Accidental Activist

State of the Unions

I'm glad Toronto is finally getting back to work, but I can't help feeling that the whole exercise has put another nail in the union coffin.

By Ben Bull
Published August 04, 2009

Now that the Toronto municipal workers' strike is over, I am left to reflect on what we've learned from all this, and what to make of the role of unions today.

I should start with a little background. My political enlightenment began during Maggie Thatcher's reign in the UK. The chaos of the late 1970s and early '80s, when everyone from the bread delivery man to the coal miners hit the picket lines, still stands out in my mind.

My parents - die-hard conservatives - would regularly hurl expletives at the TV as pictures of delivery van blockages and stagnant slag heaps hit the nightly news. "Bloody layabouts," they would moan, "get back to work!"

Thatcher's stubborn stance and ultimate 'victory' over the strikers emboldened in me the sense that these Union outfits were out-of-date, archaic - unreasonable. And striking was just so - petty.

When I joined the workforce in my early 20s, I got my first sense of what union life was like. I signed on as a line worker at Rowntree Mackintosh in Castleford, West Yorkshire, stuffing Kit Kats into boxes.

I recall my first day orientation. 20 or so of us newbies were ushered into a second floor conference room where a perky young HR girlie was perched on a desk at the front, waiting to welcome us aboard.

"I hope you'll all be very happy here," she gushed, flashing us an easy smile. "If you have any problems at all, please don't hesitate to-"

"Thanks, Sally," interrupted a large roly-poly lady with a too-tight smock and a face like a sore thumb. "We'll take it from here."

As the HR Manager slunk from the room we watched her retreat in uncomfortable silence. The interrupting Union rep was joined by her equally sour-faced colleague and together they gave the girl the stink eye all the way out the door.

"We don't like to talk while Management's in the room," croaked rep #1 after the door clicked shut. "You never know."

The reps then proceeded to give us the run down on our 'entitlements' - regular breaks, safe working conditions, and so on - something I felt the HR girl could easily have done.

The HR lady was certainly more appealing. Her soft smile and earnest welcome had been replaced by the furtive glances and hoarse whispers of the union reps, one of whom appeared to be permanently gasping for air. "We don't trust management," she gasped, as her colleague picked at something on her chin. "Best stick with us."

I never had anything to complain about during my time at the plant. The work was dull and the days way too long, but the pay was OK - five pounds an hour for straightening Party Size Kits Kats - and the shifts were flexible.

As for the 'untrustworthy' Management, I ended up dating the HR girl for a while and well, she seemed pretty fair to me.

My next Union dues were deposited with CUPE, during my brief tenure as a nurse in Toronto. I recall chatting with the Union rep at St Joe's, about the crappy working conditions, pay, and looming prospect of a strike.

"What do you want me to do?" he snapped as I ended my run of complaints.

Well, you could start by earning your money...

Although my experience is somewhat limited, and my attitudes framed at an early age, I have never had any cause to modify my union disdain. Unions have always been useless to me.

That not true for everyone, of course. I recall chatting with a Union friendly friend of mine some time ago, who was having sick time trouble. His extended absence was clearly genuine - pity his boss didn't see it that way.

"My union sorted them out," my friend explained to me, after the situation was resolved. "They earned their dues".

In my own line of work I've had cause to observe the inner workings of unions. During one of my assignments with a government agency I was informed that the union staff - about 30 percent of the workforce - were not required to fill in timesheets.

"Why not?" I asked, noting that all other staff complied with this seemingly uncontentious practice.

"Because they're union," was the uninformative reply.

Recalling this story to a colleague the other day, I was given a run down of his own experience with a union-infiltrated client. Apparently his company had nearly had to postpone an expensively prepared meeting because the client's conference room dividers weren't properly drawn.

"Don't touch that!" a Union man had barked as his colleague started to slide the doors across. "We need to call facilities". The meeting room then stayed silent until the appropriate individual was brought in to remedy the matter.

