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15.4 Unions

Learning Objectives

  1. Define a labor union.
  2. Discuss the ethics of union membership.

Hollywood Writers

Movie theater lobbies are inevitably lined with advertising posters for upcoming attractions. A standard poster carries a recognizable celebrity face (or, if you don’t recognize it, the expression is so beaming and confident that you immediately assume you missed the news of a huge new star’s arrival). The movie’s title is there, and the lead actors’ names too. Sometimes the director gets big billing. The producer, the studio, they’re easy to locate. You need to go a long way down the poster, though, and into the fine print, to find the writer’s name.

Inside the industry’s day-to-day working life, writers don’t get much respect. Longtime agent Nancy Nigrosh writes that frequently they’re not invited to the screening or any other film-opening festivity. She paints the situation bleakly: “Unless you hire your own hardworking publicist you’ll be sitting at the kiddy table and arguing politely with security at the star’s tent at the premier because here’s the other thing: nobody cares.”Anne Thompson, “Screenwriting in Hollywood: A Modest Proposal,” Variety, October 2, 2008, accessed June 9, 2011,

The heart of the reason no one cares is the way films are composed. It’s not like a novel or a poem or even journalism where one person more or less shepherds a work from beginning to end. Instead, scripts are written and then rewritten by someone else. Then another author is called in for some further adjustments and it’s all reworked while the filming actually happens, and by the time the movie’s done, it’s almost impossible to figure out who deserves credit for which words. In that kind of situation, writers find themselves in a bad spot when it comes to bargaining for money. It’s true that the studios need writers, and that provides some leverage, but they don’t usually need any particular writer. There are exceptions, but since movie scripting is usually an assembly-line process, substituting one with another probably won’t affect the final product too much in most cases.

One response to this reality is that workers organize and sell their labor collectively. Conceptually, the idea is simple. When employers threaten to replace individual workers with others who’ll perform the same services for even less credit and at a lower price, the other employees—seeing that they could be next in line to face replacement—stand together in support of their colleague.

Whether the workers are Hollywood writers, Detroit autoworkers assembling cars, or hotel maids cleaning the rooms and making up the beds, the strategy of forming an alliance to defend common interests can work by reversing the star system. The star system promotes the general welfare by freeing individuals to pursue their own interests. In labor unions, individuals promote their own interests by defending the general welfare or, at least, the collective welfare of their fellow laborers.

Unions: Definition and Quick History

A labor unionAn organization of employees formed to promote their job-related interests, especially with respect to wages and working conditions. is an organization of wage earners formed to promote job-related interests, especially with respect to wages and working conditions. A union can be as informal as a band of salespeople telling the boss they’re not going to come in the next morning unless the coffeemaker is fixed. Most discussion, however, surrounds larger and more formalized unions: members pay dues, hold elections to choose leaders, and in the largest instances, hire a professional management team to advocate for the laborers’ common interests.

Two inflection points mark the history of labor unions in the United States. The Wagner Act (more formally, the National Labor Relations Act) was approved in Washington, DC, in 1935. It blocked employers from mistreating or firing workers attempting unionize a shop’s workforce. The act also prohibited the summary firing of workers who’ve gone out on strike. The freedom to organize, along with the power to strike effectively, quickly translated into more unions, more walkouts, and two large organizations guiding the efforts of many smaller trade unions: the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). While it’s true that in the years after World War II business-damaging strikes grew more frequent, wages also rose and nourished a broad American middle class. Organized labor came to play a central role in business life.

The maturation of organized labor in the United States harmonized with world events. Political parties dedicated to workers—especially the hard labor sectors—swept the globe, frequently leading to socialist and communist societies. Those movements eventually reached US shores. In 1947, communists eager to maximize their influence took control of sectors of the United Auto Workers Union, the Detroit collective making nearly all the cars Americans drove. Pictures from the time—auto workers waving signs announcing they’re for “Tommie the Commie” seem far out of sync with today’s reality but serve to remind how quickly the world’s orienting values and ideologies can change.June 9, 2011, Life Magazine 22, no. 12 (March 24, 1947), 31, accessed June 9, 2011, uaw+membership+local+600+ford&hl=en&ei=5KbBTKbcNML98Ab01LGdBg&sa= X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEoQ6AEwBQ#v= onepage&q=uaw%20membership%20local%20600%20ford&f=false.

