The wave of strikes and demonstrations by fast-food workers across 100 U.S. cities, as much as similar efforts by Walmart employees earlier, are only the most recent volley in the continuing struggle between proponents and opponents of labor unions. These strikes, focusing as they did on the right to organize, reflect a perennial debate in America's politics: Are unions good or bad for society?
Here’s the big surprise: This century long argument over unions actually has a simple, objective answer.
Let’s review the debate before coming to the answer. Critics of unions point to their alleged corruption, their extortion of union dues from workers who disagree with the political purposes to which such monies are put, and above all, their apparent ability to obtain better deals than nonunionized workers at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. The collective bargaining of workers, conservative economists argue, “distorts” the labor market, with deleterious consequences for the general economy.
Defenders of unions stress that organization not only leads to higher wages, better benefits and more job security, but also helps protect workers against the arbitrary power of employers by giving workers a voice in how work is organized and managed. Labor economists argue that the better conditions that are obtained in union shops then help raise the “floor” on earnings (and the quality of the workplace) for all workers. Students of public policy remind us of the enormous contribution organized labor has made to sustaining the middle class, through labor’s championing of the institutions that underpin the middle class, such as unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
How to adjudicate between these complicated arguments? Perhaps unions do introduce some economic “inefficiency,” but at the same time contribute to better lives other ways? What is the final tally, considering the total effect of unions? The obvious solution is to turn attention to what is, after all, the real question: Do unions make a net positive contribution to the quality of people’s lives, including those who do not belong to unions? Do labor unions empower or encumber people in their “pursuit of happiness”?
Scholars have come to know a great deal about what conditions that tend to foster “life satisfaction,” meaning the degree to which one actually enjoys or finds value in his or her life. Surely this is the standard by which to judge any public issue: Does it tend to make day-to-day life better or worse for people?
Serious peer reviewed academic research—not the work of think tanks, interest groups or bloggers—provide a clear picture of how unions affect overall satisfaction with life. Across the industrial democracies, including the United States, members of unions are happier than others, controlling for income, education, age, gender and a host of other factors. The same person, with the same income and education, is happier if they or their spouse belong to a labor union. Rich or poor, old or young, male or female, union members lead more satisfying lives.
What about the effect of the overall strength of the labor movement? When considering the consequences for life satisfaction of the share of the labor force represented by unions, it is equally evident that satisfaction increases as union membership rates rise. Critically, this relationship holds for both union members and non-members: as the percentage of workers who belong to unions increase, everyone becomes better-off, whether they belong to a union or not.
It is that simple. A stronger labor movement increases quality of life for everyone, members and non-members, the affluent as well as the poor.
The jury is thus in on the consequences of unionization for ordinary people in their day-to-day lives. At the individual-level, unions make life better for workers (and, by extension, their families) by making work more financially and psychologically rewarding. Collectively, unions help foster a political program that supports the creation of a broad and prosperous middle class, which is surely in the interest of everyone.
It is thus little exaggeration to say that what the fast-food workers are protesting for is a better life, not just for themselves, ultimately, but for everyone in our country.
I call them patriots.