My last union anecdote was relayed to me just a few weeks ago. As my friend and I discussed the auto industry bailout I asked him what he knew about his high school buddy's experiences working at the Ford Plant in Oakville.

"He does special model fittings," my friend explained. "A/C - things like that."

According to my friend this guy sat on a curb all day waiting for the next special order to roll down the line. He would read the paper and do the crossword until the van reached his spot, at which point he'd jump up, hook up his wires and return to his puzzle.

"Sometimes he'll walk up the line," my friend explained, "do a few vans in one go and take an hour off."

"How does he get away with it?" I asked.

"He's union."

My pro-union friends tell me that their reps provide useful representation when a worker gets into trouble. "They stand up for you," they'll say.

"Isn't that supposed to be HR's job?" I reply.

"Sure. But they work for management so they're not going to side with you, are they?"

"I suppose..."

Another refrain they offer is, "If it weren't for unions we'd still be working seven days a week."

Fair enough. Nobody can ever accuse union members of working too hard, but how much do union concessions ever trickle through to the rest of us, anyway? And what are unions pushing for today? Their political mouthpiece, the NDP, appears to be all but irrelevant now.

Where's our $10 minimum wage? Andrea? Jack? Our temporary workers' rights? Where are you on EI reform? What has the NDP done for me lately?

Progressive legislation aside, and I'm sure there must have been some, the useful role of unions needs to be balanced with their regressive tendency to divide the workforce - managers versus workers, non-union versus union - and their innate ability to create a sense of one way entitlement that appears to be so pervasive in some of the more unhealthy Union environments I've encountered.

But perhaps this is all just jealousy. I admit I like the idea of independent representation at work. And it would be nice not to have to work overtime. And a job for life would be great!

Then I remember the apathy and slow motion activity of the government departments I've visited. And I think about the Toronto strike, the daycare - canceled for my kid, the Centerville season's passes I can't use, the garbage that's stinking out my basement, the football floodlights the union workers switched off, and refuse to switch back on...and I realize I don't want to work like that.

What appears to me to be lacking today is an honest and up-to-date debate about the usefulness of unions. These days, unions appear to be generally accepted by the majority of the working population as either necessary, harmless, or, 'just the way things are'.

But at the same time their role appears to be diminishing. Just look at what's left of Britain's Union backbone...

I'm glad Toronto is finally getting back to work, but I can't help feeling that the whole exercise has put another nail in the union coffin. For me at least, they were already dead.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2009 at 13:52:04

Funny thing about the 'if it weren't for unions we'd still be working seven days a week' line, as there's a certain locally started grocery store chain that's unionized -- and because of that requires every single employee there to work Sundays, no exceptions. Not even clergy with a part-time job there (I'm not making that up, that situation actually happened).

It seems to me many of the fields where unions would be useful (try getting a fair apprenticeship or safe working conditions in some trades, for one) are the ones its most difficult to organize... in some others, they've far outlived their original purpose.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted August 04, 2009 at 16:38:27

Ben: I think you have opened a can of worms, so to speak. The pros and cons of the labour movement. One would have to go back to the very beginnings to really understand the path of today.

I have to agree with Ryan, as one issue that is very relevant in the workplace is bullying and for those workers who do not have collective bargaining are basically left with no protection period. It is an Occupational Health and Safety issue. It is completely unfair for someone to lose their job due to psycho-manical boss/employer. Employment Standards offers no protection and currently it is taking up to year just to get pay in lieu of notice. It does not matter how you try to work with someone like that, whether you accomodate, collaberate, compete, if they do not like you, you are out period.

While we do have laws, health and safety being being one of the pieces of legislation, it is only effective if it is enforced. So under the act, if a workplace has more then five fulltime employees, there are entitled under the law to a worker rep or if they have more then twenty, then under the law they must have joint health and safety. I wonder if it has been actually documented as to how many employers fail to abide by the law on this issue?