In that same heated year, 1947, congress responded to sweeping unionization and complaints that the workers’ organizations had become too powerful with the Taft-Hartley Act. It prohibited the so-called closed shop, which is a workplace where being hired carries with it the requirement to already be a union member. It allowed, however, a union shopA workplace where all employees are required to join the local union, or at least pay the dues associated with joining., a workplace where all employees are required to join or at least pay the dues associated with joining. Later, the US Supreme Court ruled that even though striking workers couldn’t be fired for walking off (in accordance with the Wagner Act), they could be permanently replaced. Over time, this significantly diminished union strength since those going on strike were now risking their jobs.

As decades rolled forward, the counterunion tide on the legal front eventually replicated as important changes in American industry. Many of the skilled and heavy laboring jobs involving cars, steel, and similar industries that had responded well to organizational efforts began drying up for at least two reasons. Increased international trade allowed companies to shift many labor-intensive tasks to other countries with lower wages. Also, jobs that remained Stateside faced the threat of machines taking over many functions. Detroit assembly lines formerly composed of blue-collar workers are now dominated by sophisticated robots. Politically, organized labor also dimmed over the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, the nation’s air traffic controllers went on strike. President Reagan fired them all and hired new ones. Reagan also challenged the world’s communist nations; the collapse of countries explicitly guided by the collective welfare of laborers was rapid and nearly complete.

Today, organized labor unions play roles in most sectors of American economic life, but their influence is limited, except in a few areas. Government workers continue to be very highly unionized: more than half of all union laborers in the United States today have government jobs. Unions also remain in small fields that resist marketplace forces. The National Football League players, for example, are unionized: you can’t just send their jobs overseas. Also, workers in the health-care field have a fairly high unionization rate: you can’t replace a nurse with a machine (at least, not yet). In political terms, and though diminished, unions continue to be a notable force. The single largest outside spender in the 2010 election campaign was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME spent a whopping $90 million (much coming from workers’ dues) to support candidates around the country. Still, with only 1.6 million members, the group is no larger than the United Auto Workers union back in 1970 when US population was only two-thirds of today’s number. Currently, the UAW has about 400,000 active members.

Three questions asked about unions in the field of business ethics are:

  1. Who should be a union member?
  2. What kinds of demands should unions make?
  3. What kinds of actions can unions justifiably undertake?


In principle, a unionized workplace incorporates all employees: the idea of a union is a united workers front presented to management when wages and conditions are discussed. In practice, however, the ideal often falls short. For example, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) represents Hollywood’s writers: they’re the people penning scripts for everything from TV sitcoms to big-budget movies to the annual Oscar Awards. With around twelve thousand members, the union members produce around one hundred scripts and rewrites a week through the major studios. Without their work, quite a bit of the showtime industry halts. It doesn’t all halt, though. According to the New York Times, in the 1980s, nearly all Hollywood’s writing came from Guild members, but the percentage has now dropped to about half. Union writers are being displaced by freelancers.Michael Cieply and Brookes Barnes, “Writers Say Strike to Start Monday,” New York Times, November 2, 2007, accessed June 9, 2011,

While the scriptwriting evolution from the 1980s to today is essentially the move away from—though not a complete departure from—unionization in Hollywood, there are three strong arguments in favor of reversing the trend and refortifying the writers’ collective. They’re based on

  • fairness,
  • solidarity,
  • respect.

On the other side, there’s one main argument frequently set up against the proposal that the model workplace become something close to a union shop:

  • the right to free agency, along with a derived duty to individuality

The first argument supporting broad union membership rests on fairness. Gains in wages and improvements in working conditions don’t come for free. Take, for example, the WGA demand that residuals go to writers. The union is saying that those receiving credit for the program script should receive money not only at filming but also later on if the show is a hit and ends up getting repeatedly shown into the indefinite future. On almost any night somewhere in the United States, one of the Die Hard movies is broadcast, and licensing rights are subsequently divvied up among those who made the film. The actors, the directors, the producers, everyone wants as much as they can get, and for writers to take a share, they need professional negotiators who can bargain hard, as well as lawyers and other experts who understand the complicated laws and dynamics of residual payments. The money to pay for these services comes from union dues, and if writers who aren’t in the union nonetheless receive these hard-bargained benefits, they’re free riders. They get the advantages of unionization without paying the cost. If, the argument concludes, freelance writers want to receive long-term benefits, then they should pay their fair share to the operation making them possible.

