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The 4 Most Popular Anti-Union Talking Points and Why They're Wrong
As unionization takes off across the country—from Amazon to Apple to Starbucks—pushing back against anti-labor tropes is more important than ever.
From Amazon to Starbucks to Apple, workers are organizing unions in the face of harrowing anti-union campaigns from some of the richest companies in the world. Amazingly, some workers have been using union-busting tactics against their employers: Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, who recently won their union election, tell of turning captive audience meetings into organizing opportunities, and exposing and discrediting anti-union consultants. These efforts are impressive, but at the same time, it’s important to be sober about the fact that companies are pouring staggering sums of money into union busting campaigns—creating a tough reality for worker organizers on the ground.
As such, we thought we’d take a look at some of the most common anti-union talking points companies use, and give a detailed explanation as to why they’re bullshit and how to counter them. This way, the next time you hear them from either your boss, friend, or right-wing uncle, you can simply send them a link to this list.
1. “Unions used to make sense but are obsolete in today’s economy.”
It’s a popular cliche from a certain type of cargo short guy who wants to appear vaguely progressive and down but also wants to be a pro-corporate toady: They’ll claim to support historic unions, but say that unions grew obsolete and corrupt some time around the 1980s. This is typical among those whose parents or personal wealth was built thanks to organized labor in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but became reactionary and needs to reconcile the contradiction. “My granddaddy who fought in Vietnam and came home to the sparks and steam factory needed a union, but today they don’t make any sense.” Why? Um, because of Jimmy Hoffa?
A common belief is that because America underwent deindustrialization beginning in the 1970s, this somehow means U.S. workers no longer need unionization, since a stereotype about unions is that they only “make sense” for tough men doing tough manly man jobs. Aside from the fact that the United States still does have a great deal of industrialization (and many Tough People Doing Tough Work who could still very much need a union, in any event), a workforce of increasingly service and white-collar-oriented jobs needs unions now more than ever. And the reason we know this is wages have remained static while productivity (e.g. how much is extracted by capital out of the average worker) has rapidly increased. The following graph by the Economic Policy Institute illustrates this dynamic.
In an article published in January, researchers Colleen Boyle and Eric Dirnbach calculated the amount of money the gap between wages and productivity is costing workers in real dollars. In 2017 alone, they determined, U.S. production and nonsupervisory workers together lost a combined income of $1.78 trillion. A good portion of this money went toward increased dividend payments to shareholders—a tremendous wealth transfer from the poor to the rich.
Not unrelatedly, union participation has steadily declined:
The reasons for the widening gap between worker productivity and pay are numerous: infrequent raises in the federal minimum wage, the loosening of corporate regulations, and high unemployment, to name a few. But it’s certain that the declining rate of unionization has played a significant role in widening this gulf. While the decline in unions depressed wages for the working class, the wealthy were barely touched. As the Economic Policy Institute explains, “deunionization explains a third of the growth of the wage gap between high- and middle-wage earners over the 1979–2017 period.”
There is no reason to believe that a deindustrialized economy is somehow less worthy of unionization beyond some vague pop culture understanding of what a typical unionized employee should look like. The image of the hard-hat white man as the platonic ideal of the unionized worker is a movie trope, and a racist one that ignores the fact that all workers—across all time periods, all races, all genders, and all industries—benefit from organized labor. And this trope is also just false: The Economic Policy Institute estimated that, by 2032, people of color will comprise a majority of the U.S. working class.
Women, and particularly women of color, gain materially when they are part of unions. As the National Women’s Law Center reported in a fact sheet published in July 2021, women who are members of unions earn more than their non-union woman counterparts, and unionized women have a smaller wage gap with unionized men than their non-union counterparts. According to the fact sheet, “Among full time workers, unionized Black women typically make 24% more per week ($175 more) than Black women non-union workers.”
Unions advance racial equality across genders. The Center for American Progress determined in 2021 that unionization significantly reduces the racial wealth gap. For example, the study says, “Black households with a union member have median wealth that is more than three times the median wealth of nonunion Black households.” The study finds the benefits of unions apply across races. Latino households with at least one union member have more than five time the wealth of their non-union counterparts. For white households, it's nearly double. In other words, unions lift their members’ lot in life, across all racial categories.
And more to the point, a 2020 study by Paul Frymer and Jacob M. Grumbach of the University of Washington showed unionization reduces racist attitudes among white workers. In addition to lifting up living standards for workers of all races, it makes white workers less likely to have interpersonal racist attitudes.
