Surrounding this Labor Day, we see ongoing protests throughout the US by fast food workers earning near minimum wage. It is important to remember before McDonald’s introduced their more efficient, assembly-line method of preparing hamburgers and french-fries, cooks could make a decent living, even at small diners. Supply-side economists would point to the financial benefits of dollar menus. Health advocates, on the other hand, would call the cheap, high calorie, barely nutritious products of these fast food restaurants a public health disaster while micro-economists would view the popularity of these businesses as a driver of small business destruction, suppressed wages, and the redistribution of wealth from small communities to large corporations.
Whatever your perspective, it is important to recognize that these and similar low paying jobs represent a significant portion of the available opportunities people have for jobs. For many individuals, these types of jobs may, in fact, be the only options they will have over their lifetime. Certainly, it is nice to be able to buy a hamburger for a buck at the local Wendy’s, McDonald’s, or Burger King, but it is even nicer having an economy that promotes living wages and economic stability. Although fifteen dollars an hour may be out of line in terms of an instantaneous change in the way our fast food culture operates, the economy should be allowed to reach equilibrium, so the employees of these restaurants can see some reward for their dedication to their companies, i.e. be able to live, while offering competitors a marketplace that allows for higher wages for higher quality food and service. The only means of affording these workers to have such an opportunity is to provide them with greater leverage through job security and effective representation in wage negotiations. Consequently, they should be allowed to unionize. In the end, it will be better for the overall food services industry, which is why government should help clear barriers in order to facilitate the process.
On the other hand, big unions like the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here are rallying against provisions of the Affordable Care Act in a very wrong way. Although there are reasons the law needs changed, the complaints and solutions of these unions are hypocritical and self-serving. Their first major complaint targets how the Affordable Care Act defines full-time for the purposes of providing healthcare as 30 hours or more a week. They charge Obamacare is causing layoffs and destroying the 40 hour week. First, businesses are having a temper tantrum at being told what to do without regard to whether or not they can afford healthcare for their employees, thus the union argument is counterproductive to their long-term interests. Second, unions promote overtime pay, because it discourages employers from overworking employees while it encourages them to expand their workforces. Accordingly, defining 30 hours a week as full-time, almost like Europe, for the purposes of healthcare actually encourages employers to hire more workers while union demands of higher wages for their members should compensate for fewer hours of work, if they are necessary. Consequently, the unions are simply using this charge to gain political traction.
As for the issue of taxing excessive benefits and subsidies for union employees, that is exactly the type of request politicians need to respond to with a blunt “no.” Quite frankly, those subsidies were created for people who cannot afford health insurance, not those who already have some of the best plans in the country. If unions want extra subsidies, everyone needs to get extra subsidies and America cannot afford that while doing so would only encourage cost inflation. With only around ten percent of the American work force unionized and many labor union members compensated well above nonunion laborers, what these labor unions are doing is creating an elitist laborer class.
There are many reasons why people cannot belong to unions, but unions are doing their members, the rest of American People, and the American economy a huge disservice by focusing solely on the immediate interests of their members and failing to address the concerns of other workers. When nonunion employees are underpaid and mistreated, union employees and employers cannot compete while the popularity of unions has been on the declined because they have become just as shortsighted and self-serving as the business interests they were created to counterbalance. If major unions wish to survive in the future and enjoy a meaningful degree of credibility, they need to start crafting their political interventions and protests in such a way that they more directly help nonunionized workers as well as their own members.
Consequently, these unions need to stop acting like a special interests group and start fighting for workers. This is not about union busting; this is about fighting for the economic interests off all people. For one, unions need be more aggressive in organizing internationally to more effectively curtail the influence of outsourcing. Meanwhile, they must also start targeting more nonlaborers by helping these “professionals” form different types of unions. They also need to do far more to help the least paid, more vulnerable workers stand up to their employers, especially when they are not part of the big unions. Moreover, instead of pushing Obamacare fixes that put more money into the pockets of their member and justifying their egocentric actions by pointing to minuscule, tertiary benefits nonmembers might get, Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here should be helping Fast Food workers and other struggling workers reach their goals. All well-paid employees stand on the shoulders of lower-paid employees; if unions want good jobs for their members, they need to make sure others can make a manageable wage.
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