I often get asked about the role of collective bargaining in an economy so affected by the pandemic. Inflation, supply chain issues, worker shortages and worker retention are all real concerns facing businesses and workers. While the causes of these pressures are extraordinary, the role collective bargaining plays in protecting the interests of workers (and often their worksites) is not often understood.
Collective bargaining is the legal act of workers coming together to negotiate with their employers the terms and conditions of employment. This important right recognizes that a worker alone might not have power, but together we are a force to be reckoned with. Through collective bargaining, union workers can receive higher wages, better benefits and safer worksites when compared to nonunion workers.
It is no surprise that anti-union forces often characterize collective bargaining as a process that makes companies unprofitable. When the price of utilities or raw materials go up, these same groups do not cry out that the utilities are anti-company. Workers have no incentive for making their employers uncompetitive — they are interested in longevity with the job. They will be the first to speak out, however, if a company pleads poverty while paying themselves and their investors richly.
Current worker shortages have led to unprecedented increases in wages — a phenomenon that we say is welcome and long overdue. The cliched argument that paying a worker a living wage will drive up costs to consumers is just not bearing out. If anything, the increases are modest and consumers are willing to pay more if it means workers are paid fairly.
And while some employers are meeting the market where it is, many workers are not waiting for employers to treat them equitably. You see this in the growing interest in organizing. The pent-up energy of front-line and essential workers has led to a moment where there is unprecedented (and successful) organizing across sectors and employers.
Though Amazon and Starbucks get a lot of the attention, gig workers, university workers and digital workers are coming together and demanding a union. These jobs did not suddenly develop terrible working conditions — it is that workers are in this moment recognizing their power and worth and acting on it.
Attracting workers with higher wages is only the first step toward real retention. Workers stay on the job if they feel secure, safe and fairly treated. Even before the pandemic, numerous studies showed that union membership is a positive factor when it comes to job satisfaction and commitment to an organization.
We also see unions as playing a positive role toward job retention and growth when it comes to training. A skilled and trained worker is valuable when you are starting an auto company from scratch. That is the challenge faced by the numerous startups entering the market who might know a lot about market capitalization, but do not have deep experience when it comes to manufacturing a product.
UAW members play an important role in their auto plants when it comes to training and improving quality. That has happened through collective bargaining. Because they do not fear retaliation, UAW members can point out areas of improvement — something that benefits members directly because it improves the quality of the product. As someone who used to organize and talk to nonunion workers, I can tell you that the fear of speaking out is very real.
Finally, despite conversations about the “union difference” being focused primarily on the bargaining process, it is important to note that members receive gains even outside of the collective bargaining process.
While wages are negotiated in a contract to cover a period of time, we are always advocating to employers even when we are not in the midst of negotiating. In many ways, the real work begins after ratification, as the mission shifts to maintaining the integrity of the agreement and to continuing to strengthen the local union.
Ray Curry is president of the UAW.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.