Are Unions Progressive?

Progressives like to stress their solidarity with unions. On important issues, unions don’t return the favor. If you look at self-interest, it’s obvious why.

Police Unions

The veil has been lifted on police unions and few progressives would call police unions progressive. Many are calling for them to be disbanded. Many other unions, however, don’t share this sentiment, and given how embedded police unions are within organized labor, it seems unlikely they will come around.

The Environment

Unions remain extremely ambivalent on the environment, even the Green New Deal, a policy specifically designed to appeal to them. In the broader scope, making renewables as cheap as possible — including reducing labor costs — will speed our transition to clean energy. Job creation is far from guaranteed. Even if the clean energy transition creates jobs, many incumbent unions in fossil fuel will cease to exist. These unions clearly know where their interests lie. Unfortunately, it is not with the environment.


Immigration is another area where conflicted interests are on display. The conflict is familiar: Should unions protect their own? Or should they fight for all workers?


Finally there is UBI, an idea which has gained traction among progressives (and espoused by Libertarians like Milton Friedman) as an important part of the social safety net. Unions? Not so much traction. The AFL-CIO has not endorsed it. This paper by PSI, a global union organization representing union views, roundly rejects UBI for (among other things) not strengthening union or worker bargaining power. Its true UBI won’t help the bargaining power of unions, but it can help the bargaining power of workers.

PSI also states UBI doesn’t improve job instability. That’s not its purpose. The point is to help workers through periods of disruption and give them the leeway to re-tool. This clearly helps the worker, but not unions. While PSI is only one organizations, we should reflect whether unions, whose livelihoods rely on jobs, have an interest in promoting a scheme which gives power to individual workers not unions, and loosens the coupling between income and jobs. I suspect the answer is no.

The Way Forward

Are unions bad? Like most human organizations — including but not limited to corporations, government bodies, charities, and religious organizations — unions are self-interested. Meaning rather than good or bad, they are human. I’m not saying we should vilify them — they shouldn’t. But we should realize that union interests are about protecting jobs, specifically incumbent jobs. Anything which threatens incumbent jobs, like new environmental technologies, or the importance of jobs in general, like UBI, is going to be a hard sell. We should try to find ways to get unions on board with goals like preventing climate change and basic income. But don’t defer. Insist on the goals.

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