While there are many examples, just recently, two workers died because of failure to health and safety in confined spaces.

For those workers in low income jobs, such as the worker who died in 1999 at a plant in St Catherines, there was no concept of Health and Safety period and in fact, when the explosion happened the volunteer fire dept would not enter because there was no MSDS on file, it was an unknown as to the toxic substances in the workplace. I just studied the coroners inquest on this case, it was an accident waiting to happen and not only did the Min of Lab fail but also the Min of Natural Resources. Low income workers may not know their rights under the act and employers use treats and intimidation to deny workers their rights under the right to refuse unsafe work and no reprisals for reporting unsafe work. In this case somebody died and for what and who was protecting their rights, it seems, no one was, not even the very structure and leglslation that we have in place.

It should be noted that almost 40% of all workers today do not even have access to the basics of employment standards, this largely true in the temp market, that there is still a need for workers to organize. But the organizing should be kept in the hands of the workers themselves, self management, opposed to the business unit way of organizing, maybe this is the reform that is needed. One may have to look at the beginning of the labour movement to understand where and how it is failing today.

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2009 at 19:59:54

Ryan said: "It's a truism that if you treat someone like a child for long enough, they're eventually going to start acting like a child."

It's also a truism that if you act like a child for long enough, eventually you get treated like one.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2009 at 22:43:48

With regards to the aforementioned truism and child's play, perhaps that's why grassroots said, "...employers use treats and intimidation..."

I completely agree. I got a turkey once as a Christmas bonus and if there were rush orders, I was often threatened with overtime.

It is one thing when a set of workers get organized and stand up for their rights, but it is another thing entirely when all taxpayers call a wildcat strike. That would make for a much bigger stink than in Cabbage Town or Choo Choo Charlie's all engines down.

Unions used to be good and plenty

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By BB (anonymous) | Posted August 05, 2009 at 00:11:47

Couldn't we send all those union types to countries where small children still work the machines? They could really use some help and maybe the stewards would finally earn their keep.

They have done some good but my Grandmother always told me "idle hands do the devils work" and it seems the unions are now looking to make work for themselves. They've become the new boss, and they're just as bad as the old boss.

There are growing groups of employees and citizens forming, trying to organize and protect themselves from the threats and bullying of the unions - and we will have our day. Shame. That tells me "the union" has become part of the system that we need protection from.

In a few hundred years, we'll probably need protection from this new group, etc, etc, until the end of time.

Any predator left unchecked will grow until all resources are consumed and all life in annihilated.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 05, 2009 at 16:10:45

Unions have become their own worst enemy.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted August 06, 2009 at 00:05:17

"Funny thing about the 'if it weren't for unions we'd still be working seven days a week' line, as there's a certain locally started grocery store chain that's unionized -- and because of that requires every single employee there to work Sundays, no exceptions. Not even clergy with a part-time job there (I'm not making that up, that situation actually happened)."

Pssttt...I work there. And I don't work 7 days a fact, no one there works 7 days a week. We get days off, and they may not be the weekend, but we get at least 2 days off a week. Just to clarify.

And also, I love my union :)

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted August 06, 2009 at 01:14:02

That may be your experience, and that's fair.

Do understand, though, that I also used to work there when I was first in Hamilton and starting my master's.

I'm not willing to delve very far into that particular experience on a public forum, but I found the union more harmful than helpful for myself and some others.

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By granny (registered) | Posted August 07, 2009 at 15:19:24

It's easy to criticize unions if you've always benefited from their efforts. Grow up.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2009 at 16:46:38

Yeah I sure benefitted from their efforts these past few weeks. My garbage is still stinking up the sidewalk. If there is anyone being 'childish' in all this surely it's the unions themselves. Striking over your already bloated benefits package does not seem like a particularly mature thing to do to me.

Strike for fair wages - sure. Strike for safe working conditions. Strike for equal opportunities for all. But sick pay? Come on.

