Critics argue unions were designed to be adversarial. This worked in the 1930s, but the employer-worker relationship is very different now, largely due to reforms that unions helped pass. Unions were once important, but the world today is radically different. Labor laws and oversight bodies fulfill the same role as unions do, but without the adversarial friction.
Why the shift against unions? The auto industry is a good example. Adversarial unionism prevented the Detroit-based automakers from adopting the flexible labor relations employed by non-unionized foreign-based automakers.
In addition, the Detroit firms’ managers were themselves hooked on Taylorism. They saw workers as a lower class of beings who needed to be bridled and saddled like horses. As a result, foreign-owned automakers produced vehicles of much higher quality. In adversarial-union plants, some workers delighted in sabotaging their cars. In non-union plants, workers came forward with suggestions on how to make them better.
Supporters argue labor unions are some of the most effective ways to deal with income inequality and other contemporary social issues. Employers have every incentive to get the most value out of workers. For some unethical business owners, this means dangerous conditions, cutting corners and simply taking advantage of the power they hold over workers. Unions give the average worker a seat at the table and a way to fight back when necessary.
The economic problem of this generation in the United States is income inequality. The rich continue to get richer, and the rest of America wonders when, if ever, a raise is coming. The CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio in 2013 was 331:1. For every dollar the average employee made, a CEO made $331. Back in 1983, the ratio was less than 50:1. (At Wal-Mart in 2013, the ratio was over 1000:1.)
One of the best solutions to this problem is for workers to organize and form unions. As you can see from the chart above, the share of income going to the top 10% of earners took off as union membership fell.