A Larger Perspective on Unions

Contrasting the oppression that unions face in Iran with the privileged position they have in the United States

The human rights group Amnesty International recently released a report titled "Determined to Live in Dignity: Iranian Trade Unionists’ Struggle for Rights." The report highlights the cruel environment in which Iran’s independent trade unions operate; an environment that provides a distinct contrast to Michigan’s labor climate. This contrast should wake up Michigan unions and give them a better sense of perspective.

The report indicates that Iranian workers suffer from decreasing wages and increasing prices and unemployment. Double-digit inflation has wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy. As a result, hundreds of firms delayed wage payments to thousands of workers. Independent trade unions entered the fray to battle for decent pay, increased job security and improved working conditions. These goals are universal worker goals: the right to be justly compensated for one’s labor, to work in safe environments and to be free from prejudicial hiring and firing practices.

Enforcement of contracts, compensation, safety and equal opportunity rights depend on a strong rule of law. Police and a fair court system provide accountability by enforcing physical and material punishments for violating any of these rights. Iranian workers who are continually jailed, beaten and threatened for simply asking companies to pay them for the work they have done do not benefit from these protections. And they do not have the freedom to move to another job if they feel they are not being paid, protected or valued enough.

Their situation provides a stark contrast to Michigan’s current union battles. The fights we have in this state are not fought over basic worker rights: What we have are minor skirmishes over issues like defined-benefit retirement plans, right to work, and binding arbitration of a small number of labor disputes. Employers only ask that they be allowed the freedom to provide jobs to Michigan workers in the best way they know how. They cannot refuse to provide vested benefits, or to pay any wages at all, as is the case in Iran.

Unlike Iranian union leaders, who face the threat of imprisonment, the worst threat that Michigan union officials face is the prospect of asking workers to join and pay dues voluntarily after the state passes a right-to-work law. If anything, union officials in Michigan are coddled by laws that among other things have allowed them to force workers into unions, collect dues from workers that oppose them, and build one of the strongest political machines in the state.

And in these skirmishes, Michigan unions claim to represent workers and their interests above all else, but do they put their money where their mouth is? In 2008 the Mackinac Center conducted a survey of union financial statements and found that on average less than half of Michigan union dues go toward representation. The remainder is dedicated to overhead, administration and political lobbying, among other things. This extravagance and waste is in stark contrast with union leaders in Iran, who have put their lives on the line to stand up for the basic rights of workers.

Historical labor movements like Solidarity in Poland during the Cold War and the independent trade union movement in Iran today have had to sacrifice their well-being just to create a society where they and their rights were recognized and protected. Michigan unions and workers need to acknowledge that they at least operate and work in a state and in a country where the rule of law is enforced and where workers are free to leave their jobs if they feel they are being shortchanged, or even if they just can find a better deal. Michigan unions are free to make their appeals to workers and to confront employers, and there is no realistic chance of their losing that basic freedom. Union officials should temper their demands and their rhetoric to reflect the social and economic freedoms — and privileges — they actually have.