Ezra Klein has written a great column about unions titled "How unions can be more than a legacy institution." He offers an honest look at why unions have been so unpopular in recent decades. We all know that only 7% of private sector workers are unionized today. This number went down dramatically since the 1970ies when over a quarter of all private sector employees were members of a union.
Today's crisis in Wisconsin, says Klein, has offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the unions to gain the sympathies of the public and make themselves attractive to larger numbers of the population. In order to do so, unions have to recognize and renounce practices that have caused so much popular resentment against them:
If unions are to not just survive, but to actually flourish again, they need to create an identity beyond being a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs.
As I mentioned before, I used to be a union organizer for the graduate students at my university. Our union achieved many important things. However, there came a time where I couldn't, in good conscience, associate myself with it any longer. The union consistently tailored all of its decisions, policies and strategic goals to the needs of the underachievers. Those who believed they needed 8 to 10 years to complete their doctoral program were supported and celebrated as true scholars while those of us who wanted to graduate as soon as possible could not get our needs taken into consideration by the union. The culmination of this drive towards turning us all into underachievers was a forceful union campaign to abolish grades for graduate courses and the union's passionate conviction that it is unacceptable for professors to fail graduate students at their comprehensive exams.
For some reason that I still haven't been able to grasp, many unions operate under the assumption that all workers contribute equally and that no employee can be lazy, incompetent and stupid. Any system that is based on this set of beliefs is bound to fail. It will reward the underachievers and punish hard workers. Unions often prevent people who have done a particularly good job to be rewarded. (I have seen this happen at the school where I work right now, so don't tell me it doesn't happen.) As a result, productive people will end up carrying the load of their lazy colleagues while getting no reward for it. How soon, do you think, the quality of everybody's performance will drop?
Unions should abandon the pernicious idea that nobody is better, more intelligent, more hard-working and more worthy of being rewarded than anybody else. They should remember that their goal is defending the rights of live human beings and not some robots that always act the same and produce work of the same quality. If anything will save the unions, it is the recognition that while people should be equal, they will never be the same.