The second argument in favor of drawing workers into unions rests on a notion of solidarity. SolidarityThe moral obligation to share in the struggles of others facing challenges similar to those we face., in this sense, is the moral obligation to share in the struggles of others facing challenges similar to those we face. For example, when William Russell Grace immigrated to New York in 1865 and set up a successful business (now called simply Grace Incorporated), one of the steps he took as an expression of solidarity with immigrants coming after him was to set up a free school where new arrivals could learn basic skills helping them find employment in their new country. Called the Grace Institute, there’s an ethical solidarity incarnated in the school, one uniting immigrants around their shared experiences and common hardships. Broad social movements also provide abundant examples of the ethics of solidarity. A case could be made, for instance, that women and African Americans have a special obligation to unite with homosexuals seeking workplace equality because women and African Americans too know, and have shared the suffering of discrimination.

It’s true that the case of Hollywood film writers isn’t so dramatic as immigration or broad job discrimination, but the ethics are the same. Because all scriptwriters share a common vocation, similar challenges, and common hardships, they have a duty to stand together. Unionization is an expression of that solidarity. People don’t sense the obligation to join up as a way of getting higher wages; instead, the union becomes a site of empathy, of mutual experience and support.

The third argument in favor of obligating new workers to join the union is based on a duty of respect. When a group of individuals have labored to form a cooperative in the name of their mutual benefit, those joining the occupation have a duty to honor those efforts by not undercutting them. The crucial point here is that, in many cases, there’s no middle ground. It’d be one situation if Hollywood writers could work on their own without affecting the efforts of unionized script producers, but that’s not usually the case. Workers who refuse to join and participate in the WGA and who forge their own contracts and reimbursements are also undermining union efforts because, presumably, the reason producers go outside the union to hire is that freelancers are cheaper. If that’s right, and if new writers coming to town don’t respect the existing union structure, then market forces are eventually going to put the union out of business: instigated by the need to maximize profits, owners and managers will hire nonunion workers to replace the more expensive, organized ones as fast as possible.

This is, in essence, what has started happening in Hollywood. To the extent the studios are funding independent projects pitched by freelancers, they’re replacing higher-cost union talent with writers who are willing to work for very little in exchange for the chance to get a break, be famous, and be a star (in the relatively dim world of script writing). There’s a problem here, obviously: if writers are allowed to work for something near slave wages to get a break, then as soon as they’re established in the industry, some younger dreamers are going to come along and undercut them just as they earlier undercut the WGA workers. That’s economics, though. The moral imperative is that respect for others’ unionization efforts is also an obligation to not undermine them.

Set up against these three arguments in favor of union shops, there’s the powerful rights-based argument. If ethical discussion starts from the premise that each of us owns ourselves, and we’re free to use and sell our abilities as we like, then no one can pressure us to sign up for a union without violating our intrinsic liberty. In terms of Hollywood scriptwriting, this is the right to free agencyThe claim that each of us owns ourselves, and we’re free to use and sell our abilities as we like..

Derived from the right to free agency there is a right to self-definitionThe claim that each of us is uniquely qualified to define who we are and which desires guide our life; possessing the right is also a responsibility to express it.: each of us is uniquely qualified to define who we are and which desires guide our working life. This derivative argument resists the entire concept of unionized activity because collective bargaining eliminates individuality. What allows labor unions to work, what gives them strength at the negotiating table, is precisely that they compact an entire workforce into a single model of interests and demands; it’s that focus and the united voice of the workers behind it that allow union leaders the strength they need to bargain effectively. This strategy can, no doubt, work, but only by forcing all scriptwriters to renounce their singularity and uniqueness in the business world: they all demand to be paid in accordance with the same pay structure, to be covered by the same set of benefits, to labor in the same working conditions, and so on.

The lynchpin, finally, to this argument is that because unions function by erasing the individuality of specific workers, we’re all morally prohibited from joining. Doing so is a violation of the fundamental obligation we all have to ourselves to express our freedom by being who we are. We are duty-bound to resist any nameless, faceless mass, whether that mass happens to be a labor union or any other collective.