All wage workers—whether they’re making coffee, mining coal, teaching undergrads, nursing sick patients, or doing domestic labor—deserve access to these material, measurable gains. The next time someone insists that “unions used to make sense, but don’t anymore in this economy,” ask them to explain why. They can’t, because gendered and racialized assumptions about what “workers” worthy of unionization are supposed to look like is a Vibes Only worldview. It has no basis in the material, unchanged realities of worker-capital relations. Just because employers have gotten more sophisticated at making workers feel included and bought in—with Hawaiian shirt Fridays, stock options, pathways to management, charity events, or whatever crumbs they throw at employees—the fundamental exploitative relationship remains unchanged: a fact reflected in the massive gap between increased productivity and stagnant, flat wages.
2. “Unions make sense for certain industries but not this one.”
A close cousin to the “unions used to make sense in the past but are obsolete in today’s job market,” numerous corporate P.R. flacks insist that they’re not opposed to unions in theory, but unions “just don’t make sense” for their particular industry or business. What a coincidence! Out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, unionization just doesn’t happen to work for this particular industry or LLC.
Obviously, this is self-serving horse shit. Unions and unionization make sense in all industries and businesses that have wage workers, by definition.
Recently, corporate flacks at Starbucks, REI, and Amazon—and unfortunately a lot of nonprofits—attempt to run with this line. “We’re so uniquely magnanimous and benevolent,” they argue, “it simply doesn’t make sense to have something as inherently hostile as a union emerge in our business/industry.” What’s important to know about this talking point is that it’s as old as unionization itself.
Andrew Carnegie, the late 19th century steel tycoon, made a show of pro-union statements, writing in 1886, “My experience has been that trades-unions upon the whole are beneficial both to labor and capital.” That is unless it involved unionization at his own steel mills, which he infamously cracked down on with brutal violence and worker abuse.
The godfather of anti-union propaganda, Walmart founder Sam Walton, expressed similar sentiments, vaguely hinting at support for unions in theory, but making it clear they just didn’t make sense for his workers. He wrote in his 1992 autobiography Made in America:
I have always believed strongly that we don’t need unions at Walmart. Theoretically, I understand the argument that unions try to make, that the associates need someone to represent them and so on. But historically, as unions have developed in this country, they have mostly just been divisive. They have put management on one side of the fence, employees on the other, and themselves in the middle as almost a separate business, one that depends on division between the other two camps. And divisiveness, by breaking down direct communication makes it harder to take care of customers, to be competitive, and to gain market share.
This has been the template for union-busting efforts from managers, CEOs, university leaders, and nonprofit presidents who don’t want to look like mustache-twirling villains but still want to break up worker power: I get the idea of unions in theory (this will often be follow up by a claim that their father or mother was a in union!) but [insert nonsensical reason why a particular industry or firm should be the exception].
This, obviously, is incredibly convenient and self-serving and doesn’t make any sense. What are the odds that unionization would be appropriate for other industries but just so happens to not work in the one you want to unionize in?
3. Unions are an “outside force” or “third party.”
The claim that unions are not an organization of, and led by, workers, but rather a third party or outside force, is a favorite of the e-commerce giant Amazon. The workers at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island say they were bombarded with this message in captive audience meetings, on the shop floor, and in anti-union materials. This was all part of the company’s effort to avoid uttering the word “union” at all costs, lest people get any ideas. As long as you’re talking about outsiders and interlopers, you’re not talking about workplace democracy or pay or conditions. Starbucks, too, has notoriously used this line, as the following video shows.
Talk of third parties is meant to obscure the fact that, in non-union workplaces, it is bosses who exert tyrannical control over workers’ lives. According to a 2008 poll from Workplace Democracy Association and Zogby Interactive, one in four workers says their workplace is a dictatorship. Bosses hold secret meetings where they decide how much workers are paid. They conduct surveillance and drug screenings. They have discretion to make decisions about workload and job conditions. Amazon imposes such demanding schedules on drivers that large numbers of workers do not have time to go to the bathroom and have been forced to urinate in bottles—something the company was aware of, but lied about. Even in workplaces that pride themselves on being more ethical, being a boss, by definition, means you get to call the shots, not the people you supervise. The ramifications of this power imbalance are huge. One’s job determines one’s ability to pay rent, feed one’s kids or loved ones, pay hospital bills, and enjoy the finer things in life. In a society ruled by money, where the have-nots are abandoned to poverty, destitution, and even death, it’s difficult to imagine a more totalizing form of control than power over another’s livelihood.