I fear the unions haven't won many friends in all of this.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2009 at 20:38:43

Articles like this and their responses confirm for me that most new urbanists are clueless when it comes to class issues. Yeah, the "role" of unions "appears to be diminishing"... and real wages are going down and the workweek is getting longer - except in Western Europe where the labour movement is still strong. Guess what? That's also where cities have maintained their form. It all boils down to people not allowing capital to dictate their lives.

Ben: you talk about the union resisting management control and workers wanting to work less as if they were bad things. Am I missing something here? Labour-saving technology has advanced in leaps and bounds over the last fifty years and you want the duration and intensity of work to increase or at least stay constant? This is work ethic in the worst sense. Totally irrational.

Yes, unions need to change and adapt as capitalism has adapted to undercut previous working class gains. Unions need to globalize just as capital has. They need to become more grassroots and directly democratic. They need to respond to the precarious work and "immaterial" labour that is so prevalent today. They need to get into white collar and service sectors. Which is to say that white collar and service workers need to organize. Don't hate the union: organize yourself.

Sometimes public workers need to strike, otherwise their real wages will continue to decline. We need working class solidarity, not butt kissing of the bosses. That will bring us all down.

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By stillworking (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2009 at 00:35:06

Ben is still worshiping at the high alter of Thatcherism and applauding labour practices a la WAL-MART.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2009 at 01:08:54

LL >> Sometimes public workers need to strike, otherwise their real wages will continue to decline.

Public workers in Hamilton make more money than the people who pay their bills. I suppose you don't have a problem with this?

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted August 09, 2009 at 15:59:52

All workers must get behind this campaign, Walmart is infringing on free speech, trying to claim ownership to the "circle"

So much for our city council that has ok'd another Walmart. Gee, maybe this should be sent to our city councillors.

I wish one councillor would, actually address this, it is despicable, shame on you all, denying rights their rights to organize and to have free speech.

Corporatism at its best!

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted August 09, 2009 at 16:01:01

denying workers their rights, sorry

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted August 10, 2009 at 12:47:21

Why are unions seen as the only viable solution for abused workers? Shouldn't our government be held accountable for upholding workers rights? I'm assuming the lack of any noticable outrage expressed against the government is due to the old adage, 'poor people don't matter'. Poor people don't vote therefore their issues are not addressed.

A union would certainly help Walmart workers gain better conditions but when you see how many unions abuse their powers today you can see why any organization would be relectant to let this get established.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted August 10, 2009 at 14:46:00

Ben writes: Why are unions seen as the only viable solution for abused workers? Shouldn't our government be held accountable for upholding workers rights?

So if Walmart as an multi-national organization has the ability to influence policy that may not be in the best interests of the people/workers, what is the answer?

Since you openly admit to your political leanings, I ask you the question, was it in the peoples/workers best interests when the provincial government's(Harris) intent was to let employers and employees sort out issues pertaining to health and safety?

Under section 43 (3) (a) (b) (c) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act define the rules for work refusal for those workers that are not defined under section 43 (2)(a) (b) (c) (d)

Under section 50 (1) (a) (b) (c) (d), reprisals by employer prohibited

So for those workers that not covered under collective bargaining, can and are intimidated to believe that they will lose their employment if they file a complaint under the act. And even if a worker files a complaint under both sections 43 and 50 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, there is nothing under Employment Standards to protect the worker from being dismissed at a later date, as the company would deem them to be a instigator, troublemaker.

I draw your attention to an article in The Hamilton Spectator, October 24, 2001, "Workers scared of losing jobs didn't report safety fears" and to the article posted in the St Catherines Tribune, October 30 2001, entitled "Missed Chance", as in the second article one can see the words from the Inspections Director of the Ministry of Labour, this was the stance of the government and to be honest not much has changed, considering the explosion that happened last summer at the Sunshine Propane location in which a worker died.

The more things change, the more they remain the same!