The Card Check

One hot spot of union membership debate is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act or so-called card check legislation. If enacted, this law would make an important change to the process of forming a workplace union. As currently regulated, the process typically goes like this. It’s necessary to get at least 30 percent of the workforce to sign cards stating their preference to be represented in collective bargaining. Once the number has been reached, the list is forwarded to the National Labor Relations Board and to the employer. The list is checked. If the numbers are verified, a secret-ballot election follows: workers are asked to vote on whether they want to be represented by a labor union. The majority rules. What card checkThe Employee Free Choice Act or “card check” legislation allows unions to be organized without a secret ballot vote. legislation changes is the secret ballot component. No longer necessary, if organizers can simply accumulate a list of 50 percent of the workers requesting unionization, then the structure will be applied.

The main objection to the secret ballot’s elimination is that workers may be intimidated into putting their names on the list. The reason for a secret vote in the current system is to allow those preferring not to be unionized a chance to express that without fear of retribution from their peers. Not surprisingly, the US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups lobby against the legislation. For their part, the major unions see card check as an opportunity to expand their membership and lobby in favor.

Regardless of the legislative value, the ethical debate underneath the card check parallels the one about a union shop. For those valuing solidarity, unionization—even with pressure—may seem recommendable. More, because a union draws its strength from forcibly uniting the divergent workers into a set of single demands, the greater good that’s served by the united front simply outweighs protests that may be expressed by individuals. So while it’s true that workplace pressures following the approval of card check legislation may make some employees uncomfortable, they should be more strongly guided by a sense of fairness (if they want to benefit, they’ve got an obligation to join), by a sense of solidarity (“we’re all workers”), and by a sense of respect (some workers are dedicating their energy to lead a cause serving everyone).

On the other side, for those whose ethical orientation begins from the idea of individual rights, self-ownership and the duty to self-definition, any organizational structure that presents the risk of violating individual freedom will, on principle, be rejected. The kinds of pressures on individuals that may be applied by peers in the attempt to get them to sign the union card are so fundamentally in violation of our deepest rights that the legislation must be voted down, even at the potential cost of power for workers at the bargaining table.

Union Demands: The Workplace and Public Policy

The two stalwart demands made by organized labor unions on behalf of employees are wage hikes and working conditions. The balance between these two concerns shifts depending on the kind of work being done. When a Hollywood writer arrives on a soundstage to straighten out final kinks in a script, the kinds of working-condition issues being faced may be trivial (Is the coffee hot? Are there some nonfattening snacks around somewhere?). When a coal miner takes the elevator down into the earth, the questions are more serious. What kind of emergency safeguards protect against a collapsed shaft? How careful are foremen to ensure that tired workers nearing the end of their shift aren’t assigned to work on the more dangerous of the heavy machines or set off dynamite charges? A coal miners union, clearly, is going to expend a greater effort bargaining for safe conditions than the WGA.

On the compensation side, one challenge unions face is melding the distinct interests of diverse members into a single bargaining strategy. If you check the WGA website, you’ll find union involvement on issues ranging from direct pay for work to health-care benefits and pensions. A twenty-five-year-old just breaking in is going to be more concerned, possibly, about getting as much cash now as possible for work done, while an older writer will begin asking about paying medical bills and living decently in retirement. In translating these diverse situations into a collective set of negotiating points, simple market forces will play a role (a union active in a field heavily stocked with younger workers will have to take account of that, or people will stop participating), but other structures may be erected to resolve problems also. A utilitarian structure, for example, may provide a way for union leaders to justify decisions making some members unhappy.

Finally, unions don’t only represent workers before employers; they can also carry labor issues into the political arena. As noted, AFSCME spent $90 million supporting (and opposing) candidates around the country during the 2010 midterms. Unions can also—and frequently do—provide voting guides advising members on which candidates will better respond to their immediate interests. With respect to specific issues, and besides the already mentioned card check legislation, unions lobby elected representatives and government agencies in areas including workplace safety, the minimum wage, and health care.

Key Takeaways

  • Labor unions allow workers to organize and bargain collectively for improvements in wage and working conditions.
  • Ethical arguments in favor of workers joining unions may be built upon notions of fairness, solidarity, and respect.
  • The right to free agency, along with a derived duty to individuality, forms the basis for an ethical stand against joining unions.
  • Unions take sides in workplace issues, and broader political debates.

Review Questions

  1. Why might the notion of fairness convince a worker to join a labor union?
  2. In your own words, and with respect to labor unions, what does solidarity mean?
  3. How does joining a union harm one’s sense of individuality? Why might that harm be an ethical argument against union membership?
  4. What is card check legislation, and how might it advance the interests of labor unions?
  5. How can a union represent the interests of members beyond negotiating with a specific employer?