Beverly Garside

Why Even Objectivists Need Unions

     Ayn Rand's objectivists, and others on the Right don't like unions for very logical reasons. The logic goes that if you are not happy with your earnings then you should better yourself and get a job that pays more. This reasoning is incontrovertible. After all, if a counter clerk or janitor wants to earn more money, some college or a vocational program can raise them up into the ranks of the skilled working class, where they can become plumbers, electricians, or medical technicians and make a better living.  It's hard to argue with that logic - except for its one fatal flaw.
     For while this logic works on an individual level, objectivists have failed to ask themselves one very important question: what would happen if everyone followed it? What if everyone on the bottom rung of the skills ladder decided to go to school, learn more skills, and get better jobs? What if all our laborers, maids and construction workers became policemen, physical therapy technicians and auto mechanics? Who would pick the crops, drive the trucks, load the ships, man the counters, and clean the buildings?
     No one would. And what would then happen to all of us?
     This is one of the issues I deal with in I and You . What happens when a society suddenly finds itself with no one to check them out at the grocery store, transport goods, or guard property? Not because they are out on strike - just because they are not there. The result is not pretty.
     Unions prevent this terminal crisis from happening by giving workers on the bottom a living wage. In the absence of unions, a second best solution is public assistance - redistributing wealth downwards in the form of subsidies for food, heat, housing, child care and medical insurance. These subsidies allow these workers to survive on their salaries, which benefits them. And they allow them to stay on the job, which benefits the rest of us. After all, what incentive does someone have to work on a job if it will not lift them out of homelessness? Lets see: be at leisure all day and be homeless, or go to work all day and still be homeless? What would you choose?
     It is abundantly clear that the market will not pay a living wage for a certain jobs.  Without the interference of unions, pubic assistance, or a combination of both that enables these workers to survive, who would provide these vital services? Who would bring in the harvest, pack the meat, load the trucks, clean the buildings and man the retail counters? Objectivism, and the Right in general, take these workers for granted. They assume that there will always be an army of people who will stay on the bottom and not follow their ideology. These people are the grease that allows our industrial society to function. Without them everything would grind to a halt - instantly.
     This is why I support unions. And it's why, in the absence of unions, I don't mind my taxes subsidizing these workers. Objectivists who object to paying for these subsidies should ask themselves this: which is the less desirable case: paying to help these workers afford housing,  health insurance and child care, or having to do their jobs ourselves? Could we continue to function in our own professions without them doing what they do?
     Granted, neither unions nor public assistance is a perfect solution, and neither fits neatly into anybody's ideology. But does anybody have a better idea?
    
    

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