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:37:28

Grassroots asks, "was it in the peoples/workers best interests when the provincial government's(Harris) intent was to let employers and employees sort out issues pertaining to health and safety?"

Like I said, the government should regulate fair working conditions. That is their role, to regulate. When you put this too far in the hands of the employer the temptation is obviously to abuse the workers. When you create these quasi-regulatory intermediaries (aka unions) you get the disfunctional organizations we have today.

"So for those workers that not covered under collective bargaining, can and are intimidated to believe that they will lose their employment if they file a complaint under the act. And even if a worker files a complaint under both sections 43 and 50 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, there is nothing under Employment Standards to protect the worker from being dismissed at a later date, as the company would deem them to be a instigator, troublemaker."

Clearly the law doesn't work today. So we need to fix it. Why then, are the union bodies and their political 'wing' not fighting for these important changes? Why do we have strikes about sick time and ½ % pay increases? I'm all for an effective workers movement but today, unions aren't it. Instead of helping to level the playing field for everyone they encourage further disparity between union and non-union staff benefits and create a sense of entitlement among their members which leads to petty incidents and work stoppages.

I've chatted with a few more folks since I wrote this piece. Some things I've learned:

  • Many strikers in TO did not appear to be that 'into' the strike. As the stoppage dragged on stories of strikers getting impatient and talking of going back to work became more common place. It was as if this was a battle their union encouraged them to take on rather than one driven by them. It seems that union workers fear any concession that is asked of them, no matter how reasonable, no matter how small. This climate of entitlement and fear is perpetuated by their union reps.
  • My neighbour made the point to me that if there were no unions in the city depts all the workers would be p/t and temp with no benefits. She makes a good point. What this doesn't explain however is why the unions have to go to bat over stupid little things like sick banks.
  • A friend of mine suggested that 'employers get the unions they deserve'. His point being that unreasonable employers will get fiesty unions, fair employers will get fair unions. I don't know if this is true but from own experience I think it is a bit of a generalization. My sister-in-law works for a ½ and ½ gov agency (she is non-union) and she feels fairly treated. What isn't fair for her is how her union colleagues get preferential treatment.

Although I am open minded (as much as I can be given my deeply ingrained Thatcherite upbringing… :) ) I still feel that unions are not effectively carrying out their role today. I agree there needs to be better legistlation, and representation, of workers rights, but unions are not doing a good job in facilitating this.

Thanks for the comments


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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:44:31

As a union member and local delegate, as well as someone who'd describe themselve as a labour supporter, I'm ashamed by the most recent CUPE strike in Toronto. Though not a Miller fan by any stretch, I was sincerely hoping he would crush both the inside and and outside workers in their patently ridiculous fight to maintain benefits enjoyed by a very select few Canadian workers, and which are an unjustifiable use of taxpayer money.

I'm more of a forest in lieu of trees type of guy, and I believe the strike made all union members and supporters look bad, because it lent further creedence to the idea that there are a set of working conditions in Canada that are only enjoyed by (public) union members, and that these benefits are guarded jealously. To me, the role of unionism in Canada should not, primarily, be to locally bargain for wages and benefits that cannot be justified to other labourers (unionized or not). Many of these workers are still fighting for more basic considerations, like overtime pay, fair parental leave practices, and/or freedom from harassment in the workplace--protecting something like a sick bank sounds more like a sick joke.

Instead of fighting for the benefits associated with NOT using sick days, Toronto's CUPE workers should have taken two seconds to step back and look at how they were percieved by the public at large. They could have negotiated a deal that would have seen the end to sick day banking in lieu of some other program long-term disability program that would have served a similar end. It would have made them more relateable during a strike that severely inconvenienced a large cross-section of the public.

More importantly, CUPE HQ should be more concerned with the expansion of union membership in this country than continuing to support a two-tier labour structure. I worry that the real fallout of the strike will be a continued increase in antipathy towards big (& public) unions, and a resultant decline in the interest of labourers (especially new Canadians) in unionizing, for fear of being lumped in with a group of entitled whiners.

