What do unions do? Why organized labor is definitely relevant to your life

On Wednesday, Twitter was in a heated debate after the CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, appeared to be trying to talk his employees out of unionizing while offering them some company swag and a $250 holiday bonus. Writers and editors might not be the first group of employees you think of when it comes to talking unions — teachers, construction workers, police officers, nurses are usually the face of labor unions — but every industry has them. Right now, being that these people are Very Online And Talking All The Time, one of the best ways to see what unions really do for employees is to follow the media’s efforts to unionize their companies.

People tend to be split right down the middle when it comes to unions. Teachers’ unions, for example, are famously blamed for the “failing education system,” since they ensure that teachers are paid a living salary, get health insurance, and don’t have 50 kids in their classrooms at one time, among other things. However, after one of the biggest hits to teachers’ unions in Wisconsin six years ago, the state’s public education system has been all but “decimated,” according to a November 2017 report in Mother Jones.

Unions are also blamed for slowing things down: On Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle, one of the running punchlines involves the musicians’ union being a financial and creative drain on the symphony. When unions strike, building stops on construction sites, kids don’t go to school, and our TV shows are off the air for a few days until negotiations are done or one side caves, and no one likes that. But who said getting workers’ rights was easy?

In media right now, unionization is a hot topic.

The industry has changed so much that a lot of people are working for not a lot of money, benefits, or workplace protections. No matter what profession is involved, people who believe in unions believe that workers should be protected, whether it’s a fast food employee, a nurse, or a soccer player, from being exploited by company owners.


Back to the media industry as a case study: Given the current working landscape for journalists and editors, it’s no surprise that employees for media companies are attempting to organize. Revenue models are generally based on producing the most content for the least money, and it’s unlikely that staffers across the industry will start to see marked improvements to their employment conditions without unions. BuzzFeed’s Peretti essentially warned his employees this week that unionizing wouldn’t be in their best interest. Vice Media successfully unionized with the Writers and Editors Guilds this fall, while local news outlets such as the DNA Info, Gothamist, LAist, were abruptly shut down by their billionaire owner after they attempted to unionize. false

But unions aren’t just for people who have less than optimal working conditions — they’re for all kinds of workers, even those that are getting paid well. Unions are how employees collectively bargain, which just means that they all align on what they want and approach management together, offering strength in numbers. Although there are federal and state laws that prohibit certain kinds of things — like paying someone less than minimum wage or hiring a 9-year-old to do manual labor — unions have industry-specific requirements. A lot of times, unions fill in the gaps for employees, since the government often has a hands-off approach to what private companies can and can’t offer their workers.


So, at the most basic level, unions help people fight for what they think are appropriate hours, wages, benefits, and even procedures like reporting sexual harassment. If you think you’ve been unjustly fired and are part of a union, they’ll likely have your back and help you file a lawsuit or do whatever it is that you need to get justice. To use some previous examples, if fast food and retail workers were unionized, you better believe that that minimum wage would be raised nationwide. The U.S. Women’s Soccer team has a union and made major strides in closing the gender wage gap in their industry this year. The ironworkers union fought and won six months paid parental leave this year, at a time when our government isn’t even thinking about that sort of thing.

If you’re a woman, a person of color, LGBTQ, or working two jobs to support yourself, unions are good, no matter what your boss tells you.

Because no matter what you think, your boss is not your friend and never will be. Your boss can be nice and friendly and a host of other genuinely great qualities — but when your best interests conflict with their bottom line, make no mistake about whose side they are fundamentally on. Last year when speaking about BuzzFeed U.K.’s attempts to organize, Peretti made it seem like that was the case. He said in a statement:

"A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there's an alliance between managers and employees. People have shared goals. Benefits and perks and compensation are very competitive, and I feel like that's the kind of market we're in. A lot of times when you look at companies that have unionized, the relationship is very different. The relationship is much more adversarial, and you have lawyers negotiating for comp and looking at comparable companies and trying to keep compensation matched with other companies."

This is a common refrain from union busters: unions create an adversarial relationship between employees and employers, which is such a dangerous false equivalency. That relationship is often strenuous because management doesn’t want to give the employees what they’re asking for, even if it’s just forming a union in the first place, or when it’s a really normal thing, like getting paid parental leave or just having a union in the first . In so many cases, it’s “adversarial” because management sets it up that way. Even in “new tech companies” where there are tons of perks and decent starting salaries, the company’s main and only goal is to make money. That’s just business.

Management is on the side of making money, which is why workers need unions to be on their side.

The fact is, if companies were our buddies, the minimum wage would be something a single mom could raise her kid on and corporations wouldn’t lobby Congress for health care legislation that allows them to not provide us with things like birth control and therapy. false

A union means that the workers have a way to fight for their rights even if they aren’t profitable for their business (though in the long run, treating workers with dignity and giving them resources pays off). A lot of companies offer perks to show that they’re “really good people” after all, like Peretti offering a $250 bonus or Elon Musk offering free frozen yogurt after firing employees at Tesla who were pro-union. This is because management often thinks employees are easily bought, and we are sometimes, because the struggle is real, so bagels in the conference room every Monday and a $250 check is hard to turn down. We need our jobs, so we take what we can get, even when it hurts us. Being unemployed isn’t an option for most adults, and our employers know that.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Swag and free food is not a replacement for protections against unfair labor practices, sexist HR policies that bury your complaints, or crappy health care. That’s what unions are for. It only ever seems like unions are “against” companies because management doesn’t like to make compromises to their bottom line. It’s not pretty, but that’s capitalism. It’s important to know how to be on your own side.