Unions have always been a complicated issue for me to pin an opinion on; I've never actually been involved with one, so all my experience is second-hand or filtered, and the only times that unions have ever directly affected me was during the high school teachers' strike back in 1998 or the TTC strike of 2008. Their indirect influence, however, goes far deeper. The actions of labor unions in the twentieth century led to me being able to take lunch breaks and paid breaks during my eight-hour working day, five days a week.
I can remember having unsophisticated views about unions, relatively recently, but also relatively unquestioned and based on a slim foundation. I can recall believing that unions weren't as necessary now as they were in the past - that they had their place in potentially dangerous jobs, like the factories or the coal mines or what have you, but not in more white-collar occupations. I can't remember why, exactly, anymore.
My primary problem in this viewpoint was, of course, projection. In my mind, if I was in charge I wouldn't abuse employees without unions, so wouldn't it be logical that the people actually in charge wouldn't either? In my defense, I never actually thought it out in those words; had I done so, the ridiculousness of it would probably have been made plain far earlier.
Over the last few days, the ongoing demonstrations against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's effort to use the state budget crisis as an opportunity to kneecap the public sector unions' collective bargaining rights, I've had motive and opportunity to examine and re-evaluate my previous beliefs.
In the twenty-first century, unions are still important, but in a different way than they were a hundred years ago. Back then, they were pushing workers' rights up a steep, steep incline: today they've got higher footholds, sure, but now they're keeping those rights from rolling back down to the bottom. I'm of the opinion that in a world where, for whatever reason, unions disappeared, workers' rights would not immediately but would inevitably decline. After all, if these rights were widely perceived as natural, there would have been no need to fight for them the first time.
I feel that unions should be defended and maintained for one simple reason: mutually assured destruction. No, really. Hear me out on this.
It's been nearly seventy years since the Second World War ended. In those seventy years, there has never been a war on the vast scale of those fought around the world, with all segments of society working toward victory - and the biggest reason is the existence of nuclear weapons. Deterrence theory. Knowing what I know about the Soviet Union's postwar actions and inclinations, in a hypothetical world without nuclear weapons, I cannot see a reason why Stalin would not have sent the Red Army marching toward the English Channel by 1953. After all, so much of Russia's grand strategy has been predicated on maintaining a buffer between itself and its enemies - and what better buffer is there than an ocean? With nuclear weapons, however, the risk of any attempted European conquest was far too great.
But back to the point about unions. Just by their existence, they influence employers. Employees could always theoretically form a union, or join one - and even if you're running a non-union operation, that in itself gives employers a motive to provide decent pay and benefits in order to head off labor grumblings. In a world without unions, that motive collapses... not all at once, since there is inertia. Laws by themselves are no defense against this: many employers have deep pockets, and slowly and surely those laws dedicated toward workers' protections would be chipped away and broken down.
The presence of unions indirectly influences people in a manner far more deeply than many may realize. If we allow them to be weakened unduly, we'll only be weakening ourselves a short way down the line.