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By Self Employed (anonymous) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:59:07

Unions are institutions and as such subject to the same corruptions and abuses as any organization. As institutions they provide a way for employees to press their own interests in the workplace, rightly or wrongly. Management makes no claim about representing workers' interests. If pressed they will claim to represent shareholders and indeed, shareholders elect board members who are to direct management. That's not always effective either. It is up to union members and shareholders to see that their representatives are responsible and effective.

That's often a difficult task and many fail at the attempt, but those who suggest that such institutions have outlived their usefulness offer no alternative except to depend on the kindness of strangers, which I'd like to suggest is even less reliable. Governments are representative institutions too, and workers have generally found it more effective to lobby elected officials through their labour organizations, just as industry organizations do, than to independently correspond with their MPs or MPPs.

None of this works perfectly, often doesn't work at all, but that is the nature of human enterprise. Still, I have to ask Ben, at the Kit Kat plant, how fair were the managers he wasn't dating, and how fair was the HR "girlie" to those she didn't screw?

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By city guy (anonymous) | Posted August 19, 2009 at 19:10:41

Wow, hard to comment on all the specific arguments posted so far but, here goes nothing. Lets first remember what the Stelco strike did to that company in 1990, cut the workforce in half. Bad.
Look what the Dofasco workers got all those years the Stelco union progressed. Good.
I am a taxpayer AND work for the city. I'm in a union and have a job where the health and safety act doesn't apply to all my working situations (fire) my fellow emergency workers, police and paramedics, also face conditions that are both dangerous and emotionally draining. We all earn approx. the same rate (average for a city worker) and each has it's specific union working for it's members towards it's specific needs. The city tends not to negotiate but rather take things to arbitration almost every time, so our unions have to be on the ball at all times. Taxpayers should be happy about that because it costs a bundle in legal fees for the city (we pay our own through our dues). None of us can strike but even if we could we wouldn't! Did I mention we have gone 3 3/4 years without a contract and are not expecting it this year either? Do you think the autoworkers would wait that long? I have friends who work for automakers, both different companies, both earn significantly more than me and both are on a line. One puts the same sticker on a door over and over, takes him a couple of seconds then waits a couple of minutes for the next car, he has full benefits (more than me) More holidays and sick time. The other does even less. I don't begrudge them, it's what they signed up for, but is it right?? Cars cost an awful lot don't they, wonder why??

So I agree with many of the posts, some unions have outlived their true use and others seem to keep a fine balance and are necessary. Too bad we can't sort the good ones out from the bad. Sorry not the greatest comment.


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By woody10 (registered) | Posted August 19, 2009 at 22:40:58

the good old union debate,

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By kat (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2009 at 17:00:31

In many sectors of the labour market, unionization is still necessary. Unfortunately, unions themselves can often become as corrupt as the companies they supposedly fight against. Too much unchecked power for ANYONE is dangerous, and many people fear questioning the almighty union. I have had good and bad experiences with unions. Being relatively young, they have not been personal experiences, but rather things I have witnessed. In my experience, unions can fight for their workers, especially workers who are in hazardous jobs. However, one problem with unions is that in many cases, you do not have a choice whether you want to belong to a union, and you find yourself paying for something that you did not want and do not use. Unions can also become dangerous havens for workers unskilled and uncaring in the jobs, which is a problem, especially when your job is not some individual, like putting a part on a car in an assembly line, but involved people, and involves people depending on you. If you are unskilled in that job, you should not be doing it. However, unions can make it possible for you to stay in that job, despite the fact you should not be there. This is not the case for every union and every job, obviously. What needs to be done is for people to not advocate for the removal of unions, but merely that people be willing to question, and not immediately accept that unions are there for "our own good". That encourages complacency, and when people are complacent, then it is easier to take advantage.

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