The dynamics between capitalists and the working class is born from conflict theory and stoked by economic inequities. In his Nov. 14 commentary, Liam Brennan makes a compelling argument in favor of unions. He supports this using data and historical precedence showing increased favor among workers in a post-COVID world.
The debate over unions is of particular interest to me for several reasons. It hits close to home having been part of an organization that was not unionized. This is contrasted against family members who are members of teachers unions and support it. There is also the extreme interest I’ve developed from studying the sociological concept of conflict theory proposed by Karl Marx. Lastly, power redistribution is only possible with group solidarity and a strong central leader.
My mother began working in the Wilton school system as a paraprofessional in 2001 shortly after we moved there. Pay was excellent and the relationship between the Wilton school system and teachers union was amicable. Her benefits included paid time off, sick leave, excellent health care coverage and decent wages. Contract negotiations occurred on an annual basis.
I had believed that my mom was in favor of her union. Even though she is a proponent of unions, she also has several criticisms of it. After a hard day’s work with autistic children, she returned home distraught over an incident at school. A senior paraprofessional had routinely pawned work off on others. Coworkers noticed the lack of motivation and pure laziness of this employee. The paraprofessionals at Wilton gossiped to each other about the situation but were powerless to do anything. Unions protected her from termination. She was allowed to float to retirement with no repercussions.
Unions serve two primary purposes; collective bargaining rights and to protect members from employer abuse. My experience in a nonunionized organization was unfavorable. Employment there was mired with problems. Before and during COVID, EMTs and paramedics routinely were being held at operations well past our ‘out time.’ This easily turned 40-hour work weeks into 60 hours. There was virtually nothing that could be done. We had no voice or real power to change this.
Our New Haven division was unionized through the fire department and enjoyed that benefit of getting out on time. This came at the cost of a few dollars less on their weekly paycheck. On multiple occasions, colleagues and I would banter in break rooms about unionizing. Lack of support or motivation prevented us from mustering any real action. Firefighters working at American Medical Response Bridgeport espoused how their lives were considerably better with representation from the fire union. While reading Brennan’s article I was reminded of the work done by economic powerhouses Karl Marx and Engels.
Conflict Theory is an extension of Hegel’s theory of dialectics. A tenet of conflict theory is that inequities in a system result in revolt and redistribution of power. A thesis is met by an antithesis. The birth of a new revolutionary idea is formed and implemented.
Marx examined the relationship between industrialists in France and workers in factories. The power was held by the factory owners who exploited workers with low wages, frequent position termination and dangerous working conditions. An injury in the workplace was a death sentence of a worker’s employment. Another able-bodied person was always standing by able to work. Marx predicted that the power inequities would result in revolt of workers.
In his view, the natural progression of economic systems would transition from capitalism to a form of socialism. Unions could be said to be a result of the inevitable clash of workers against their employers. With power concentrated at the top of a capitalist system, unions could serve as an equalizer. The blueprint of the French industrial revolution carried into the Americas as industrialization evolved in the United States. Capitalists saw the same opportunity to exploit workers through slave labor and low wages. Union organizers saw an opportunity to protect workers and profit off the employees they served.
Brennan points out that during the 70s and 80s support for unions was at its peak. Happiness in the middle class was also universal. The correlation between the existence of a middle class and unions was particularly fascinating. However, with the erosion of unions simultaneously came the erosion of the middle class. The article reinforced the fact that wealth and power in America is held by a very small percentage of people.
This fact inspires obvious discomfort coupled with despair. The despair is a consequence of the overwhelming sense of helplessness. An effective power grab from the power elite is only possible through cooperation among the very people who have been subject to labor exploitation.
I was profoundly influenced by a comment I read in a sociology book. The comment highlighted how movements require a central figure. Without a strong figure-head, revolutions have no real chance at survival. I was reminded that without figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or Marcus Garvey, civil rights in America may never have progressed as aggressively and effectively as they have. This principle extends to unions perfectly.
I contemplated that union organizations act in the same manner as singular leaders do. A secondary component of power acquisition is solidarity in the workers. In a Netflix documentary about a glass company in Detroit, workers at the company were crushed by paid anti-union lobby companies. These outside firms were hired to disorient workers at the glass factory by covert threats of the company closing down if unionization occurred. After weeks of campaigns by these firms, the workers’ resolve had fractured. A vote resulted in a sweeping anti-union attitude and the prospect of a union was dissolved. The solidarity of the workers was shattered. I believe if they had remained focused and stoic in the face of these companies tactics, the union would have prevailed and workers would have benefitted.
The imperfections that exist in workers being represented by a union do not outweigh their benefits. Workers can enjoy freedom from concern of arbitrary termination, access to decent healthcare and decent wages. Rebuilding the middle class and backbone of the country is paramount to morale in the majority population.
As of now, people are working longer hours for less pay and they are straddled with rising cost of living. In the upper echelons of society, the problems associated with inflation are absent. Pooling of wealth and resources defy the lie of trickle down economics. The power of the collective is a playing field leveler.
Using our imagination, we can envision stripping power and wealth away from capitalist abuses. Unionizing is one measure to accomplish this. From this vantage point, I agree with the tone established by Brennan in his article. Unions are needed now more than ever. Having had direct experience with unions in my family, I am adamantly in favor of unions and what they can do. I learned that unions are once again rising in America. They are reemerging out of necessity from decades of wealth hoarding from the elite class.
Once we realize how we arrived at a period of immense inequality, we can begin the uphill battle of accumulating solidarity among employees. Unions function as an anchoring point for that revolution.
Carter De Marco lives in Wilton.