two years ago, there were zero unionized Starbucks locations. I can remember standing in a bar in Los Angeles a year and ten months ago, when there was exactly one, arguing with a left-wing friend who told me it was a flash in the pan and — unfortunately, in his view — wouldn’t go anywhere. Today there are 355. Again, there’s no denying that organized labor is having a moment. The question is how durable that moment is.

Schrager points to a Gallup poll showing that, while 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, “two-thirds” (actually 58 percent) are uninterested in joining one themselves. “That,” she says, “helps explain why many union drives fail.” Her point here is that unions are terribly unpopular, and they had better tread lightly in this moment or risk losing their tenuous hold on the American public.

Other sources diverge considerably from the Gallup number, and show that at least half of nonunionized workers want to join up. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the percentage with at least some interest in joining up is only 42 percent. Organizing 42 percent of the nonunion workforce would mean quadrupling the unionized workforce. That would be an earthquake in labor-capital relations. So why hasn’t it happened?

Schrager’s careful phrasing — “helps explain” — gives her some wiggle room, but she’s pretending not to see the elephant in the room. American labor law is absurdly slanted against workers trying to get organized. When a majority of employees at a workplace sign union cards, that isn’t enough for a union to be recognized. There has to be a certification election. In the run-up, bosses can force workers to attend “captive audience” meetings while they’re on the clock to subject them to antiunion propaganda and, quite often, thinly veiled threats that the place will shut down if a union is recognized and everyone will lose their jobs. The union doesn’t have a right to make their countercase or even have representatives present at the meeting.

The whole thing’s about as democratic as it would be if, in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, Joe Biden could legally force every American to come to a meeting where they heard about his accomplishments, no Republicans were given speaking time, and the meeting ended with a heavy insinuation that if Biden were to lose the election he might just be forced to blow up the country to stop the Republican candidate from taking office.

If a group of workers does succeed in organizing a union and negotiations fail and they go out on strike, then the playing field is tilted in a vastly more antiunion direction than it is in many other countries. If the workers jump through all the hoops to go on a legally sanctioned strike, the bosses can’t “fire” them — but they can “permanently replace” them. If the workers end their strike after being “permanently replaced,” the boss doesn’t have to rehire them unless new openings come up. Meanwhile, different groups of workers are generally prohibited from acting in solidarity with each other. It would be illegal, for example, for screenwriters to stay out on strike until the actors have had their demands met.


And as bad as all of that is, that’s only what unions have to deal with when the letter of the law is being followed. In real life, companies routinely go well beyond the legal boundaries and usually get a slap on the wrist at most. For example, Starbucks Workers United says that more than two hundred of its members have been illegally fired in retaliation for union activity the last two years. In a couple dozen cases, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has agreed and ordered the workers to be reinstated, but even that hasn’t happened in the vast majority of cases. The NLRB is severely underfunded, and existing law gives the board few options for imposing meaningful penalties. No one should hold their breath waiting for Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan or his predecessor Howard Schultz to be led away in handcuffs for breaking labor law.

And still, despite the attempted death by strangulation of American unions, many people are interested in joining one. That figure is remarkable for the exact opposite reason Schrager identifies. Schrager thinks unions are skating on thin ice. In truth, despite every attempt to undermine the labor movement, unions remain a viable option in the minds of millions of American workers, offering something of obvious value.

What Unions Are For

“Being in a union,” Schrager complains, “costs money.” Even beyond membership dues, “unions work by compressing wages (and often the terms of advancement) in negotiations on behalf of all employees.” This, she says, hurts more “productive” workers by dragging their wages down to a level closer to that of their “unproductive” fellow workers.

She doesn’t mention that those dues are negligible compared to the increased wages workers routinely achieve by bargaining collectively. And common sense would dictate that the best-paid workers at any given workplace — who might or might not in any meaningful way be the most “productive” ones — are going to be a fairly small minority of the workforce, which would mathematically make a relatively egalitarian wage spread a good thing for the great majority of unionized workers.

But Schrager thinks unions should give up on all that. Instead, they “should be less about collective bargaining and more like guilds that offer various forms of insurance — for health, retirement and even wages, which would pay out during periods of non-employment or retraining.” In other words, they should give up doing anything for workers at the expense of the interests of employers. Instead, they should pool together their own wages to pay for services that — in the “old” model of labor unionism — they’d be fighting for the boss to provide them as benefits. That sounds like a pretty good deal for the bosses.

So does the only form of collective bargaining Schrager seems to like. She counsels that “instead of wage and job security, unions should . . . work out risk-sharing agreements with employers, with bigger bonuses in good markets and reduced pay or hours when times are bad.”

Got that? Instead of fighting for secure jobs with good wages, unions should just roll over and accept lower wages and greater precarity in exchange for the occasional bonus check “in good markets.” Schrager is about an inch away from suggesting that workers should be happy with an annual pizza party in the break room.

Anyone who cares about the dignity, security, and financial wellbeing of working people should ignore every piece of this nonsense. Groups of workers ranging all the way from UPS drivers to Hollywood screenwriters have been winning huge gains with unions that actually act like unions. If you want the same thing, you can organize one of those where you work, and fight politically for better labor laws.

Oh, and if someone from a billionaire-funded think tank offers you free advice, simply turn and walk in the opposite direction.