By: Gina Gemmel
This is part four of a series explaining what a union is. For the first post,click here. For the second post, click here. For the third post, click here.
Lately, it seems that people are talking about “choice” a lot. Choice, some claim, is the basis of capitalism, and it’s what protects people in a capitalist system. Consumers can choose to buy a different product if they feel the one they’re currently buying it overpriced or lacks quality. Consumers can choose another service provider if they feel they are not receiving the best customer service. And employees can choose another job if they think their employer is not treating them fairly or paying them fairly. Choice is definitely a good thing, but the idea that people can simply choose another product, service provider, or job fails to recognize that it’s simply not that easy in most cases. What do we do when none of our options are good?
When it comes to employment, a lack of good options is a reality for many, many workers. Sometimes industries contract, leaving a group of workers with an unmarketable set of skills. Sometimes people are stuck in an area where there aren’t a lot of jobs, and they don’t have the money or resources to pick up and move to a new area. Sometimes the unemployment rate is high, making it difficult to find jobs in general. In these situations, workers who are able to find jobs often find themselves being exploited because they are in high supply, but there is little demand for workers. Employers may feel free to offer low wages and poor working conditions because they know that workers will accept them out of necessity, having nowhere else to go for a better working situation.
So how do workers protect themselves from such situations? You guessed it: unions. Unions are the only way that employees have to directly influence their employers in order to ensure their fair pay and fair treatment. Unions can achieve this direct influence because they sit down at the bargaining table with the employer and set the terms of employment in the form of a contract. That contract is legally binding, so employers have to follow it. Unions are effective because they present workers with a way to collectively demand better treatment from employers. The options for securing a better workplace are these: Either trust in your employer to provide a good workplace out of the kindness of his or her heart, or guarantee that your employer will provide good working conditions because they know that all of their employees will take action to demand them if they don’t.
Next week, look for my post on why these issues are particularly relevant for graduate employees.