In her book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It), the political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that, in light of this power, U.S. workplaces are best understood as private, authoritarian governments—not free arrangements between equal individuals. “Under U.S. law, employers are dictators of their workplaces, empowered to exercise sweeping and virtually unaccountable power over their employees, even regarding their off-duty lives,” she wrote in a 2021 reflection on her book. According to Anderson, the fact that America’s default is employment at will—i.e., giving bosses broad power to fire workers for almost any reason—plays a key role in upholding this arrangement. “Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment,” she wrote in a 2017 piece. She summarizes: “Americans think they live in a democracy. But their workplaces are small tyrannies.”
Unions are a key protection against this inequality: They are the means by which the unaccountable power of bosses can be beaten back. Unions collectively bargain and secure contracts that include things like wages, paid time off, and parental leave. They act collectively to protect each other. They build worker power. They go on strike to protest egregious abuses and exploitation. Unions are what happens when workers turn toward each other. In contrast, it is bosses who are the outside force, in the sense that their interests are clearly separate from those of the workers they oversee.
4. “I’m a strong worker. Unionization will harm me personally and only help the weak and lazy workers.”
Our final talking point is, unfortunately, often heard not just from management but from workers themselves. Back in our waiting tables days, this was a common refrain for why one shouldn’t pool tips—itself a threatening form of proto-unionization that employers typically dislike. “You’re a strong server—shouldn’t you make more!” was the objection. All of us, we were led to believe, are Randian, atomized heroes of our capitalist hustle who should be worrying about our own advancement and not helping slackers skate by.
It’s an attractive sentiment that cleverly plays into our own vanity and the uniquely American streak of individualism. Beyond the restaurant business, it’s a common rank-and-file objection to unionization: Why should slackers on the job be rewarded for being lazy or unproductive? I work hard to advance, and by joining a union all I’m doing is making it easier for layabouts to be secure.
It’s an extremely common anti-union talking point and one that requires a robust and clear understanding of why the sentiment, while understandable, is the absolute wrong way to view one’s labor.
Workplaces are deliberately set up to pit workers against each other—to redirect their ire and disdain sideways or down rather than up. Restaurant managers, in exchange for loyalty, snitching, and extracting more sub-minimum wage labor during downtime, reward the “strong servers” with the “best sections,” arbitrarily dividing tables to effectively pay certain employees more. Under the guise of “team accountability,” workers are incentivized to tattle on “slow” or “incompetent” workers at Amazon. Higher paying management career pathways are dangled in front of workers as a pathway to betterment. Sometimes these management pathways are possible, if not probable, but often the pay increase is marginal, and the workload even worse. And often, they come at the cost of disciplining and surveilling those they once called friends.
Modern corporations not only employ corporate spies posing as employees, surveillance tech, and psychological operations to undermine unionization, they have built an elaborate, pseudo-moral ecosystem that creates the illusion that each worker is the Main Character of Their Own Tale of Personal Accomplishment. This idea that there exists “opportunities” for “growth” is buttressed by anecdotes of other employees who made their way up from the mailroom or cash register all the way to executive VP or CEO. Anti-union propaganda videos, played during mandatory company meetings and run on loop in break rooms, are full of these lottery tales of making it big, working one's way up from the bottom to the top. The general idea is: Eat shit now, suck it up, work long hours, and endure low pay, because it’s all a pathway to some payoff later. And while it’s true that some certainly do manage to do this, that a handful come out the other end of the Shawshank sewer pipe and are cleansed in the rains of high pay and beachfront homes, the vast majority get stuck along the way and fester in shit.
Materially improving your life now, on average, makes far more sense than hoping to play a rigged game of bootstrap olympics that only a handful actually win. But most people don’t like to view themselves as the mean: They want to believe they’re the exception. This is certainly understandable, and a good dose of optimism surely doesn’t hurt in life. But it’s not something to bank on and, more to the point, it’s exactly what management wants you to think, because it suits their best interests. Why do countless corporations, rather than offer meaningfully higher pay to attract prospective employees, instead dangle “college tuition reimbursements” in front them? It’s because (A) They know most people will fail at the patchwork of work and grade requirement and (B) It helps prop up a broader ideology that low-wage work is simply an “entry level” job that’s step one in a much bigger path to self-actualization, rather than a job that should, in and of itself, have dignity and decent pay. If low-wage jobs are glorified internships that help people get “experience” and “opportunity,” this helps keep wages low and labor highly liquid—and thus, unionization virtually impossible. It’s a scam, a bill of goods workers are sold. Jobs that one has now should, in and of themselves, pay well, now, today. They’re not step one in some grand personal journey—these jobs are the labor one spends years of one’s life doing, and they should be unionized and pay well, now, today. For everyone. Right now.